Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Book Endures

But, on the other hand, James Gleick in the NYT makes a stirring case for the (upmarket) survival of another dead tree technology, the book.
'What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. You won't win on quick distribution, and you won't win on price. Cyberspace has that covered.
'Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.'
Ditch downmarket - it is the way of the future.

Pym, Hampden and Damian Green

And, of course, the death of newspapers is a threat to democracy. I don't like to say things like that because there are certain people who squeal about the death of democracy every other day. Blair took a lot of flak from them. But, on the whole, I thought that, under Blair, Mandelson and Campbell would always be contained by a certain sinuous irony in their boss. Brown, Mandelson and Campbell, however, appear to be a different matter. I don't believe the denials, the arrest of Damian Green is a nasty and sinister set-up. Cameron is right to jump on this. It is not hyperbole to evoke 4th January 1642 when Charles 1st entered the House of Commons to seize his opponents and thereby precipitated the Civil War. Brown is a dangerous man.

The Serenity of an Old Hack

There was a depressing piece about the decline of newspapers in the FT and, today, there's an even more depressing piece on the same subject by Maureen Dowd in the NYT. In fact, neither article mentions one of the most ominous developments for papers - the sudden rise of the netbook. Online newspapers have been held back by portability. Phones are too small and laptops too large and expensive to compete with the dead tree product. Netbooks are small, light, cheap and flying out of the box shops in Tottenham Court Road. They fit in the inside pocket of a Barbour (I tried yesterday). Assuming wireless connectivity becomes commonplace and free in the near future, netbooks or something similar will do yet more damage to circulations. This will accelerate the inevitable cull of titles, leaving only a few upmarket papers - downmarket ones already do not make sense - that can charge for online access. In this climate I console myself that it's better to be an old hack than a young one and even better, of course, to be an upmarket one.

For Jorn Utzon

The Sydney Opera House is the most perfect use of a site in modern architecture. In combination with the Harbour Bridge, it forms one of the greatest urban spectacles in the world. And now Jorn Utzon is dead.


In The Sunday Times I write about Outnumbered, the best British sitcom in years.

Friday, November 28, 2008

For Rauschenberg

I was obliged to go to North Acton this morning. I had to walk about half a mile from the underground station. The walk took me along an alley sandwiched between a graveyard and the railway tracks. It was littered with dead leaves, plastic bottles and sodden newspapers. The steel railings, warehouse walls and lamp posts were all covered with graffiti. A mournful sign on the railway tracks said 'Whistle'. It was cold and raining. I would not, on balance, walk through there at night. But this morning it made me deliriously happy for reasons I did not at first understand. Then I realised this place had been romanticised and redeemed by the work of that recently late and timelessly great artist Robert Rauschenberg. And it was Rauschenberg, I also now realise, that prompted me to take the above picture on a quite different occasion.

Mumbai 2

CaptainB removes some of the opacity of Mumbai.

Long Live the Recession

We seem to be gambling in a V-shaped recession, that it will all be over by Christmas '09. I see no basis for this hope. We have emerged from a credit-fed boom. It is certain that credit will not return to previous levels, so even if we do emerge from the recession, growth will be slow or non-existent. In addition, people are giving up spending on a large scale. Stephen S. Roache points out that the decline in US retail spending has been the sharpest ever. This is not a bad thing- consumer spending was accounting for 72 per cent of the economy, which is absurd. In fact, I'm not sure any of this is a bad thing. London became a nastier place during the boom. Funny money corrupts and depraves. But present policies seem designed to restore a climate of easy credit and high consumer spending. They will, if people have any sense, fail. A longer recession will give us more time to root out delusions.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Inner Kettle

Oh dear, Gwyneth has been in touch again. It's a pretty clear case of stalking. The latest missive from Goop consists of a series of meditations on Thanksgiving. I particularly liked this lady's thought - 'Fill your inner kettle with love and hope and you will know what it is to be thankful.' I would but I'm not sure which is the spout.

The Weird Wonder of Woolworth's

Having injected a new rationality into our  view of bankers - thick, two-bit grifters, basically - the Crunch/Crash/Bad Thing is now turning its clear-eyed gaze on the High Street. I mean Woolworth's - what was that all about? Was it, in fact, a shop or some kind of hammy simulacrum? The last time I was inside one - in Fakenham - it never even crossed my mind that they were trying to sell me something. It was like a museum of the early fifties with Britain just poised to escape from austerity. I think at least one branch should be saved for the nation - perhaps the V & A can get involved. The High Street will now make a little more sense, though our hopes for any greater level of coherence must await the disappearance of W.H.Smith.

