Friday, November 30, 2007

Sorry about the Boojum

In blogging the bowsprit gets mixed with the rudder sometimes and the Snark is invariably a Boojum, which is why this blog has been 'down' today. Now, however, it is 'up' and I am delighted to present the latest snatched photo of Nige, who is a Snark. You can tell by the plumage.

Chaplin Or Keaton?

On this day in 1913, Chaplin made his first movie - heck that was before even Mickey Rooney (and Mickey's still working, but then he is by common consent an emanation of Satan, so unlikely ever to die). Chaplin, of course, went on to become the most famous man in the world - perhaps the first truly world-famous man - but in recent decades his stock has fallen sharply, while Keaton's has risen spectacularly. Apart from my dear good friend Cheever, I don't think I know anyone who prefers Chaplin to Keaton - maybe there are hordes of you out there in the blogosphere? Keaton's emotional blankness seems somehow modern, while Chaplin's brilliantly executed slapstick lurches too often into cloying sentimentality for today's taste. Neither man, I suspect, actually raises many genuine laughs any more, but Keaton is mesmerically watchable and the kind of genius we can still connect with. Chaplin, I fear, isn't.
And while I'm on the subject of silent movies, isn't it a shame that what has come down to us is, overwhelmingly, comedy - precisely the genre that has dated most badly? Whenever I've seen one of those refurbished, re-scored 'lost' masterpieces that crop up occasionally (King Vidor's The Crowd, Stroheim's The Wedding March?), I' ve been stunned by the emotional power they still pack. We have, I suspect, a strangely skewed idea of silent cinema.

My Christmas Present to You

Oh wow! It's a PIN number - 3183. Go ahead! Shop! Go nuts! Actually it's not been my PIN number since yesterday morning. On Wednesday night I had dinner at Kensington Place. The waitress brought the strange, shoe-like thing for me to day. I tapped in 3183. Then a man came over. He apologised the waitress had put in the wrong sum. He ran off a bill for the remainder and I put in my PIN again. Leaving the restaurant, I noticed the amount of the first bill - £31.83, my PIN number. I'm sure this was a mistake - she had just given me the shoe when the money, not the PIN, should have been put it - but the next morning I ran down to the cash machine and changed the PIN on all my cards. Technology makes you dependent and then shows you the abyss.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cat's Eye Reflections

Sad news about the cat's-eye reflector. This was one of those great British inventions hit upon by chance by a gifted amateur with a bright idea - which used to be the British way, and perhaps still is. It's gloriously simple, has lasted for more than 70 years - and will surely last a great deal longer, at least on minor roads - and it must have saved thousands of lives. Its inventor, the great Yorkshireman Percy Shaw, offered various accounts of what gave him his idea - but he felt the need for such an invention expecially acutely as he was in the habit of going out for 'a few beers' of an evening and was fed up with veering off the road on the way home. And so the rolling English drunkard made the safer English road.

Gillian Gibbons

When British Prime Ministers go abroad and a big story breaks at home, the press pack routinely use press conferences to ask awkward questions that have no connection with the foreign visit. The foreign leader looks embarrassed and uncomprehending. I like this. Last night on Newsnight an unpleasant Sudanese diplomat was defending the arrest of Gillian Gibbons. There was a discussion in which the diplomat exhibited infuriating, fatuous complacency and then it was over. Something was missing. On the principle of the awkward question asked at an inappropriate moment, Jeremy Paxman should have said, 'While we have you in the studio, when is your goverment going to stop colluding with the genocide in Darfur?' 

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

John 'Walking' Stewart

I like the sound of this fellow. Fancy being known (slightly) to posterity by the epithet 'Walking'...

Go, Fodor

Thanks to Simon Oakes for sending me this quite brilliant refutation of his critics by my hero, the Trampoline Man, Jerry Fodor. The Darwinian fundamentalists and their fellow travellers have been called, by Dawkins I think, the 'brights'. How nice to see them put in their place by somebody much much brighter.

Spooks Spoiler: Adam Carter to Save Harriet Harman

On the television news last night a right-wing splinter group took over a BBC chat show studio and, at gunpoint, demanded to know the truth about the Iranian bomb. Luckily their leader was killed by an MI5 agent, though he managed to put a bullet through the stomach of the Iranian diplomat whose wife had been having an affair with the MI5 agent. He said it was just work but everybody else thought it was love. On Newsnight Jeremy Paxman said the whole thing was a storm in a teacup. 
Meanwhile, on the spy show Spooks the British government was being brought down by a shadowy businessman from the north-east who had been pouring money into the Labour Party via a series of thickly accented local front-men who, cunningly, had been brainwashed into making no sense when they spoke. The whole thing is thought be a revenge attack by disgraced former leader Blair against disgraced leader Brown. MI5 agent Adam Carter was sent to Annapolis to kill Blair, but, though he is Middle East peace envoy, he wasn't there. Next week: Adam meets Cherie and sparks fly.

After the Quiz: The Truth is Out

Grim news in my inbox this morning. Richard Madeley has discovered some compromising film of the aftermath of the PEN Quiz. It's pretty bad for Nige, I'm afraid, but, happily, I look damned good. My one problem is that I have always told my wife I can't dance.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bogart and Hazzard

A few weeks ago the great and alarming Elberry suggested we start a kind of book club on this blog. I have so far resisted because I feared it might put Richard Madeley's nose out of joint. But two things have come my way - not both books, admittedly - which I feel I have to pass on. The first involves a friend of mine, Bernard Jacobson, who has a gallery in Cork Street. Bernie is currently showing works by Bram Bogart. I had never heard of this artist but he is a delight. At the opening people were made insanely happy and good-natured by the pictures. That doesn't often happen in Cork Street. He is, of course, utterly unfashionable - even, I gather, blacklisted by the contemporary art establishment. The second thing is Shirley Hazzard. This is a novelist I had missed completely until told of her by a friend, who knows a thing or two. The Transit of Venus, he says, is 'the most perfect novel of the last hundred years'. So far I have just read the short novel The Bay of Noon. It is brilliant and, yes, bears comparison with the sublime Marilynne. Look. Read. What else have you got to do?

Quiz Report

So Nige and I steered the Literary Review team - known as The Outsiders -  to a clear victory at last night's PEN Quiz. Technically we came seventh, but the six teams above us had all engaged in bribery, coercion and unnatural practices. Ed Balls was not the answer to any question and neither, to general disappointment, was Alistair Darling. We weren't asked which three countries in the world didn't contain any of the letters in 'mackerel', which is a pity because, thanks to Ed Caesar, we knew they were Fiji, Djibouti and Togo. We also weren't asked which tube station has either five or eight - my memory plays tricks - consonants in a row, which is also a pity because Nige knew the answer, though he forgot to tell us what it was. The Mail on Sunday won because, I was told, they pay a man to spend the whole year learning everything. So full is his memory that he has forgotten how to speak and delivers his answers through a complex system not unlike Morse Code. Oliver St John Gogarty was the model for James Joyce's Buck Mulligan and Frederick the Great played the flute. The pea was delicious.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Halo Release

I came across the above hauntingly enigmatic phrase yesterday, while communing with nature on Ashtead Common in Surrey. It was on a notice board outlining the next phase in the heroic conservation work that has maintained the character (and abundant wildlife) of this fine common. 'Halo release' means clearing, as it were, a halo of open space around the magnificent veteran oaks that survive in great numbers - ancient pollards ('dotterels', as John Clare calls them) that were part of a mixed timber-and-grazing regimen. Within their 'halos', the oaks will thrive anew, freed of competition from lesser trees, and what grows up in the cleared land will be of benefit to the unique inverterbrate life that lives on ancient pollard oaks. So there you are: Halo release - a capital idea. I only hope it comes up as a question this evening. But it seems, I must admit, unlikely...

