Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Clueless on Wall Street

Ever since my days as a financial journalist, I've derived occasional mild amusement from authoritative statements about what's going to happen in the markets. The truth is nobody knows and, repeatedly, experts have shown themselves as ignorant as anybody else. So, following yesterday's steep fall, it was good to read the words of Bob Parker, deputy chairman of Credit Suisse Asset Management. 'This,' he announced, 'is going to be more than just a one-day event and could go on for a few weeks. But it's not the start of a one-year bear market trend.' The wonderful exactness of his words makes this a particularly fine example of the genre. My own advice, based on extensive research and very deep thought, is vaguer but more resonant: be afraid, be very afraid. This is, in fact, always good advice about anything.

Monte Carlo

For reasons just too desperately fascinating to bore you with I was in the casino at Monte Carlo last night. Obviously, I was expecting ranks of James Bond's in white DJs draped with costly blondes. What I got was a disconsolate band of fat, pale men in jeans, a few mass market hookers and some old before their time women dropping ash on the green baize. The staff consisted of amiable but bored waiters and sallow, robotic dealers and croupiers. The games proceeded with machine-like detachment. Nobody, least of all the players, showed the slightest emotion whether they won or lost. This was just what they did, what their lives were. At which point I would remind you that one of Tony Blair's great legacies to our nation will be super-casinos which, like Monte Carlo, will be little pockets of hell to which people will keep returning like dogs to their vomit. Thanks, Tone.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

No Toblerone

I am travelling in a couple of hours so comment moderation may be delayed. I shall, of course, remember to obey the golden rules passed down from generation to generation of explorers: I shall not buy a hat and I shall not touch the Toblerone in the minibar. Meanwhile, I leave you with a wonderful Amandaism - 'The reality is much different' - what a joy she is! Also another momentous post from Jeffrey entitled with chilling simplicity 'Rome'. He has been meeting the Catholic hierarchy, intending, presumably, to add 'Pope' to his already colourful CV. The picture shows Jeff's new study in Walsingham.

Vista: The World Wakes

Attentive readers may recall my New Year prediction that Microsoft's Vista would be found not to work on computers. This discovery is now being made by users everywhere. I care nothing for the global suffering that is being inflicted as my migration to Mac is now complete. But I am curious to know when the world will finally realise that Vista is not an operating system but a box of randomly marked discs. It is, in fact, a final Zen-like gesture by Bill Gates whose real and much more impressive work is now elsewhere.

More Renoir

The comment debate that raged over my post Getting It Wrong left me wanting to say more. I was confirmed in this view by this article in the Guardian, drawn to my attention by Lilly Evans. So, to expand the Renoir thought, the impressionists wished to paint without any imposed meanings or hierarchies, whether religions, political, social or aesthetic. To the contemporary imagination this seems to mean little more than painting an ordinary world full of ordinary people doing ordinary things. What it in fact means is the transformation of the field of the painting. With no pre-existing values, the question arises: what do we, in fact, see? The answer is a coloured plane to which we impute various seemingly non-intrinsic qualities, perspective obviously. I suffered a panic attack in the Renoir show because his sense that this is all we have is sometimes exhilarating but, for me at the time, it was suffocating. I felt a sort of drowning vertigo. We don't think like this now about the impressionists because they have been so emasculated and normalised by their sheer popularity. Which brings me to Roy Hattersley's drab piece about poetry in the Guardian. In discussing 'difficulty' in Auden and Larkin, all he really has to say is some poems need thinking about, at the end of which process, presumably, they too are normalised as further consoling banalities. No attitude could be more carefully calibrated to marginalise the appreciation of art. Conventional interpretations of impressionism, like Hattersley's view of poetry, simply reflect the fact that we live in the shadow of modernism, of whch impressionism was one crucial aspect. It was perhaps the greatest creative episode in history. But we cannot seem to stand on the shoulders of this giant, we prefer simply to turn our backs and cower, clutching our familiar things and dismissing all else as 'difficult'.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Coulrophobia 3: The Real Thing

I just received this comment on my post Coulrophobia 2: The Cull. It's worth highlighting as a separate post. It's from Sandra M.

'I have just seen your posting on coulrophobia. This is not a cheap joke but a fact that a teacher at a local primary school suffers from this to such an extent that on Red Nose Day, no child is allowed to display a red nose. When the children have a Dressing up in Fancy Dress day to raise money for charity, no child in the school is allowed to dress as a clown or wear face paint or a mask as the woman has a phobia about these as well. When a visiting theatre group visits the school, another teacher or a teaching assistant has to take her class pupils into the performance and sit with them.I not denying that the woman has genuine problems but I feel she needs to sort herself out rather than have the entire school revolve around her phobia. Surely this sends out the message to pupils that people will put themselves out to accommodate your needs? Life isn't always like that.What do other people feel?'


This is, I think, the biggest web page I have ever seen. It is also among the most strange. What is it about globes? Seeing the world as one, I suppose, as finite.

On Getting It Wrong

I went to the Renoir Landscapes exhibition at the National Gallery and suffered a panic attack. For some reason, I felt I was seeing him for the first time, without the gauze of prejudice and cliche - sunlight, nature, plein air, chocolate box, school trips, the French good life - through which the impressionists are usually seen. Seen thus, he is a very scary painter indeed. Even the critics, whose job should be to see without contemporary preconceptions, can't seem to push the gauze aside. This by Andrew Motion is fairly typical. Apparently learned, it is, in fact, no more than an anachronistic distillation of conventional contemporary thought. Gilbert and George, now honoured with a huge exhibition at Tate Modern, receive a similar treatment - this is good, this is what we must like, this is how we must like it. Germaine Greer, brilliantly, breaks ranks, pointing out the extreme, hermetic obviousness - both in form and content - of G & G. Critics can't seem to see things clearly. The same thing happened with the acclaimed and now Oscared movie Pan's Labyrinth. Leaden and essentially static, it nevertheless mesmerised the critics. People whine about access to the arts. What they don't realise is that the greatest barrier to access is received opinion.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Just to Say...