Good Cops

I have always regarded the British police with disdain, both here and in conversation. Almost every contact I have ever had with them provided clear evidence of a decayed and demoralised institution. All that has changed. My wife had her bag stolen yesterday in All Bar One in Notting Hill Gate. About five hours later I was out at dinner when a policeman called to say they had caught the thieves. They then went to enormous trouble to contact my wife at another restaurant, her mobile had been in the bag. There has been a rash of such thefts - apparently in the same place - and the police had been watching the gang of three responsible. I think my wife's case sealed their fate as they followed them until the tried it again (this seems to have been a very dumb gang). The police involved were intelligent and sensitive and, above all, they caught the bastards. From now on, in my book, the cops are okay. Mind how you go.


What does one say about the attacks in Mumbai? Emitting the sort of pious condemnations required of politicians is worthless and attempting to understand the context is futile. Furthermore, the attackers seem to belong to a previously unknown faction. So one cannot even make sage judgments about Al Qaeda strategy - the Deccan Mujahideen may be unconnected. Then there is the strangely chaotic, almost random nature of the DM's tactics. This is, in short, a curiously and frustratingly opaque event - at least for the moment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Stupidity Explanation

Were the bankers who landed us in this mess wicked or stupid? It has to be one or another. Some are now going for stupid, see Friedman and Lewis. I think this is right, but it's a particular kind of stupidity - the stupidity of isolation. I've blogged in the past about the loathsome behaviour of City boys and hedgies at the height of their success. It was the behaviour of people without culture and without any sense of their connection to other people. They were isolated within their own phenomenally narrow set of values. Such isolation breeds stupidity because judgment is discarded as it might threaten the gamblers' groupthink. Outsiders are mocked because they 'don't understand'. And it's true, we didn't, we just thought they did and we were wrong.

Poet Laureate Prynne?

Musing about a successor to Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate, Charlotte Higgins boldly throws the hat of J.H.Prynne into the ring. I'm with her on this if only because I like the thought of the incandescent, uncomprehending rage of Big Phil on encountering poems like On the Matter of Thermal Packing. God knows what he'd write when the Queen dies. But, Prynne aside, who else is there? In terms of sheer quality, Geoffrey Hill should get it, of course, but he's difficult, old and infinitely unclubbable. Given that we don't have a spare Dryden, Wordsworth or Tennyson, all previous laureates, lying around, I suspect it will be Wendy Cope or Roger McGough, both of whom would be solid on the subject of a dead queen, but, of course and as ever, I know nothing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

World's Greatest Ever Picture Caption

From a genius at the BBC - 'Keeping upright for Cilla Black requires a lot more force.' There'll be plenty of nods of agreement in the clubs of St James tonight.

Death of the Big Three

Here's a striking suggestion - simultaneous bankruptcy filings from the big three American car makers. This, say the authors, would reduce stigma and would not be 'an indication that American manufacturers produce inferior cars and trucks.' But they do - the clearest evidence of which is the fact that Toyota's market capitalisation is now twenty times that of Ford, Chrysler and GM combined. It's simply not credible that there's nothing wrong with their products. Otherwise, the simultaneous filing makes perfect sense.

Ashbery on the Crisis

I am aware that I should have something to say - other than observing the baldness of Darling - about the latest phase in The Crisis. Alas, I seem to have nothing. Lots of other bloggers and columnists are banging away about this but my credulity has snapped. They're just pretending to know something and, alarmingly, clear ideological divisions are now appearing between neo-liberals and neo-Keynsians. This will have the effect of entrenching positions which - and this I do know - are wrong because not determined by reference to present reality. Indeed, they are smothering present reality. Far from knowing what should be done, most of us - actually all of us - don't know what is happening or has happened. 'Uncharted waters' is a phrase often used, which is true enough in its way but the full implications of the words are not understood. People tend to use the phrase as a prelude to the pretence that they know how to do the charting and, anyway, all waters are uncharted, a truth which the comment culture finds hard to accept. So sod them all, only great poets can handle this stuff. Here's Ashbery on the true meaning of uncharted.

Tomorrow is easy but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter's deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things 
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn't know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How to Battle Obesity

I think I can help the airlines in their present crisis. My recent jaunt was in a country of immensely fat people - fatter, in fact, than the Americans. Their internal flights, perversely perhaps, had a rigorous baggage weight policy. Check-in baggage could be no more than 15 kgs and carry-on no more than 7kgs. As I currently weigh under 71kgs, this made my total airborne weight 93kgs. Yet I saw plenty of people on these flights who weighed at least 90 kgs. This made their total airborne weight 112 kgs. I am being discriminated against for being thin. Why not, instead of baggage allowances, simply permit passengers a total airborne weight of, to be generous, 100 kgs? This would mean I could have 29 kgs of baggage and the 90 kg fatties could have 10 kgs. This would be a potent weapon in the battle against obesity as the more weight people lost, the better they could dress on holiday. 