Bry and Nige on the Town

Tonight, Nige and I - both natty in top hats and tails and swinging ebony sticks - will repair to the Cafe Royal to take part in the Pen Quiz as the Jose Mourinho and the Sven Joran Eriksson of the Literary Review team. Nige will, like Gerard de Nerval, be walking a lobster on a lead and I, like Ronald Firbank, will dine on a single pea. We did this quiz last year, though I didn't mention Nige as he wasn't then my co-blogger. Then as we slumped to elegant defeat - winning is so tasteless - we took to giving 'Polly Toynbee' as the answer to every question. This year, we need a fresher, more imaginative approach. I will propose 'Ed Balls', though I am prepared to consider alternatives. Jeremy Paxman may work as he is asking the questions. I trust he will spare us his famous contempt.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Sven-Tone Future

Thought Experiments can now confidently and exclusively reveal that Arsene Wenger is going for the job of England manager. I know this because, since Wednesday's national humiliation, his French accent has thickened to the point where he is almost as incomprehensible as Alex Ferguson. This is a further example of Wenger's tactical genius. After Steve McClaren, nobody wants the manager of the worst football team in the world to sound English. The great Sven, meanwhile, is defiantly going in the opposite direction - I can definitely hear the beginnings of a Mancunian intrusion. This may be a double bluff. With Brown looking increasingly like the Steve McClaren of British politics, the strange Swede may be planning a future in which he goes back to the England team and Tone goes back to Downing Street. As Joni Mitchell so wisely sang, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

On Prediction

In the nineties I wrote something like, 'Twenty years ago nobody predicted the internet'. I know I wrote this because, a few years later, I kept finding it on the internet. It usually appeared in a derisive context, implying that I was an idiot because, in the seventies, the author had confidently predicted Google, Blogger and Amanda Marcotte. This is nonsense. Of course, you could argue that somebody predicted the internet, but everything might have been predicted by somebody somewhere. The reality is that the internet we now have came, in effect, out of nowhere (note, please, my phrasing before you explode with indignation). At the end of The McLaughlin Group, the only TV current affairs show I can bear to watch, Crazy John asks for predictions from his panel. Each prediction is routinely greeted with hoots of derision from an opposing panellist, but, in reality, none is ever particularly startling. This is understandable. Startling predictions are difficult to make and usually irrational, even when they fall within the generally agreed spectrum of the possible. I might say, for example, that, within the next five years, America will attack China with nuclear weapons after a conflict over Taiwan. With good reason, most people would say this was highly unlikely to which my only reply would be, 'I just feel it's going to happen'. In fact, even the most non-startling prediction has an element of this irrationality or, if you prefer, subjectivity. But I'm only really interested in the startling predictions because what struck me about the last set of fairly safe predictions I saw made by Crazy John's panel was that I didn't think any of them could possibly be accurate.  It doesn't matter what they were, it just struck me that they were all adopting a rigidly linear view of the future, that there was an excess of barely concealed determinism in their thinking. Much of the time such a view is more likely to be right than wrong. But I was overcome with the feeling that, now, it must be wrong, just as it would have been wrong in 1913 or on September 10th, 2001. Those moments immediately preceded phase transitions, both of which might previously have been seen as possible but neither of which would have been generally expected. Why did I feel the approach of such a transition? Well, I could say it was the environment, the price of oil, the improbable state of the world financial system, my own disposition or an excess of the lovely 2001 Laroche Pipeau I picked up on my booze cruise. But, in the end, it was just a feeling. And that, I'm afraid, is all this post is really saying, but that's what blogs are for, isn't it?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

In Bed with Mr Hudson

For some while my bedtime reading has included W.H. Hudson's Birds Of London, published in 1898. Though not one of his best works, it makes fascinating reading, and is in many ways surprising. In fact, though it goes against the grain of a reactionary laudator temporis acti like me to admit it, there's no denying that, overall, the bird life of London is more various, probably more abundant, and far better catered for, than it was at the turn of the 20th century. Though we've lost some species that were marginal even then (and, of the commoner birds, sparrow and songthrush are dramatically down), the gains have been spectacular. Hudson would be amazed to see the collared dove (now common), the abundant jays and magpies, herons, cormorants and gulls (he liked gulls) and numerous raptors, including even the peregrine. The various species of tits are vastly more numerous now, ditto greenfinch, goldfinch,wagtails and wren - and the wood pigeons, which were then only just getting established. Chaffinches and other songbirds no longer have to contend with cockneys trapping them in lime to train them up for singing competitions. Worse, back in the 1890s, bird's nesting was a popular hobby and big business, and chaps with guns roamed freely on London's open spaces, taking pot shots at anything that flew. Most importantly, parks, open spaces - and, very often, gardens - are now likely to be consciously managed to attract rather than repel birds. Hudson rages against the felling of tall, old, untidy trees that was the fashion in the London parks in his day. This had driven the crows, jackdaws and rooks out of most of London. Well, the crows, love them or hate them, are back now, as is so much else. Taking the broad view, it's true, if hard to believe - in terms of birdlife, London is now a much better place than it was in Hudson's day.

Ponder Post 18: Truth

'Wisdom is truth that consoles.' Roger Scruton.
Discuss at length and with irritating erudition.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sports Pie

I pass this on without comment, except to note that this is the first time I have come across the phrase, or indeed concept, 'sports pie'. A window on a strange, pie-shaped world...


November 23, 2007.


Wigan Pies of Wigan - formerly Heaton's Bakery - is to be the Official
Supplier to the World Pie Eating Championships, which will take place in
Harry's Bar, Wallgate, Wigan, from 12 noon on Thursday, December 13,
2007 - Pie Noon.

Wigan Pies has produced a special sports pie for the competition known
as the W-PEC PiEvolution.

The local choice comes as a huge relief to organisers after an
embarrassing row that put the 2005 championships in doubt - when pies
from McManus's Bakery in Farnworth were brought in as the Official Pie,
and pickets blocked the pub entrance as a consequence.

It also means the 2007 Championships are 100% meat and 100% Wigan.

"We're going for records this year. We've had an eye on Wigan Pies for
some time, they've put in some impressive ingredients. They have the
talent, they have the speed, great delivery, an eye for an opportunity -
and they have the experience to make a significant difference to this
year's competition," said Tony Callaghan, owner of Harry's Bar.

"We understand they're also going to give their newest van a debut on
Championship Thursday."