... the hot news story that circumcision reduces the risk of contracting HIV is not so hot. I wrote it in The Sunday Times seven years ago.

Britney: I Think I Have the Answer

With bald Britney now rumoured to be on suicide watch, the time has come for some out-of-the-box thinking about the poor girl's condition. Personally, I'm pretty sure we could get her over this hump by putting her in an earthquake simulator. Sitting in a small, prefabricated house on top of a 'shake table' has been found to reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress suffered by 'quake survivors. Psychologists know this method as 'progressive desensitisation'. If Britney were to sit in the simulator surrounded by people telling her she was very clever and talented and wonderful, then, after a few days, she would emerge immune to the blandishments of fame and, in addition, completely unafraid of earthquakes. Chuck a clown in there and any traces of coulrophobia would also be eliminated.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cancel the Olympics 3

So, right then, it seems we shall now have to pay £9 billion for a few weeks of running and jumping in 2012. This compares, not entirely favourably, with the original cost of £2.4 billion. For perspective, we could build 18 major hospitals for the money, even at the inflated prices being paid for such projects under Gordon Brown's insane Private Finance Initiative scheme. I have previously suggested we should pull out now, not only for cost reasons, but also because the Olympics are absurdly bad for the environment and because such events are really only appropriate for undemocratic regimes. The Conservatives have suggested that it might be a good idea if Brown took a look at this fiasco, but, as usual when things get tricky, he is nowhere to be seen. At £1 billion, the Millennium Dome was plainly little more than a dry run for this project. I predict the final cost will be at least £12 billion. This is no longer a joke. The Olympics must be stopped before it is too late.

Righting the Wrongs of Wikipedia

I hate to say this but I have found one post which gives me the chance to laugh WITH rather than AT the Pandagon blog, home of the sublime Amanda Marcotte. This points me in the direction of this. Conservapedia is a conservative/Christian attempt to right perceived wrongs in Wikipedia. It is a joy. My first startling, though revealing discovery, was that there is no page entitled 'Jesus Christ'; the nearest match turns out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There seems to be nothing on Tony Blair. Bill Clinton gets a modified kicking, but Bush the younger gets a mere eight lines. Anyway, weird Americana is always fun on Saturday, so enjoy.

Coulrophobia 2: The Cull

I have posted before on the appalling affliction of coulrophobia - fear of clowns. I suffer somewhat myself, as do, I find, many others. I have never, however, gone so far as to advocate a clown cull. But, in Colombia, the killing has begun. Two clowns were shot dead during a circus performance. Last year another, Pepe, was killed in the same city. (I have, before you ask, a cast iron alibi.) The man must be caught, of course, but the only long term solution is to persuade all clowns to take up some less terrifying trade.

Friday, February 23, 2007

God to Call Press Conference

Another book has appeared accusing God of the appalling crime of not existing. I can exclusively reveal that He is not happy about this and is considering calling another press conference. There is only one precedent for such a move - the conference He called after 9/11, in which He angrily clarified the Don't Kill Rule. 'Don't kill each other anymore - ever!' He said, 'I'm fucking serious!' God tells me, angry as He is about the repeated charges of non-existence, He will have to wait until after Jeffrey Archer's book launch in Rome on March 19th.

How to Spell Definitely

You probably didn't know this but there is a web site solely devoted to telling us how to spell definitely.

Hackery: US versus UK

Thanks to our large number of national newspapers - not for long, I fear - British print journalism can reasonably claim to be the best in the world. It's certainly the toughest. American journalism, however, takes itself more seriously. Hackery over there is a heroic profession and is celebrated in movies like All the President's Men and Good Night, and Good Luck. US journalism is, as a result, inclined towards pomposity, British journalism towards piracy. But, paradoxically, the British are much better at comment. Consider this article from the New York Times. Bob Herbert's point is that we shouldn't spend so much time on Anna Nicole Smith when there are so many important things to think about. And, er, that's it. The NYT is full of such meagre stuff. Compare any of it with the material on or linked to Danny Finkelstein's Comment Central. The overwhelming superiority of British comment journalism is clear. On the other hand, the Americans are better at long, intensively researched pieces. Look at this extended anti-Cheney article in GQ. Sure, it's a polemic but it has a kind of thoroughness you don't often see in the British press. Also the Americans have big news magazines - notably the superb Atlantic - full of utterly definitive essays. US mags, in short, are better, the newspapers worse. In Britain, you have to read the papers. In America, you don't.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Sock Puppet

I struggle with my identity in the New Statesman diary this week.

Harry Saves Iraq

Prince Harry is going to Iraq! But, hang on, aren't we supposed to be pulling out? Ah yes, but Blair is looking for a legacy and here it is. We bring the boys home leaving just Harry to patrol the mean streets of Basra. The prince says goodbye to his clubbing boyhood and becomes a man. In an explosive final shootout, he takes on both Sunni and Shia militias in defence of an orphanage. His dying words are, 'Tell mummy I did my best.' Hearing this, the militias fall into each other's arms, vowing never to fight again. 'He was, in a very real sense,' says Blair, 'the people's prince.' As Elton John sings Candle in the Wind, rewritten again, another river of tears floods Westminster Abbey. A dull thumping is heard. It is Gordon Brown banging his head against the door.