"The ingredients are carefully selected and sized by highly qualified
pie technicians so that each cube of meat and potato in each hand-made
pie is the minimum possible size permitted by regulations thereby
meaning less chewing and less chance of swallow-stall," said Rob Stewart
of Wigan Pies.

Tony Callaghan said: "It's a relief that this year's pies are 100% from
Wigan. It's bad enough that the World Vegetarian Pie Eating Championship
Official Pie last year came from Altrincham - not just a different town,
but a different county full of posh people.

"Fortunately, the selection committee didn't get too giddy and choose a
French pie with all them funny herbs in it. And as this year's event is
once again a sprint rather than a marathon - which did confuse some
competitors expecting chocolate - the quality is crucial.

"Nevertheless, once again, we need world-class hand-made pies - and we
got them. They're consistent in size and texture, are easily bitten,
chewed and digested while not lying so heavily on the stomach that it
prevents a fall-off in competitive eating standards later in the

The pies have to be produced to strict guidelines, and were tested and
tasted at a pre-qualifying event in Harry's Bar on a secret date
(November 16) to ensure avoidance of lobbying.

The cooked dimensions need to ensure a diameter of 12cm and a depth of
3.5cm, and a pie wall angle from base to top of between zero and 15
degrees. Minimum content cube dimensions are 1cm.

Another Church Caption

Okay so you like churches. What do you make of this one? It is, at the very least, odd and not for footballers.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Another National Failure

Not only can the England team not play football - that's no surprise - now we learn that our NHS ('the envy of the world') can't even manage the one thing we thought it was seriously good at - spending vast sums of money. This country...

The England Caption

But I am, as you now, a man of sunny disposition and so here is a picture of Salthouse Church, one of England's finest interiors. Any future England manager should be required to make his team sit quietly in here for at least eight hours.

Money Doesn't Talk, It Wears an England Shirt

And so, guided by Steve McLaren's tactical genius, the England boys snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The worst football team in the world continues to amaze with its ineptitude. Backed by incomprehensibly loyal supporters and paid deranged sums of money, they can only be relied upon to beat a few teams of part-timers. Anything good enough to get into, say, League Two, is usually enough to reduce them to a group of bad-tempered haircuts running around the field at random, occasionally coming into contact with the ball. It will now be said that this defeat is a good thing, that it will bring in a great new manager, that the FA will be reformed, that we can start again. Unfortunately they've been saying this since the 1970s. Money has destroyed the England team. It has given the club's too much power and turned playing for their country into a minor scheduling irritation in the players' lives. It has given the game's hierarchy a rat-like, evasive demeanour. It has, in short, destroyed ethos.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Kingfishers Catch Fire

Sorry, I just can't help myself - I must add this good news story to the prevailing sunniness. Very cheering I found it - and by the look of those rankings, the kingfisher is more than thriving (more kingfishers than coots or moorhens?!). The 49 terrapins are worrying though...
Down my way, in the Earthly Paradise, I've been seeing kingfishers for the past decade and more - and the sight of one never fails to stir the soul.

A Fresh New TV Format

We are all agreed, are we not, that The X Factor has lost what little appeal it ever had. How about this as a fresh new format? A show for all the family (except the 'deficient womens' of course). What's that about a 'pilgrimage to Makkah' though? Has McCartney started another cult? Unstoppable isn't he, the little rascal...

For Tylers

I moan too much and, being of an essentially sunny disposition, I'm not going to get cross about Gordon Brown losing our personal details and opening up half of the country to indentity theft and stupendous personal losses. I will, however, being of sunny disposition, point out the big upside of this story which is that New Labour's swivel-eyed determination to construct  a surveillance state seems to be at an end. Brown's dream of our own stasi are over. No, my real subject matter this morning is a shop in Notting Hill Gate. It is called Tylers, though we know it as 'the shop that sells everything'. At first glance it does not seem promising with a window full of artificial flowers and various indeterminate objects. Inside a series of tall, stacked aisles are organised according to a plan that still defeats me. But, trust me, you will find what you want. I always have. Yesterday I wanted something rather complicated - basically a bolt, the ends of which had to be sawn off. One of the staff waited patiently for my faltering explanation to end. He first offered me a length of threaded steel about three feet long, changed his mind, opened a packet of bolts, took out one, checked the size, took it to a vice, sawed, cleaned up, checked, laughed amiably at my lack of the correct expert vocabulary and charged me £1.25. Everywhere else in over-rich London, people snarl at me and try to gouge me for every penny I own. But Tylers is a shop from the past, a shop undiscovered by management insultants and marketing swine. It is a shop with ethos. It is also a startling anomaly. The surrounding stores are Tesco, O2, Boots, W.H.Smith and so on. The big, boring chains are, generally, the only shops that can afford the absurdly high rents around here. I can't imagine how Tylers survives, though it seems to be run by an old Asian family who may have had the sense of grab to freehold when they could. Or, perhaps, it simply makes a lot of money. This is quite possible if there a few thousand people like me. I now feel I need to go to Tylers every day. I think of some obscure thing I might buy and step through the dodgy automatic doors just in case it's in there. It always is. This can't be done with Boots or Tesco because I know exactly what's in there - the same things that are in every other Boots and Tesco. All shops should be like Tylers. But only Tylers is like Tylers. To one of my sunny disposition, it is an unalloyed delight. The news that Osama had exploded a nuke in Central London or Brown had lost all our personal details would send me straight to Tylers. It's safe there and I bet they'd have iodine pills and a radiation protection suit.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

From Genocide to Cricket

Change and decay in all around we see - that goes without saying - but occasionally there's a news story that gladdens the heart. Here's one, all the more remarkable in that it comes out of Africa. The really good bit is not that they're applying to join the strangely cuddly and likeable Commonwealth, but that they've discovered cricket. Yes, this Francophone nation has turned, in a matter of a few years, from genocide to cricket. This can only be a good thing. Bad news for France, of course - but their problem has always been that they don't play cricket.

Phatic Inflation

Inflationary pressures seem to be at work in the field of phatic communion. Buying my lunchtime sandwich yesterday (which was, admittedly, Monday), the man at the counter sent me on my merry way with the injunction to 'Have a good week'. Now, 'Have a good day' I have almost ceased to notice - but 'Have a good week'?! Surely that is too much to ask of any man. As it happens, I am not having one, so I shall be obliged to drop in again at lunchtime and tell him that, regrettably, I have been unable thus far to live up to his kind wishes. I shall follow through with daily updates, in the hope that, in the end, it does indeed turn out to be a good week. He'll be so happy for me - I can't wait to see his face...

Northern Rock and the Little Sods

Nicola Horlick just appeared on BBC Breakfast to talk about Northern Rock and private equity. She said private equity was good because it made companies more efficient and NR shareholders should be looked after as well as its investors and borrowers. The efficiency argument about private equity is irrelevant as the critics of this industry do not attack it for inefficiency but for acting against the public interest, which is not the same thing. Her justification for protecting the NR shareholders was that they would be pension funds looking after the savings of borrowers and investors. This is, of course, completely stupid as, by the same logic, every company in difficulty would qualify for a government bail-out. Horlick was blandly advocating a policy in which the state would underwrite every risk, or communism as we used to call it. (She wasn't challenged on either of these points so I turned the TV off - I intend to do this more often for health reasons.)  Horlick said these things because she had to, she was speaking for the City and she knew she only had about one minute on screen. This is fair enough if you accept that it's okay to say intellectually dishonest things just because you know how television works. But what struck me as odd about what she said was the extremity of it. This was blind market fundamentalism, so blind, in fact, that she appeared to be happy to hand the economy over to the state in the name of free markets. But this is, of course, just another way of playing the markets - in this case the market in question is political. The City is bargaining with the government. Both sides are embarrassed, but, currently, the City is doing a better job of hiding it because of its startling willingness to deploy either capitalist or communist rhetoric as the occasion demands. The government can't deploy any rhetoric at all because of the deep conviction of the Little Sods that everybody who isn't rung up by Gordon Brown every morning is a moron.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Croydon Caption Quiz

What has this got to do with Croydon?

VAT and Scruton

Sorry, sorry, here I am. Woke up full of dangerous energy and, as a result, did my VAT - for my American readers, this is a vile and complex government thing specially designed to harm us. This resulted, as it always does, in a total loss of my will to live. I then cheered myself up by buying that iPhone with which I am now playing happily. Of the wider ways and woes of the world I have nothing to say. Oh, except that you should read Roger Scruton's Gentle Regrets. Shamefully, Roger being a friend of mine, I have not read this. It is a delight. Any books that tells you on its first page that 'Wisdom is truth that consoles' should be read with gratitude. Lord knows what this afternoon will hold.

Shock And Yawn

Wot no Appleyard? Maybe he's still reeling from this shock revelation. Lord knows I am - shaken to the core frankly. What will we learn next - that the Pope's a Catholic, what bears do in the woods? Truly, these are troubling times...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hard Standing - A Lament

At home for once on a Sunday morning (NigeCorp usually has need of me), I feel not a rhapsody but a lament coming on. Lately, it seeems to me, each time I walk the streets of this suburban demi-paradise so well known (to the point of tedium) to regular Thought Experimenters, I encounter the ever advancing scourge of Hard Standing. Where once there was a pleasant enough front garden - bit of lawn, some bedding, a few shrubs, often in these bosky parts a decent tree or two - now there is an unbroken expanse of nauseously tinted pink block paving. Unbroken, as like as not, even by the cars that are the rationale for this eco-vandalism - they remain parked perfectly happily at the side of the road. Why are more and more people who should know better having perfectly good gardens dug out, scraped, flattened and 'laid to hard standing'? Because lazily they assume that,walking anywhere being out of the question, at least two cars per household are essential (and that walking even as far as the road to get into said cars is asking too much) and that gardens are simply too much work and trouble, with all those weeds and growing grass and falling leaves. The resulting blight on the locality exposes the best-hidden nakedness of houses of indifferent quality, leaving them islanded in all their blocky ugliness. It involves not only a loss of aesthetically pleasing greenery and flowers but of yet more of the ever dwindling habitat for wildlife, from birds and mammals to the lowliest insects and worms. It is also a major menace in terms of flooding. The run-off of rainwater from all that undrained hard standing means that the slightest cloudburst, which once would have caused no problem, is now enough to overwhelm the drainage system and cover roads and pavements with water. I have only one thing to say (in the sure and certain knowledge that I'm wasting my breath) - Stop this madness now! Impose stringent conditions, entangled in the most ingenious thickets of municipal red tape, on all would-be razers of their front-of-house plot. Otherwise, all of suburbia will soon be one vast expanse of hard standing - and, much of the time, flooded.

Defining Britain and Brick Lane

Today in The Sunday Times, I discuss the books that define Britain. Also I interview Monica Ali.
My list of Britain-defining books doesn't seem to be included on the web page. They were:
Various Authors, The Ikea 2008 Catalogue; Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene; James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth; Katie Price, Being Jordan; Gordon Ramsay Makes it East (With DVD); Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsopp, How to Buy and House; Alex Comfort, The Joy of Sex.
Thought Experimenters suggestions welcome.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

That Brown Briefing in Full

I posted a few days ago on the curious way the left is still trying to pretend that Gordon Brown is a good thing, despite all evidence to the contrary. Somehow, they want to mould him into what they thought he was, but he stubbornly persists in being what he is, ill-tempered, clannish and not nearly as bright as everybody said. Martin Kettle picks up the same theme in The Guardian today. I love the standfirst - 'There is a palpable desire to help Gordon Brown...' 'No, Gordon, you put it in there...' Kettle reveals that the 'Number 10 bunker is back. Brown, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander talk every morning by phone at seven, meet every day at 10 to decide priorities, and are running the whole goverment.' The first funny thing here is that, since one daily priority is stabbing David Miliband in the back, young Ed M. seems to have acquired a taste for fratricide. Anyway, I have had exclusive access to one of these meetings.
'GB: Who am I?
EM: I'll never forgive that bastard brother of mine for nicking my marbles.
EB: Marbles?
Yvette Cooper (offstage left): Remember what I told you, darling.
GB: Who am I?
DA: I think we should try that imminent election thing again. But this time we'll promise to rig it.
EB: Marbles?
EM: Foreign bleeding secretary!
EB: Comfortable zebras, greengages, fuel injection, russet shading to blue, Venetian blinds.
YC (rushing on stage): Oh God, not again.
DA: Balls has a point. We could run it up the flagpole and see if anybody gets blue tongue.
GB Who am I?'

The Cow 243 Caption

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Yer Bike

I pass this story on for the delectation of all admirers of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.

From The Bench...

Call me infantile, but this made me laugh. What has the world come to if a Judge can't have a bit of fun at the expense of a towel-headed son of the desert? It's political correctness gone mad, as they said when the Chair of the Multicultural Anti-Offence Committee had a sudden breakdown and ran screaming from the room...

Caption Quiz

This is a picture of Tudor England. It is a little known fact that Tudor peasants had Nikon D200s - they didn't like Canons, believing them possessed by demons - and drove white Ford Transits. The quiz is: what does this house have to do with frozen chicken?

Give Thanks for Marilynne

Many, many thanks to Dave Lull, the assiduous Wisconsin librarian for sending me this

'We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believe it must depress the the level of culture and public life.'

'Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it, and society does indeed seem to be reverting to a dismal past, which, in our ignorance, we call an inevitable future. But this is true, too: those who are ignorant of history deprive themselves of the hope that they would learn from what is best in it, and are condemned to finding hope in any aspect of a past they can not repeat. Generous hope is embedded in this landscape, and in the national landscape, waiting to be remembered.'

'We would have to persuade the press not to bullyrag any utterance that seems to them too complex for the common mind.'

Future generations will think we were blessed to be alive at the same time as Marilynne Robinson. And so we are.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Too Damned Nice Caption

It's too damned nice here to work, think or blog.