Welcome Aboard, Stuart

Russian and American scientists have created a so far nameless element with the atomic number 118. It lasted for a millisecond, but there it was, the first man-made inert gas. Stuart, as I predict it will be named, seems to be causing some confusion in the mind of Seth Borenstein of Associated Press. At one point he says the element has been created, at another he says it is a discovery. Did Stuart in exist before we made him, perhaps virtually, as a possibility concealed within the laws of physics? And did we, therefore, 'discover' this possibility? Or is it as meaningless to say Stuart exists in this field as to say a BMW 5 series exists in the earth's crust, waiting to be discovered? He was, therefore, created. But there is something odd about the idea of 'creating' elements. something irrational. Creation implies changing one state into another, but what can be prior to an element? Also creating elements feels like impiety, but, of course, it's just the language. 'Element' has become a strange misnomer now that we can fiddle with quarks.

Er... 2: How to Sell Out

Gordon Brown offered me a knighthood - well, 'Gordon Brown' did - and Brit said they wrecked the aesthetics of my site. Susan wondered, '...can blogs still be subversive once they become part of the establishment -- selling ad space, etc.?' Not having enough cash for a peerage and being prone to fits of fatuous giggling, I've always found it very difficult to sell out. I do try. I've crawled to media bosses, fawned over politicians and grovelled to royalty. It doesn't work. It's their fault, they don't see my inner beauty, perhaps the ironic sneer and the eyes glazed with boredom suggest to them that I don't mean it. But I do. I want these people to do their work so I can do mine. I want it all to work and, if they need a bit of flattery to keep going, fine. Anyway, this is just to say I don't have any problem with ads, partly because, as far as this site is concerned, I'm a novelty junkie and partly because they can't possibly have any effect on what I write. My only stipulation to the ad guys was 'no porn' . I would have said 'no seal-clubbing bargain breaks in Greenland', but those don't often come up.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

For Auden

Frank Wilson reminds me that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of W.H.Auden, the last great English poet. When Auden wrote the entire history of the language flowed through his pen. Nothing more needs to be said. But read this, a seldom noted poem of his but a very great one indeed.


... forgive me, guys, Thought Experiments now has ads.

Hot News from Jeff and Amanda

A momentous post from 'Lord' Jeff reveals that all manuscripts of his new book The Gospel According to Judas have been shredded, the better, I assume, to maintain security for what promises to be the biggest book launch since Moses came down from Mount Sinai or since Jeff himself published his Special Theory of Relativity. In fact, I was called the other day by somebody involved in this publication. I had smirked when Jeff's name came up at a dinner party and he seemed to suspect I might have got hold of a copy. Jeff is fully aware of the profound eschatologial significance of this great moment - 'Among the other things that came up in the Judas team meeting, was the possibility of a launch either at Westminster Abbey or the Cathedral... The main launch itself will be on March 19th in Rome...' Good grief! Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive. Meanwhile, Amanda seems to have had a sense of humour failure over a tee-shirt. We really must find a way to bring these two together.

Liverpool's Inner Demons

It really is time somebody persuaded Liverpool to submit to psychoanalysis. As I have posted before, it is the only city in the world that specialises in wringing apologies out of people. Not content with that, Tate Liverpool now has an exhibition about the place called Centre of the Creative Universe. A long, solemn article in The Guardian attempts to justify the claim, but I really think it's time we faced up to the staggeringly obvious - this is a city with terrible self-esteem issues. What else could explain its crazy auto-mythologising, transparently thin skin, glutinous sentimentality and preposterous vanities? This is all over-compensation for Liverpool's inner insecurity, its crippling self-loathing and, ultimately, its dark, secret longing to be the primary target of asteroid Apophis in 2036. Next year Liverpool is the European Capital of Culture. Who can imagine what stresses will be inflicted on its wounded and delicate psyche? Time for the couch and a round-the-clock suicide watch.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Sexualised and the Sexless

There seems to be a frenzy of concern about the mental and physical health of young girls. In America, psychologists are worried about sexualisation in the media. In Britain, we are fretting that girls are 'hung up on their bodies'. These may appear to be the same thing, but they aren't. Sexualisation is all about what to do and how to do it. Body obsession is about becoming the ideal shape. The latter actually conflicts with the former as I realised while watching, in a weak moment, The Agency, a 'reality' TV show set in a New York model agency. The ideal 'high end' models loved by the pond life executives were, not to put to fine a point on it, hideous - gawky, vacant, pasty, gormless etc. The men, in contrast, were more or less conventionally good-looking. (All, consolingly, were fantastically thick. Zoolander is the purest realism.) What seems to have happened is that the fashion industry has created a concept of beauty that is quite separate from sexual desirability. We seem to go along with this, talking about 'beautiful' models even as we are confronted with catwalks full of underfed, sunken-eyed dogs. The whole complex - body-craving, sexualisation - seems to be another example of satisfied urges turning weird. We should just go back to hopeless, passionate yearning. It seemed to make us happier.

Move Over, Jeff

I posted below about, among other things, Amanda' Marcotte's hair-raisingly bad writing. In case that has further intimidated any would-be commenters, I just thought I'd make it clear just how bad I mean. This is from a Pandagon post yesterday:

'The host is a real life friend of mine, but he's promised not to let me off easy from the hard questions because of it.'

Wonderful isn't it? Every word trots off drunkenly in a different direction. This, remember, was a woman who worked, briefly, for a Democrat contender, John Edwards, though she was not, as far as I know, considered as a speech writer. Amanda is now in serious danger of replacing 'Lord' Jeff in my affections.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Thinly Veiled Threat

Okay, look, it's late (for me) and I'm angry. The traffic on this site has quadrupled in the last few months but the number of comments hasn't. I just received yet another email from a reader saying how much she loves the blog but feels too intimidated/not witty enough to comment. Now I know about the Chinese not commenting, but I don't understand the rest of you. There's some pretty straightforward stuff on here and the fantasy can't be that hard. Also I don't censor anything unless it might land me with a libel writ. So abuse, fantasise, crack jokes and refute. From now on every reader must comment. It's the law. Oh and can anybody explain why I have been getting referrals from US insurance companies for the last two weeks? They don't say anything either, but that's a good thing.