Flowers And Worries

Talking of flowers, they were looking wonderful down my way this morning, being, like the leaves, edged with frost - and I can also report that a goldfinch (perhaps the same one I noted in a post last summer) was singing fit to bust, writes Carshalton rhapsodist Nige. However, one or two things that I caught on the news last night are worrying me. It seems the French have suddenly been infected by sanity - you wouldn't think it, seeing the unfolding chaos on the nation's transport system, but it seems the public have moved behind Sarko and, for a wonder, against the unions. Polls show 70/80 percent want the unions to back down, take their medicine and be grateful. This unheard-of development suggests that, just maybe, France is going to go the way of the rest of the world, and thereby, perhaps, become more like it. Domage... And then there was a ghastly young auctioneer, having just flogged Hugh Grant's Warhol (I think), declaring with unblinking certainty that there will be 'no end' to the boom in contemporary art prices. This cannot be true, as a moment's thought confirms, but the truth is that Old Master art is now seriously underpriced (as is good antique furniture). My tip to anyone with real money - buy Old Masters, buy good furniture, and, of course, buy property in frost-rimmed, bird-haunted Carshalton. You won't be sorry.

He Tires Somewhat

Over at Havering On, a former regular commenter on Thought Experiments, City Unslicker, remarks, 'I tire somewhat of his blog sometimes.' Unslicker, my heart goes out to you. I tire of it too. It goes nowhere, it achieves nothing. Many visitors land, stare around in bewilderment and get back on the Easyjet. 'What,' a Sunday Times writer asked me the other day, 'is your blog for?' 'What,' I snapped back, 'is a flower for?' Remember the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. But, to be honest, Thought Experiments will not settle down to being a flower. Nige, of course, strews flowers as he passes through, drawing in urgent new subjects like statues, birds, Croydon and his incontinently loved Carshalton. But I sit here in inspissated gloom, casting my increasingly paranoid gaze on increasingly strange corners of the world. Today, for example, probably I am the only blogger drawn to the news that low self-esteem promotes materialism. As we enter the grim world of Christmas advertising, it becomes clear that the best possible ad for Calvin Klein's Get Laid Now fragrance would be one that tells their viewers they are know nothing scum. They kind of do this already. Again I am probably the only person in the world worrying about the 2038 or Y2K38 problem. This was drawn to my attention by David in a comment on Ray Kurzweil. Apparently it means, as things so often do, that we are all going to die. Of course, I was going to assess, consider and finally dismiss this suggestion that we stop calling it the Theory of Evolution and call it The Law of Evolution in order to silence those doubters who keep sneering, 'It's only a theory.' But my heart's not really in it this morning. I was also thinking about Simon Jenkins's use of the word 'frit' and the way this fragment of Lincolnshire dialect has stuck in political discourse ever since Thatcher first used it in 1983. There's also the continuing Northern Rock horror which is now certain to cost the taxpayers four hospitals and may well cost us 60. I passed a branch in Norwich yesterday. There were, of course, no customers, just four staff members standing there grinning weakly. Sadly, I did not have my trusty D200. The last time I took it to Norwich I was nearly arrested. NR's chief executive and all round jerk - Applegarth - has a name like mine and its chairman, Matt Ridley, used to be a friend. We once had a very intense discussion in a castle. It was being filmed and 'moderated' by Evan Davies, but was never used because it was too complicated. They didn't tell us it was for John Craven's Newsround. It wasn't about building societies but evolutionary theory and it was a draw. The next thing I know Matt's running one of Britain's biggest companies. Amazing. I was also thinking of blogging on my great new post-Christmas diet book - Lettuce: The Silent Killer - and on the way TV advertising breaks are now all about smells. Last night I saw one for Hugo Boss's exciting new Have Lots of Sex sandwiched between two ads for stuff that suppresses the smell of shit in the bathroom. I'd be cross if I were Boss, though it may be part of his deliberate strategy to lower his customers' self-esteem by telling them they smell like shit. Nothing is what it seems. See what you've made me do, Unslicker? Ramble. Oh and the iPhone. Here's a thing - I'm getting one. Really. It doesn't get much more interesting than that does it? Well, I suppose there's cloned monkeys and Iran and stuff. And they're still torturing women in Spooks, killing them also. And I might also have some Shreddies. But where does this leave us, where I ask you?
PS We're almost out of milk so I'm having toast.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Shameless Plug

The more frivolously and/or scurrilously minded of the Thought Experiments community might be amused by this new blog on the block, which seems to me several cuts above similar cis-Atlantic celebblogs (though I might have reason to be biased)... Oddly, 'odd spelling, brilliant and vicious' could almost sum it up.

Ray Kurzweil

Writing about the sort of things I do, Ray Kurzweil keeps appearing in my life. Indeed, at one point I started receiving his private emails. I had been in touch with his office and his computer had spontaneously decided to copy me in on his correspondence. The incident is a comical foreshadowing of what Kurzweil calls The Singularity - the day our technology takes over. This is due to happen in the 2040s and, Al Gore-like, Kurzweil is going on the road with a movie about the idea. Having read and talked about The Singularity while researching my masterwork on immortality, I remain puzzled as to why Kurzweil and others welcome the prospect. Obviously once the machines are in charge they can do what they like and enslaving or disposing of us would certainly be high on their to-do list. The bizarre Eliezer Yudkovsky of The Singularity Institute assured me that we could ensure that such a machine would be nice to us. Just as it would be unthinkable to me to kill a baby, so it would be unthinkable to the machine to kill me. He didn't react convincingly to my point that lots of humans kill babies and a machine, being of a different species, would be considerably less inhibited about slaughtering humans.  But this is all, in a sense, beside the point. Belief in The Singularity is a form of technological determinism. It is a very linear way of thinking that depends on the illusion that every scientific development fits into the same story, a story that climaxes some time in the 2040s. The future is the metaphysic that supports this illusion. The future is good, open, wonderful, amazing. You're either for the future or against it. Mulling this over, I glanced at Kurzweil's web site. Plainly the future is going to be horribly badly designed. But the site reminded me of something... And then it came to me. Kurzweil is the American Dawkins.

My Solidarity with the Fantastically Rich Writers of Hollywood

Inspired - no, moved - by the example of the seventeen entertainment blogs that have shut down in support of the Writers Guild of America strike, I was about to shut down this blog in solidarity with the struggle of my colleagues across the water. This, I thought, is my chance to make a difference, to play a part. Then I thought no, can't be bothered.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Here's a story with a whiff of Homer Simpson about it. We've all been there though, haven't we? Many's the time I'd have reached for my 12-bore, if I only had one...

Statue News

Surprisingly, the statue of John Betjeman unveiled at St Pancras International doesn't look too bad - perhaps because it isn't striving for any kind of heroic or monumental effect. It's certainly a vast improvement on the St Pancras monstrosity, which seems to depict the arrival at the fine new terminal of some kind of alien life form. Betjeman also beats that other recent nadir of public statuary, the Mandela statue (as I remarked at the time, he looks as if he's just been coated by a passing muckspreader). And to think that London once had some of the finest public statuary in the world...

Croydon Facelift - Don't Hold Your Breath

Well well - the visionary architect Will Alsop has plans to turn Croydon into the Barcelona of South London. A vertical Eden project, an emerald necklace of parks, happy Croydonian flaneurs strolling on the boulevards trading bons mots, speckled trout swimming in the resurgent Wandle ... As one who lives downriver on that often delightful stream (and upwind from the concrete hell that is modern Croydon), I like the idea. We could do with the watermills back in action too, grinding snuff and other such necessities of modern life. Sadly, however, none of this will come to pass - it's just the latest stunt to help Croydon's never-ending bid for city status - but it would be rather marvellous if it did: the ultimate facelift for the home of the Croydon facelift.

Bring Back the UFOs

As the author of the supreme masterpiece on the subject, I am, of course, delighted that there is a campaign to get the US government to re-open its investigation of UFOs. Except for once when, while researching my timeless anatomy of the human condition, I was hypnotised and, though in Bloomsbury, saw a flying saucer in Norfolk, I have never really believed in any of this stuff. But it's such fun. And, whether the US Air Force admits it or not, there is one very anomalous overflight - tracked on radar all the way across the country - that still troubles them. Call me, guys, I know a thing or two.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Why Are We Praying?

This survey is of course to be taken with a generous sprinkling of salt, but it has some interest in illuminating a growing disjunction between the inner and outer life. Prayer has no doubt become something like Meditation, a kind of self-focused quasi-spiritual exercise, with no attendant belief that it will make any difference, except therapeutically, to the person praying. It is hardly surprising that it continues to thrive in such a form, in the face of an increasingly stressful and demanding outer world. This must be the explanation for the most remarkable finding of the survey - that in London 73(!) percent of people pray. Or is it that remarkable? Considering how hellish London life is these days, perhaps it's only to be expected that at any given time three quarters of us should be engaged in silent prayer...

Drugs and the Human Condition

I am delighted that Ritalin doesn't work. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has always been a dodgy diagnosis and one that is suspiciously convenient for the drugs companies. It is also satisfying that the same study that seemed to find it worked in 1999 is the one that has found it doesn't now - not only that, it stunts the growth. Such switches are lessons in how science actually works, as opposed to how the media would like it to work. Anyway, if I had a hyperactive young child now I'd run a mile from Ritalin. The big point is, of course, that both Ritalin and Prozac - they appeared at roughly the same time - were sold as drugs that solved fundamental behavioural problems. We seemed to be on the brink of a shiny, happy world of human enhancement through drugs. The question is: can there ever be such a world? One answer would be yes because, though Ritalin and Prozac had their problems, we will one day get better drugs. The right answer is no because enhancement is an incoherent concept and the human condition is incorrigible. One could, of course, drug people to the point where the concept of the 'human condition' would be incoherent and the world would consist of shiny, happy post-people. Perhaps that is the real intention.


Speaking, as I dimly remember I was, about intolerable words, what about 'simplistic'? I've heard is half a dozen times in the last 24 hours and, in each case, 'simple' would have been better. Simplistic is the adjective from simplism, but nobody ever says 'simplism'. In  fact, you should never say simplistic except when you pick up a fragment of a tree and somebody says, 'Is that branch?' You must, of course, reply, 'No, simply stick.'

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Kandinsky Mystery

I have just discovered that the Top 5 Artists with UK buyers on the massive AllPosters website are as follows: 1. Klimt. 2. Kandinsky. 3. Warhol. 4. Dali. 5. Van Gogh.
It's a predictably depressing list, but the surprise is Kandinsky - at number 2!?! Popular in restaurants, I know, but you don't often see old Wassily on people's walls,do you? And you're unlikely to find that room full of Kandinskys at the Courtauld thronged with fans. Odd...

A New Dawn In Spanish-Venezuelan Relations

Hattip (as we bloggers say) to King Juan Carlos of Spain for finally telling Chavez to shut up. It was high time someone did. Little Hugo seems to have forgotten that on this occasion he was not addressing the aggrieved Third World pisspots (to quote Andy Sipowicz) of the United Nations.

Mailer Madness

Last night I had the misfortune to catch the Radio 4 'news' at midnight. Was I, I wondered, the only one whose jaw dropped in disbelief at the epic coverage given to Norman Mailer's death? I thought it would never end (and it was, of course, the lead item)... Here was a writer who has been little but a predictable 'turn', an extinct volcano, for decades, and who could hardly, on the strength of his works, be described as one of the true American greats, let alone the world greats - and his death was being treated as an epochal event of the utmost significance. I guess the reasons are not far to seek - his truculent anti-Bushism (and anti-Reaganism) commended him to the BBC and inflated his importance accordingly. And, of course, he was always 'good copy' - a celebrity. As Leavis said of Edith Sitwell, he belonged more to the the history of publicity than of literature. When Gore Vidal dies, he will no doubt get similarly reverential treatment from the adoring BBC, for similar reasons. And when Philip Roth dies? Well, if he sneaks half the coverage of Mailer, it will probably be because he was once married to Claire Bloom. Ah well, twas ever thus...

Rags the Consoling Kangaroo

Ironic daughter has found this on YouTube. I've had Rags the Kangaroo's finest hour on VHS for years, bringing it out at Christmas and on birthdays. Now he is available to all. The moment he decks the monster is a great, great consolation.

The Weird, Empty Recliner Caption

I've always found this picture disturbing. It was in a very specialised museum in Paris. The frame of the lounger suggests either a medical emergency or an instrument of very specialised torture.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Surge, What Surge?

Labour supporters seem to be in a bit of a state about Gordon Brown. Polly Toynbee tells him to be bold, Jonathan Freedland says he's in a hole. They're upset because the great Scottish grump who was supposed to save the left from the Blair embarrassment has turned out to be more of the same, but worse. Of course, it takes the British left years to work anything out - they're still not happy with the fall of the Soviet Union and they didn't realise Blair was Thatcher, but much worse, until about 2003. What they haven't yet worked out on this occasion is that the Brown competence claim is a myth. They keep saying, well, he's got a few problems but the big thing is that he's competent. There is no evidence for this. There is, however, plenty of evidence for incompetence - gold sales, wasted NHS money, PFIs, tax credits, uncontrollable spending on and by management consultants and, finally, the absurd non-election mess engineering by the Little Sods by whom he is surrounded. And, speaking of the Little Sods, you may remember Yvette Cooper's cheap con trick at the time of the World Cup. What she did was invent a problem and then announce she had solved it. Well, I have a feeling the Sods - probably Ed Balls, Yvette's husband - have been at it again. Yesterday we were watching with interest and anxiety the news of the great East Anglian surge. Our Norfolk place is near the sea and next to a river. Nothing happened, the river was entirely unmoved. Now did Balls dream up the surge to recreate the great days of the summer when Brown stood, rock-fisted and square-jawed, against floods, terrorists, foot and mouth and all bad things? Was this the surge that never was? Of course, Balls being Balls, it backfired horribly as the East coast was largely unaffected. Perhaps Ed thought nobody in London knew or could understand anybody in Great Yarmouth. This is true but it was only necessary to squeeze their clothing to realise it was completely dry.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Nation In Peril

Thank heavens we have the ever vigilant Daily Mail to warn us of the latest peril (actually not quite latest, it's a pretty old story) to our native hearth and home. Not content with staying outdoors, they're invading our houses, staining our furniture with their evil-smelling toxins, giving us allergic bites... Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home - back where you came from, you dangerous alien.
Don't forget - Scroll down for more!