Obesity Causes Television

If Dr Aric Sigman is right and television does cause obesity, premature puberty, autism, short-sightedness and type 2 diabetes, then it must surely be the most momentous epidemiological finding since the establishment of the link between smoking and lung cancer and we can soon expect the banning of TV's in public places and the sight of huddled groups of addicts watching Location, Location and the worst football team in the world in special booths outside office buildings and pubs. Of course, we could all smoke as much as we liked if we stopped breathing oxygen, a lethal carcinogenic and, in reality, the real cause of the increase in lung cancer cases observed by Sir Richard Doll was not smoking but the invention of the cigarette. Once that little demon was out in the world, human cravings did the rest. Human cravings, in short, invented the cigarette. Similarly something in us must drive us to be obese etc and so we invented the television to satisfy this craving. We are not made to have our urges so profusely satisfied, we are made to survive. When they are satisfied, everything starts to go wrong.

Wife in the Money 2: Jeff Calls

'That marvellous writer 'Lord' Archer came to see us. He had eyes that glowed like small glowing things and a lovely, cheeky smile. Now I had a book contract, he suggested I try his politics-prison-rehabilitation through crap TV strategy. He also offered us a very rare unsigned collection of his complete works, but we declined. There's no room in the house because of the new Aga and my husband's massive collection of interestingly coloured rocks, a legacy of that bad acid he took and ended up in the Metro Centre in Gateshead, naked, babbling and convinced he was St Cuthbert. After dinner I threw a couple of yokels on the fire, my husband changed into his Bullingdon Club suit - royal blue with cream and buff facings - and we settled down with jugs of Armagnac cut with Stolly and a 72-skin, cable-stayed spliff...'

In fact, Wifey is nothing like Jeff in that she has a sense of humour, though she does seem to have a lot of headaches. She emails me about my last post: 'Pyjama-clad magic boy lent in close to me. "Aunty," he said as the Farne light knifed through the shuttered windows, "there is no honour among thieves." I laughed a lot, a lot, a lot. I tried to post but failed as it is that sort of day and my head hurts too much to try again. wifey.'

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wife in the Money

'My cousin has a child, a magic boy of seven whose eyes glow like fireflies. I had a headache from falling down stairs while carrying logs for the downstairs stove. A fine rain was falling on the moors. Magic Boy was sitting in the back seat of the Volvo. I had been arguing with the plumber about the guest bathroom and my husband about how long he was spending in London. I was ready to spontaneously combust when the Magic Boy suddenly cried, 'Look, Auntie, a double rainbow like the one that appeared at the birth of Kim Jong-Il!' Suddenly my head cleared and...'

No, sorry, I can't keep it up. Wife in the North can, however, and it's made her £70,000. I really must persist.

' all began to make perfect sense and I thought of my mother, a fastidious, ever-busy little body, neatly suited and booted with hair like the Queen. She had an affair with Kim Jong-Il's father, a sweet man who only wanted the best for his people and was looking for a country cottage just like the one I now have with its view over the moorland to the sparking sea beyond and, in the evenings, the most wonderful, colourful sunsets which we watch while drinking tequila slammers and smoking big fat, Cameroonish spliffs that my husband rolls using 36 separate Rizlas. He really is a good man. His joints - we just received some excellent ganja from our best friends in Chiswick - are wonderful for taking the edge off the day and, of course, the glooms that always afflict us once the crack wears off. I think it's time I had an affair and the new Aga comes tomorrow....'

Negley says... Bryan in The Sunday Times on 4X4 wars and political drama.
As usual all complaints about these articles should be directed to my central complaints site.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Faith in Meg and Frum

The birth of Kim Jong-Il - he was 65 yesterday - was marked by the appearance of a double rainbow and a new star. He shot eleven holes in one the first time he played golf. The number 11 gives this credibility. A concocted government claim would surely be that he shot eighteen. On the Pacific island of Tanna the John Frum cargo cult is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The cult's faith centres on the arrival of American soldiers during World War II. These benefactors, it is believed, will return. The name John Frum is thought to have arisen because so many of the GIs introduced themselves by saying, 'I'm John from America.' Meanwhile, Islamists in Pakistan are convinced that a polio immunisation campaign is an American plot to sterilise Muslims. And, finally, here in Britain, Mystic Meg tells me that the new moon awakens in me ambitions concerning something I currently do just for the love of it and a relationship will move into calmer but sexier times. As George Michael sang in his savage critique of Richard Dawkins, 'I gotta have faith.'

Friday, February 16, 2007

Guido's Port

The lunchee - me being the luncher - that I feared might be in jail was, in fact, Guido Fawkes himself, the very man. I would not have revealed this, but, the last drop of port having scarcely formed a crust on his loosened lips, he posted on our lunch. I fear that the excellent Rioja that preceded the port may have clouded his judgment as, it seems, he is playing fast and loose with the Charities Act 1993 merely to spend time with his daughter. Never mind, I enjoyed a fruitful correspondence with Jonathan King while he was in the Big House; doubtless Guido's tear-stained snail mail will be even more rewarding. As for what else was discussed, my lips are sealed - ish.

Obama and the Aussies

I know I'm late on this, but it feels too significant to ignore. Australian Prime Minister John Howard trashed Barack Obama's announcement of a deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This is how Obama responded: 'I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced. I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops on the ground now, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400, so if he's (ready) to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.' Forget the rights and wrongs here, what is important is the quality of Obama's response. It would appeal both to the right wing exceptionalists who don't trust foreigners and left wingers who just want to get out of Iraq. Furthermore, it is an unusually strong statement at this stage of the game. The right, here and in America, is desperately trying to write Obama off. But the truth is that he has real political class, he is too sharp for Hillary and too smart for the Republicans. This may mean he will fail, of course, but he is, at least, interesting.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

For Negley Farson

The dawn-posting grandee may be unable to post at dawn tomorrow because somebody is launching an anti-ageing magazine. With the noble aim of pouring cold water on this enterprise and, of course, flogging my book, I shall, therefore, be on BBC Breakfast TV and on both Radio Four and Radio Five, all in the space of 85 mins. As consolation, therefore, I offer this photograph of The Way of a Transgressor by Negley Farson. I have never heard of the guy but he does seem to have done the journalistic rounds. Alas, all his efforts ended in obscurity and a second hand bookshop. It is very chastening.

The Hidden Matter of the Dwarf Spheroidal

I spent about an hour yesterday explaining what I knew of the state of contemporary physics to a rock 'n' roll publicist who clearly felt his job wasn't quite enough to fill his eager mind. He is right to be interested. Now, it seems, we have discovered dwarf spheroidals, galaxies composed almost entirely of dark matter. The universe is made, I learn from reading the superb Lee Smolin, of more than 90 per cent dark energy and matter of which we know nothing. Hamlet was on to this - 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' - but he probably had no idea how much more. Smolin also thinks that most of the physics of the last thirty years has been barking up the wrong quantum-cosmological tree. I have suspected as much myself and previously posted on this suspicion. Modern physics is the theology of our time and, like theology, is never quite clear about its subject matter - or, more exactly, about its subject, matter.

On Camille

I fear I may have sounded a little too anti-American in that last post. So here is something very pro-. Camille Paglia, in every sense the opposite of Amanda Marcotte, has returned to Salon Magazine with her own blog. Paglia was the cause of my one trip to Philadelphia in 1998. The resulting article is here. With luck, she will soon post on Amanda.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Amanda Marcotte and Scary America

I posted previously on Amanda Marcotte and the Pandagon blog. My intention was to make a point about the discontinuity between mainstream politics and bloggery - a discontinuity that resulted in Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon having to resign from the John Edwards campaign because of her anti-Catholic remarks on her blog. Two comments on that post - from Frank Wilson and Dark Heart - inspired me to look closer at Pandagon and Marcotte. It's not a pretty sight. Sample this post and the comments. The first point is that, though Marcotte seems to have a degree in English, she is a truly awful writer. I noted this in that previous post, but I have only just realised the scale of the problem. Writing this bad is an intellectual as well as an aesthetic affront. Secondly, Marcotte is a paleo-feminist of the sort that has largely vanished from the world that I inhabit. She seems to take her intellectual lead from Shere Hite, my views on whose thinking can be found here. Thirdly, the post and comments I highlight provide a terrible vision of one of the worst aspects of American culture - its crude stratification of debate into a series of postures. This is, essentially, legalistic in that it assumes absolutely contrasting positions and then uses any weapons at hand to destroy opposition. Nothing in what Marcotte and most of her commenters say displays any wisdom whatsoever about the real world. In this it provides evidence of another American shortcoming - parochialism. Much as I love that country, this stuff really scares me.

Random Post with Flashing Squid

In the venerable tradition of my previous free associative and random posts, the dawn-posting grandee feel the needs to issue a news bulletin. First, obviously, is the great news that Jeff's statues have been found. Said 'Lord' and 'Lady' Archer, apparently in unison, 'We are absolutely delighted that our stolen works of art have been recovered.' The more I look at that sentence, the more I feel there is some irony involved. Never mind. Squid, it seems, emit blinding flashes of light to disorientate their victims and the British are worse at looking after their children than almost anybody else. I like to think we're toughening them up for the squid-infested waters of adulthood. Meanwhile, my ignorance of politics is once again exposed by the fact that I didn't know there was a Republican contender called Mitt. Mitt? Why? Perhaps it's because he did such a great job of running the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics where, of course, he wore mittens. But, best of all, the footballer who talked sense has been accused by ashen-faced Portsmouth manager Harry 'Swollen Face' Redknapp of deliberately trying to injure Portuguese maestro Pedro Mendes. Swollen Face has circumstantial evidence on his side. In a previous game, another Manchester City player, Ben Thatcher, knocked Mendes out with what many said was the worst foul of the decade. Plainly this Mendes can be very irritating to the boys in blue. Even more ashen-faced City manager Stuart 'Psycho' Pearce denied the charge and Redknapp, suffering what seems to have been a further rush of blood to his already swollen head, said, 'I would rather give money to the Leukemia busters than to the FA.' Hmmmm. That's the way it is this morning. And now over to Blondie with the weather.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Lingering Death of the NHS Computer

I have just placed in Selected Articles a piece I wrote last year about the government's use of management consultants. There I said that the absurdly expensive and wildly over-ambitious scheme for an NHS computer would have to be abandoned. Today, a Fujitsu executive has come pretty close to confirming this. Bloggers and everybody else get terribly excited about all sorts of political trivia. But, for some reason, the disastrous use of management consultants in government - especially in IT projects - seldom causes outrage Anyway, it IS an outrage and, as far as the NHS computer is concerned, I told you so.

On Blogs and Petitions

There have been some rancorous British blog wars recently. Iain Dale has been abused, Guido has been outed as Paul Staines and the Westminster wonks with their curiously deformed hindquarters have been having fun. This is entertaining but lacks depth. Current American blog wars are, however, gripping. Amanda Marcotte of the Pandagon blog was taken on by Democrat contender John Edwards. I posted on this earlier. Both Marcotte and another blogger, Melissa McEwan were then savagely attacked by the right as being anti-Catholic. 'Vulgar, trash-talking bigots,' said Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Other Catholics dissociated themselves from these attacks, but the damage seems to have been done. Marcotte has now announced her resignation from the Edwards campaign. She had, indeed, been critical of the Catholic Church. The terms of her attacks were, in blog terms, unremarkable. (And, I should add, very badly written. Why do so many American bloggers ramble interminably? British political blogs may be less momentous, but at least they are usually kept short.) But, in the arena of mainstream politics and media, Marcotte's views were unacceptable. Edwards miscalculated. Blogs, he thought, are groovy, so let's get the bloggers on board. But the old mainstream still has a functioning immune system and the bloggers have been rejected. Old, big battalion democracy and new individualised, technophile democracy don't mix. Something similar has happened here with the government's embarrassment over the online road pricing petition. Letting the people speak - through blogs or petitions - seems like a good idea but can it ever work?