The ineffable CaptainB, with whom I shared some spectacular Japanese food last night, draws my attention to this splendid article. This is a great example of clear, non-partisan political analysis. Hillary Clinton's cynical use of her sex when it suits her is, indeed, disgraceful and the comparison with Thatcher is very shrewd indeed - though the gag with which it opens is not merely apocryphal, it's from Spitting Image. But what I really like is the hint that Obama is taking the lead. I've always had a good feeling about this man. He may be too intelligent for the job, but it's significant, as Peggy Noonan points out, that thinking Republicans are seeing him as a way out. 

The Inflated Caption

Commentwise, you're a bloody disgrace. Visitor numbers are high, comments are low. I won't put up with it. So here's an impossible caption contest.

On Insomnia 2

Writing about insomnia is like writing about back pain or science and religion, everybody has something to say on the subject. Since my post I have been asked to write on the subject for The Guardian - no, I write for The Sunday Times - greeted with amazement - 'You have insomnia, how fascinating!' - told I am going to die and go mad in that order and that formidable librarian Dave Lull has sent me this link. Seemingly I can 'cure' myself with cognitive behavioural therapy or not reading in bed. I put 'cure' in quotes because I'm not sure I would continue to be myself if I lost my insomnia. As I said in my last post, there are good bad nights and one of my deepest pleasures is going out ridiculously early and breathing the silent and strangely pure air of the city. It's always the second breath that provides the hit for some reason, the first is just preparation. Feeling truly alone in a city - not just alienated among the crowds - is delicious. But I suspect all this is an indicator of the strange popularity of journalists who write about their lives and afflictions. I once swore I would never do this - I may even now be breathing my last, but I wouldn't tell you, I probably wouldn't tell myself - but I seem to have fallen into the trap. Oh well, that's one thing I'm not going to lose any sleep over.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Chess Boxing? Nein Danke

This is frankly insane. Bridge karate anyone?


One of the more heartening developments of recent years (they're few and far between, God knows) has been the resurgence of Remembrance celebration. A couple of decades ago, it seemed more than likely that the whole business would gradually wither on the vine, as the world war veterans died off and the population at large ceased caring enough to maintain the rituals. There was what seemed then to be a live debate about whether the whole thing 'glorified war', whether it was 'appropriate' for modern times - there were indeed white poppies for the more pacifist elements (I believe the absurd Jon Snow still sports one). The two minutes' silence was moved from 11am on 11/11 to the nearest convenient Sunday, etc. Now, rather amazingly, all that has changed, and Remembrance is bigger and apparently more heartfelt than ever, even though there are now a mere handful of WWI veterans and those from the last spot of bother are in their 80s. There have, of course, been a few small wars, with some loss of life, in recent times - is that why Remembrance has come alive again? Or is it, perhaps, that the world wars retain and strengthen their presence in the collective memory as more is found out about them - and, in particular, as more and more very good books and TV series (e.g. the work of Laurence Rees) are made about them?
Anyway, this brings me on to poppies. Here, I believe, things have got worse. This year's crop seem flimsier than ever, more inclined to crumple and fall unnoticed out of the buttonhole. Why don't they put more effort into the poppy business? A different poppy - or a range of poppies - could be designed for each year (by 'name' designers, if need be) - and a luxury range of larger silk poppies (they used to be available, but now the large ones are back to paper). I am sure more money would be raised, and a wider range of people encouraged to buy poppies. Not like me to come up with sensible and contructive suggestions, I know, but I pass this on for what it's worth.

Accessorise that Verruca

I just returned from Boots reeling. On the shelves was a Verruca Accessory Pack. Don't believe me? Well, here it is. In fact the Boots site does not show the executive VAP which contains special verruca make-up by Rimmel to give your beloved wart the 'London Look', special wartphones so you and your verruca can listen to your iPod together and the Wartberry, the brand new verruca version of the Blackberry to keep you connected. I've never had a verruca, but I'm now going out to get one to take full advantage of this new retail opportunity.

Ponder Post 17: Fish

And, while my pondering is on a roll and following on from Nige's Finest of the Finny Tribe post, why, I ponder, do fish always look sad? Are they holding dollars?

Ponder Post 16: What's Happening?

It feels good being able to buy Philadelphia with the coins that slipped under the seats in my truck, though, of course, I can't afford acually to move the truck now that oil is almost $100 a barrel and rapidly running out. (Incidentally, that last link contains a forecast from 'IEA officials'  that oil could hit $159 a barrel by 2030. Really? Why not $158 or $562? I love forecasts that indicate nothing but the complete ignorance of the forecaster. Oh and, by the way, since oil is denominated in dollars and the dollar is falling like a stone, shouldn't this offset the upward pressure on petrol prices? Apparently not. Perhaps the dumb oil companies have too many dollars.) Anyway, the reason I have resurrected my widely adored Ponder Post brand -PP10 on tattoos remains my greatest blog hit - is that I am seriously puzzled about this big economy thing. Everything seems to be awful, China is about to sell off most of the US and yet the Stock Markets are holding up. Why?
PS I know, I know, markets fell yesterday, but they're still historically high. Surely they are 20 per cent overvalued in the lights of the present conditions.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Olympic Stadium - Not an Armadillo

Nige and I are not exactly enthusiastic about the 2012 Olympics in London. Today, further fuel is added to our grumpy flames by the revelation of the design for the main stadium. The design is about as timid as it is possible to imagine - a circle made of steel frame and canvas basically - for, I have to admit, perfectly good reasons. It is, essentially, a temporary structure so architectural extravagance would have been, well, extravagant - though it is still going to cost £496 million (true figure, I forecast, £700 million). But what is striking about the design is that it is emphatically not the armadillo-like structure that was illustrated in the Olympic bid. This draws attention to the dishonesty of the whole enterprise. The whole bid, from cost to design, was something that could not possibly be achieved. This was what I believe is called a 'bait and switch' operation, a cheap con. But that's what governments do isn't?

The Perils of Birdwatching...

But note the perfect aplomb with which the twitcher endures his embarrassing ordeal... Another caption contest?

The Finest of the Finny Tribe

This curious denizen of the deep has been brought to my attention. One for a caption contest perhaps - or Bryan's next fish supper?

A New Dawn In Chilean-Peruvian Relations, and a Grounded Bishop

I rather like this story, but can't think of anything to say about it (apart from wondering what fines must have accrued). It could have been war - they've been fought over less in South America - but no, it was resolved in the best possible way, if a little tardily.
Another good news story - the Bishop of London has completed his year of no flights, thus becoming one of the very few high-profile climate change believers actually prepared to modify their behaviour in accordance with their professed beliefs. Though admittedly he left himself with little choice, having declared unnecessary flights and gas-guzzling cars 'sinful'... Highlight of his non-flying year was a rail trip to Transylvania. I envy him that.

Persecuted by Blogger

Sorry about yesterday when Blogger capriciously removed and then reinstated posts at random. This may still be happening and you may never read this. I've turned off word verification in the hope that the spammers have gone elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


This news item affords a rare glimpse of the dark side of panda life. First a brawl with three other pandas (I thought they were supposed to be endangered?), then 'Brace youself, Sheila!'