Monday, February 12, 2007

2018: Do Not Go There

Ah, so I see we are bidding to 'host' the 2018 World Cup. There are two obvious objections: a) we are already showing signs of screwing up the 2012 Olympics and b) our national football team, being the worst in the world, would embarrass us on home turf. The further, non-specific objection is that I am not sure democracies are going to be able to stage such events in the future. Nobody knows what undemocratic China is spending on the 2008 Olympics, but it will certainly be even more - and much much more in relation to the wealth of its population - than we are planning to spend. Democratic populations will learn the cost and will wonder, reasonably enough, whether it is worth paying such monstrous sums for a few weeks of running and jumping or, in the case of football, cheating. Only totalitarian states will be able to get away with it. Oh and, speaking of totalitarians, I see the wiley Sir Alex Ferguson has defended the delicate petals of the football England team against press criticism of their performance. This followed the whining of one Rio Neville about the crowd boos that followed their dismal showing against Spain. Of course, it's all our fault. Why didn't I see that before? 2018? Forget it. Please.

Grandee Posts Early

There's a merciful interview with me in The Independent. This seems to suggest I am obsessed with this blog, rising 'at the crack of dawn' to post 'on such subjects as avian flu (Dead Turkeys and Rationality, 5.53am) and the maverick footballer Joey Barton (Footballer Talks Sense Shock, 6.13am).' It also calls me a grandee. Now would a grandee get up to write posts at that time? Oh I just did. Anyway, see, proves it, I am not a grandee.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Best Thing About Blogging...

... is meeting people like Frank Wilson, literary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and, of course, vice-president of the Failed Intellectuals Society. A few weeks ago I posted about John Ashbery, a great poet. Noticing this, Frank asked me to review his latest collection, A Worldly Country for the Inquirer. The review is published today. For reasons I cannot fully explain, I find this particular fruit of the blog immensely satisfying. Thanks, Frank.

The Teeth of Egypt

In The Sunday Times: my interview with the engaged and engaging Egyptian novelist and dentist Alaa Al Aswany.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Archer: The Theft and The Verdict

I can resist no longer. It is time for an update on 'Lord' Jeff. The big news is, of course, is the theft of the sculptures from his garden - it was, Susan, a naked shepherd, not a naked Jeff, with some equally naked sheep. I cannot establish whether the girl in Girl Doing a Handstand was also naked. Jeff was so traumatised by the theft that he blogged on the matter, his first post since January 9th. The commenter 'Jeff' - 'Thank God you're back, it's been so long' - is, I am afraid, me. The thief, contrary to what Sand Storm suggests, was not me. Of course, he also brings us further news of his Wonderful Life, most importantly his role in the BBC2 show The Verdict which begins tomorrow evening. I saw a long trailer for this show. It was long because, I assume, the BBC is in a state of panic, having, far too late, detected the glaringly obvious truth about The Verdict - that it reeks of a turkey with flu. A jury of celebs - well, Michael Portillo with eleven D-listers - is asked to assess a rape case. Unfortunately the case is not real and the protagonists are all actors. This made a complete nonsense of the whining of the celebs in the trailer about how difficult and meaningful it all is. Probably they have lost the ability to distinguish between 'reality'' TV and reality. Never mind, it gets Jeff out of the house.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Brown Eyes the Bloggers

My life having become meaningless with the death of Anna Nicole, I have nihilistically decided to offer my services to Gordon Brown. American bloggers are being recruited to political campaigns and it should happen here. There is a problem, however, as the Time article makes clear. In joining the John Edwards campaign, Amanda Marcotte, creator of the Pandagon blog, seems to have lost some of her blogtastic authenticity. She is now obliged to self-censor. The freewheeling blog mode does not easily translate into real politics and, as a result, the voters the blogger is supposed to bring on board simply fade away, disgusted with the sell-out. The solution - since you ask, Gordon - is to pay bloggers to carry on doing what they do. So, for example, if you were to pay me, people would say to themselves, 'Oh look, Gordon Brown pays Bryan Appleyard to blog in spite of the fact that Bryan thinks he is a sinister and malevolent individual who would make a catastrophic Prime Minister. We should vote for Gordon, he's clearly caught the blog spirit.' The cheque, I assume, is in the post.

The Beijing Anomaly

No, not more ho-hummery about the inscrutable Chinese. The Beijing Anomaly is the name that has been given to an underwater sea the size of the Arctic Ocean that has been found beneath Asia. The water has been 'pumped into the lower mantle via the long history of the subduction of the oceanic lithosphere'. Underground oceans give me vertigo. I am not alone. In 1818 there was a respectable scientific theory called Symmes' Hole, proposed by one John Cleves Symmes. He thought the earth was open at the poles and there were habitable spaces within. Edgar Allan Poe used this in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in which the ocean flows into these underground caverns through the Polar chasm. There Pym is confronted by an alien - 'the hue of the skin of the figure was the perfect whiteness of the snow.' There's something basically wrong about an undergound ocean. If you ask me, this discovery indicates the end of the world is at hand. Luckily, the Norwegians are prepared.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Faith of China

I have always regarded the Chinese as the least metaphysically-inclined people in the world. This was foolish. Human beings are more or less uniformly metaphysically-inclined, most, however, don't know it. Now, I find, that religion is booming in China with a survey discovering 300 million believers. The academic who conducted the survey attributes this to increasing freedom and the pace of economic change. He is wrong. Oppression invariably fires religious feeling. The communist party is responsible for these new believers. If the Dawkinsian secularist commissars continue their oppressive ranting against religion, we can expect a similar faith boom here in the near future.

Fantasy Football

The goal of the night started with Gary Ferdinand's perfectly weighted pass out to the right to find the feet of Wayne Gerrard. The Shrek-like Merseyside tyke, whose thoughtful autobiography, It May Be That We Shall Touch the Happy Isles, was the publishing sensation of the autumn, twisted and turned his way past half the Spanish mid-field before flipping the ball to Peter Wright-Phillips whose superb first touch cross found Phil Crouch's head. The lanky Liverpool forward dropped the ball at the feet of Jonathan Carrick. He chipped it effortlessly over the diving body of the bewildered and despairing Spanish keeper, who, sobbing, crossed himself and cursed the day he was not born in England. Said England boss Steve Goran Eriksson after the game, 'We mustn't get too excited. A 7-0 defeat of Spain is the least that we can expect from such a pampered, well paid and loyally supported team. My job now is to ensure that we hold on to the World Cup for another twelve years.' Full match report here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

On Shaving While Driving

One would like to sympathise with Edward Hutcheson, who has been found guilty of shaving while driving. We've all been there: screaming down a motorway while consulting a map, trying to find Radio Five Live, talking on a mobile, retrieving the plastic water bottles rolling around somewhere near the brake, hurling abuse at nearby trucks and composing a sonnet. But Hutcheson escapes our sympathy because he is a 'health and safety expert'. Such people should know better, but also they have carte blanche to tell us how to behave and do so with fantastically irritating regularity. Hutcheson, the biter, has been bit. And, while I am on the subject, what sort of a freak uses an electric shaver? It is a thoroughly discredited piece of technology.

Friendly Fire

The 'friendly fire' incident in which an American A10 killed Corporal Matty Hull underlines my point about the contemporary quandary of knowing too much. The pilot was deluged with information and took, in the event, a wrong decision. Technology seems to made such incidents less likely - in previous wars 15 per cent of casualties were caused by friendly fire. But, though cases may be fewer, technology makes them more vivid and, therefore, more politically sensitive The publication of the A10's cockpit video dramatises the horror of the incident and reminds everybody of the cost of war. In such a climate, it becomes harder to accept the reality of the soldier's lot. As Tennyson put it, 'Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die...' The effect of technology in this case is to make us all know too much, too much at least comfortably to accept Tennyson's martial stoicism. Some will argue this is a good thing. But the reality is that it has not yet shown any signs of curing our species of its thirst for blood.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Footballer Talks Sense Shock

In a freakish and entirely aberrant display of good judgment, an apparently sane player has been picked to play for the worst football team in the world. Joey Barton, whose great virtue apart from sanity is that he plays for Manchester City, makes a point about the ineptitude of the publishing industry which I have often thought of making myself. Why, in the wake of England's dismal failure in the World Cup, did they suddenly publish some very expensive footballers' biographies? Or, as Joey puts it, 'England did nothing in that World Cup, so why were they bringing books out? 'We got beat in the quarter-finals. I played like shit. Here's my book.'' Well, quite. Frank Lampard published a book and is 'renowned for being sensitive to criticism and was deeply aggrieved by Barton's remarks.' Well, tee-hee. Now I only hope Spain win 4-3 with Barton scoring a heroic hat-trick and a cognitive therapist having to be rushed on to the pitch to get Lampard back on his feet after a Spanish player asks him how his book sold.

Dead Turkeys and Rationality

As I said below, it is hard to know where to set the worryometer when it comes to bird flu. But at least I do know what there might be to worry about. Most people seem to think it's just a question of this particular virus jumping from birds to humans. This is the impression Mick Hume gives in his column. Certainly this would be a rare event in a population that does not live in close proximity to birds. But, even if it happened just occasionally and if, just once, it infected a person already carrying the virus of a conventional human flu, then there could be a lethal mutation. In fact, some argue that, over time, this is certain to happen. Hume's approach is based on a narrow social and political rationality - we should be more concerned about jobs than health - that does not take into account the effects of a broader scientific rationality. If we did not know as much as we do, then we would not have thought of the possibility of a lethal flu pandemic arising from a few sick birds. Maybe we would have been right; maybe nothing would have happened. But the point is that we know and cannot unknow what we know. This is why scientists are caught in the embarrassing position of telling us simultaneously to worry and not to worry. The real contemporary quandary is what to do about knowing too much.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Homage to H.G.Wells and the Telescope Sign

Just to say, this is my favourite sign. There is the artfully smudged blue paint, the strange spelling and the overpowering poignancy of the poem/instructions. The harsh irony of that 'enjoy the view' borders on the inhuman. The second stanza makes hot tears spurt. The final stanza is, of course, unbearable. The telescope in question is at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. It was there that H.G.Wells told his son to take a photograph of him. 'There,' he said, 'now you have a picture of Wells next the sea in Wells-next-the-Sea.' Greatness.