The Oprah Mystery

Oprah Winfrey - what's that all about? She's opened  and raced to the rescue of this dodgy school and she's launched her own channel on YouTube. She's everywhere. She always is. I'd like to think she was an American attempt to mimic the success of our own Richard and Judy, but I suppose she came first. I don't get any of this. What does she represent? What does she mean? Why's she called Oprah? I await answers from Philadelphia and beyond.

A Model World

The financial world has been rocked for only the forty-second time this week by the news that supermodel and fervent fan of St Thomas Aquinas, Gisele Bundchen, refuses to be paid in declining dollars. 'I will no longer,' she said in a thick Brazilian accent,'be as stupid as those dumb-ass Columbian drug cartels and allow myself to be defrauded by the Federal Reserve.' Stung by her remarks, the chairman of the Fed, Heidegger-reading Naomi Campbell, said Gisele was all botox and bullshit and the American economy was on course to invade Iran. In London the Chancellor, Kate Moss, said consumer spending on her Top Shop line of affordable high fashion clothes making the 'London Look' available to all fans of The X-Factor no matter how obese would protect the UK economy from the tightening in the money markets. Meanwhile, Sophie Dahl, chairman of BP, said that now was the time, with the oil price approaching $100, to unveil their Gucci-designed barrels. 'This is a premium product,' she said, 'and we need to put it out of reach of those Top Shop slappers."

Monday, November 05, 2007

On Insomnia

While reading Angus Wilson's engrossing The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling - I am probably the only person to have picked up a book by Wilson in a decade, which is sad - I gave a little yelp of delight at the discovery that Kipling was an insomniac. This is because I am an insomniac and I like to hear of gifted, talented or successful people who share the affliction. People who rarely or never have a bad night cannot imagine what real insomnia is like nor do they have any access to the strange brotherhood of insomniacs. To us each night is a threat or challenge and each day is defined by the exact quality of the rest we achieved the night before. In fact, a bad night's sleep is not necessarily a prelude to a bad day; I often find the resulting dreamy, detached condition rather better for my work that the excess of energy I get when I sleep well. I suspect others find both conditions irritating which could explain the faint but distinct air of exasperation that surrounds me wherever I go. The trick is - or at least my current tactic is - to go with the sleeplessness. I don't do anything, I just let my mind wander. This seems to make the night a friendlier place. Indeed, I look forward to entering this liminal state. It makes the night seem very long, though not as long as when I decide to eat breakfast at 2 am or try to do my VAT. Anyway, as you will have guessed, I had a bad night which is annoying because I am about to have my photograph taken. But I don't mind. I feel, as I am sure most insomniacs do after their better bad nights, untouchable.

Why Don't Runners Collapse Any More?

I just watched Paula Radcliffe winning the New York Marathon. She just kind of sailed across the line and looked round to see if anybody needed shelves putting up, a roast dinner or some nice decking laid on the patio. What she did not do was collapse. In the old days of black and white TV when dinosaurs roamed the earth, runners used to cross the line and collapse. It was expected. But they don't do that any more, they give press conferences while lifting weights and cycling. So did the black and white guys collapse because they were more unfit or because it was the right thing to do? And does nobody now collapse because it would look uncool? I think we should be told.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


In my dispatch from the Kentish badlands yesterday, I forgot to mention the area's weird and vaguely menacing farmland, in which the only human life to be seen was the occasional well-wrapped Polish worker toiling on the fields. This at times gave the scene an air of Millet or Van Gogh - except that the fields and the toil were themselves mysterious. It was impossible to see what was growing, under ridges of tight opaque polythene, but there were acres of it (out-of-season soft fruit probably). Walking through all this was more of a trudge through an alien landscape - and that, sadly, is what much country walking feels like these days. The countryside, which in living memory was as familiar and readable as it still is in picture books and toy farms, is now a strange, marginal and alienating place, where much of the time it's impossible to discern what is going on, and why - and where the human presence is sparse and as mysterious as the landscape. As so often, one thinks fondly of the fields of Normandy, where farming still resembles an intelligible core human acitvity - despite the hectares of maize being grown for biofuel. But that's a subject in itself...

For Andrew ????

We don't know Andrew's second name, but he is our kind of guy. He jammed a girl's mobile phone because she used the word 'like' too often. He used a cellphone jammer. This is illegal, but it should be mandatory. Repeated use of the words 'like', 'robust', 'source' as a verb, and, in deference to the ladies, 'moist' should result in instant jamming of phones in the vicinity.  A man called James Katz - who is, improbably, director of the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University - got it in one when he said, 'If anything characterises the twenty-first century, it's our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people.' Somehow I wouldn't have expected the D of the CMCS at Rutgers to say that, but, there you go, life is full of surprises. Anyway, for guardians of the English language - all of you, I trust - who want to get out there and start jamming, I can recommend the Mini Phone Jammer, a steal at $149.

Captain Picard Meets Supermouse on a Hot Planet

In The Sunday Times I interview Patrick Stewart, I discuss Supermouse and I wonder why we still haven't done anything about global warming.
Negley Farson (right) was a slacker.
PS It looks as though an earlier incarnation of Captain Picard is going to be resurrected today.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Badlands and Egrets

If anyone noticed my blog absence yesterday, it was for the best of causes - I was out walking. In this case, around the fine old Kentish town of Faversham (with an amazing parish church, St Mary of Charity, that has to be seen to be believed). As so often with such time-soaked, visually rich and glorious English towns - especially towards the eastern seaboard - there's a dark and seamy netherworld just beneath the rosy surface. Faversham is closely surrounded by council (or ex-) estates that seem all the more squalid and gipsyish for being on the edge of open country. The quaint old streets of Faversham are thick with charity shops, pound shops and suchlike, and walking out of town along Faversham creek takes you through an extraordinary Dickensian marginal world - half of the water, half of the land, with bizarre houseboat-style habitations amid the rotting hulks and beached barges. As the signs of human population dwindle, a bleak, flat estuarine landscape opens up, in which it would be no surprise to see Magwich himself emerging from the mud or being rowed silently down the creek. However, at intervals one of these lands gracefully and redeems the muddy blankness... I blame global warning.

Richard and Judy

Just as I was told (by my agent, who knows such things) that a book chosen by Richard and Judy will at once sell 300,000 extra copies, we learn their Channel 4 show is to end. 'Richard Madeley' is simultaneously angry, lyrical and defiant. I interviewed these two once and found them and found them both pleasant, strange and extravagantly ordinary. They seemed, somehow, unanchored, products of a floating world. The odd vehemence of Richard's blurted opinions suggested a kind of eccentric neutrality and Judy's long-suffering mumsiness appeared to be a pose but an unchosen one, as if 'Judy' was just what she had to be. This is, I suppose, what is required of television stars - being everything to everyone without being no-one. Sadly, their book stuff is likely to continue. Sadly because they have helped shore up the present, lamentable state of the book market in which bookshops dictate what will and won't sell and demand money for window display and even those phony 'staff pick' shelves. R & J just helped them rig the market more effectively. Such a criticism will mean nothing to them, of course; to themselves, they are just what they must be - too of the culture to be clearly seen by the culture.