Real Men

Oh good, Wayne Rooney has been 'released' - excellent choice of word - to play for the worst football team in the world against Spain on Wednesday. I shall be too busy doing something I have not yet thought of to watch the game. I saw a mass of rugby fans at Notting Hill Gate tube station on Saturday, presumably on their way to Twickenham to see Jonny Wilkinson return to the England team for the first time since the Rugby World Cup Final, a life-changing event for me. Little more needs to be said about Jonny, indeed words fall lamentably short. But I did ask my wife why there were more girls than boys amongst the crowd of rugby fans, the reverse being true of football crowds. 'Real men,' she said. That's it in a nutshell. So go, Spain, the hopes of all real English patriots are with you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I review Oliver James's Affluenza in The Sunday Times today. On balance, I seem to have been nicer about the book that I should have been. Its major theme is a banality and the two ideas that support it - that nurture is all and nature nothing and that America is the root of all evil - are simply wrong. But I have a nasty feeling that I was influenced by this. It's an article by Peter Wilby trashing, very unpersuasively, my newspaper. But he doesn't exactly trash me. He calls me 'the most cerebral, if gloomy, writer in the industry.' Cerebral? Well, yes, obviously. But gloomy? Moi? I suspect I was thinking about this when I wrote the review and, as a result, gave James an easier ride than he deserved. It's a butterfly in Tokyo effect. Wilby reaches for a word, settles on 'gloomy' and, as a result, James's breakfast is less disturbed than it might have been. I am a speck in the chaotic flux.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Great Cupitt

Just to mention this extraordinary article. Don Cupitt is a great man. I disagree with crucial points in this argument. But what is impressive is the clarity with which he compresses such urgent and complex issues into such a small space. For example, this point about Richard Dawkins has been made by others but seldom so succinctly and with such austere power.
'He has abandoned popular belief in God ... but clings to what Derrida calls "general theology", a belief in one ready-made truth of things out there, waiting to be copied into our language. Unfortunately, Dawkins' god is now dead too.'
Anyway, I just thought you should read it too.

Bird Flu: A Turkey Speaks Out

Ah, so bird flu is here, afflicting Suffolk Turkeys. But, curiously, this does not seem as frightening as when it wasn't here. An expert on television tells us there is nothing to worry about. But didn't the experts tell us there WAS something to worry about when it was just in the Far East? It's so hard, these days, to know when to be worried. A turkey says, 'I don't get it either, but we have much to be thankful for. After all, I am a talking turkey and Christmas is barely over.'

Friday, February 02, 2007

Global Warming: Another C4 Cock-Up?

I have been trying to think of something new to say about the climate change story and failing. But now Great Gordon has, as so often in the past, come to the rescue. Plants, it seems, may be as bad for us as Chinese coal-fired power stations. Also it's spring - again - in London. What is going on? Who is doing this? It can't be John Prescott, he can screw up the traffic but not the planet. Donald Rumsfeld is, presumably, dangerously underemployed. But I think it's the Russians. Though, on reflection, it could be the board of Channel 4, who, in their infinite wisdom and from the yawning heights of their excellent educations, have decided to postpone Wank Week. All is not yet lost.

Dirty Dealings in the Blogs

Two big stories of a very specific genre are now running side by side. One is Gordon Brown and the Smith Institute, the other is Tony Blair and cash for peerages. The genre is Dirty Dealings at the Heart of Government (DDHG) and it is a familiar - indeed, a perennial - filler of news schedules. The political fallout from these two particular examples of the genre is, as yet, unknowable. But the media fallout is clear. The bloggers have climbed to the top of the news tree. I am not speaking about myself. I don't break news here because my first obligation is to The Sunday Times and I don't do politics very much because, most of the time, my eyes glaze over with boredom at the day to day doings of ugly, mad people in Westminster. It is the political bloggers - notably Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes - who have come out on top. The reason is that DDHG stories move very quickly and individual developments are extremely hard to assess. Naturally cautious mainstream media, as a result, always tend to be slightly behind. Wildly incautious bloggers - Guido in particular - have no such problems. Ah, you may say, but are they accurate? That isn't the point. The momentum, the climate, the flavour, of both these stories is the issue - what they mean, not what they are - and that, I am increasingly convinced, has been generated by the rhythm and tone of the blogs. Furthermore, it is evident that certain bloggers are becoming hubs or clearing houses for a good deal of Westminster score-settling, rumour-propagating and idea-floating. This makes them, for the mainstream media, essential. All of which isn't the triumph of citizen journalism which the most frenzied boosters of bloggery have been promising. But it is something, a fundamental change in the pace and nature of our public spaces perhaps.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Further Shilpa Shetty Shock

I'm not sure I can cope with this story. First, it's that Shilpa again and, secondly, there is a plan to rescue English cricket with a reality TV show. The greatest game ever invented will thus be linked to the nastiest, Big Brother. For my American readers I provide one of my own pictures, which, I think, expresses the true, timeless spirit of English cricket. Paunch, hat, bat, pads, thin, faintly contemptuous girl. Is there more to life than this? I don't think so.
PS. In the light of Andrew's comment, I feel I must point out that this is not a picture OF me, it's a picture BY me.

Nick Park: Free at Last

The five-film deal between Dreamworks in Hollywood and Aardman Animations in Bristol has ended after only three films. Aardman's claymation epics - notably Flushed Away and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - didn't do well enough in America. Four Oscars don't, in the event, mean that much at the Box Office. This is good news; that deal should never have been done. The presiding genius of Aardman - Nick Park, I interviewed him in 2003 - has less in common with Los Angeles than any man I have ever met. Park is English, impenetrably so to foreigners. Self-deprecating to the point of neurosis, he doesn't play the cheap, self-hyping publicity game. After a fire that destroyed an Aardman warehouse in Bristol, he said, 'In the light of other tragedies, it's not a big deal.' On the TV news you are supposed to weep and wail; not Park, he has perspective. Like the great Tommy Cooper, he does not have to try to be funny, he just is profoundly funny. The short Creature Comforts films were masterpieces of poignant, humane comedy - see my theory about them in the article. Without Hollywood on his back, he will - I hope - be free again. My dear, departed friend Auberon Waugh used to say you shouldn't sign anything put in front of you by an American lawyer. I wouldn't necessarily go that far but Bron, like Park, was a wistful, dreaming English genius and, perhaps, for them, this is the right advice. Such people are a diminishing resource, we should pass legislation to protect them from ever having to sign anything.