My Thoughts on the Pre-Budget Statement

What's happened to Alistair Darling's hair? It seems to have vanished. The crisis is taking its toll. He was already grey, baldness was all his scalp had left by way of protest at his workload.

The Limited Forgiving of Lennon

There's an important omission from the Vatican forgiving of John Lennon for his Beatles more popular than Jesus remark. They don't say they forgive him for Imagine. As it is one of the soppiest, most irritating and vacuous songs ever written, I'm with Benny on this one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama Art

Oh and read this, you bastards. Having me as a block, the chip needs all the help she can get.

Subjectivity, Science and the Off-Ramp

Blimey. That mild expletive apart, posting is proving difficult as I have the worst case of jet lag ever and one of the most persistent chest infections - both signs, I suspect, that life's off-ramp is somewhere round the next bend. My chest has never been much good - as a chest at least. Every winter for the last five years or so I have caught a cold that turns into a sinus infection followed immediately by a chest infection. The solution is two courses of antibiotics accompanied by inhalations of Seretide, a steroid in powder form which I suck in from a small hole in the side of a purple plastic flying saucer. Bones increased my Seretide dose this time round - yep, that's the off-ramp - and, returning for my second lot of antiobiotics, I remarked that this higher dose gave me a slight steroid rush. This rush will be familiar to anybody who has been on high doses of oral steroids - it's pleasant in that it gives you energy but unpleasant in that it destroys your concentration. Bones responded to my rush report by saying, 'Hmmmm, it's supposed to have only a local effect.' Translation: 'You're imagining the rush.' I found this troubling. Obviously, at one level, I simply can't be imagining the rush. Only I have access to this rush and, if I feel it, then it's happening. But that's precisely the kind of epistemology that screws up doctors and drugs companies. If they have to acknowledge the legitimacy of every reported side effect, then the warnings on American TV drug ads will wipe out the schedules, every time you turn on the TV on the Holiday Inn Express you'll be told that Seretide can give you a mild rush and the little slips of paper that come with your drugs will be replaced by telephone directories. They will say, of course, that I am not to be believed as Seretide's effect is purely local - probably an aspect of molecular size - but this is unpersuasive as we now know that drugs have wildly different effects on people, probably because of subtle genetic variations called riflips. This is all further confused by the placebo effect. It's worked on me - since encountering Bones's scepticism, I haven't been getting the rush. I might up the dose further just to convince myself a non-local effect is possible, so if the next thing you read is my obit, you'll know what's happened. This liminal land between subjectivity and science is, as ever, a fun and risky place to be.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Woss-Brand and the Dying Beeb

And, on the subject of the BBC, the affair of Woss and the unfunny psycho-spider has predictably concluded with a hard-hitting report that goes out of its way not to hit Woss. Apparently, the trustees do not want to discourage risk-taking. Call me pedantic, but how could telling a couple of over-stimulated, ageing toddlers not to abuse old men on air discourage risk-taking? And what is risk-taking in this context? We now know it's risky to abuse grandads, but I presume there is some good form of risk-taking that is intended here. Seeing if you can finish the show after setting fire to the studio? That might work. Oh and am I the only one who didn't know that this kind of stuff went out on Radio 2 or, indeed, anywhere on the BBC? I mean I don't want to get all Daily Mail about this because I'm perfectly happy for commercial stations to do what they like and get hammered for it, but I was labouring under the illusion that there was some kind of standards issue when it came to spending hypothecated tax pounds. As it is, the BBC now has a knife in its back that will be pushed in further by politicians in the very near future. It's over, boys, unless you can come up with an aggressive restatement of Reithian values and, of course, you can't.

Ferrari Abandons Beauty

If Ferraris aren't beautiful then the world makes a little less sense and, as Gavin Green points out, Ferraris have been getting progressively uglier of late. The climax of this process is the new California which looks as though it came from the same Stevie von Wonder school of automotive design that produced the BMW X6 or Flying Turd. It's all done, say Ferrari, in the name of aerodynamics. In other words, efficiency has trumped beauty. Anybody can let that happen, Ferrari isn't supposed to and, once it does, the justification for the company becomes as dubious as the rationale for the BBC.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How the Rich Travel

Warren Buffett, I think, made the point that, in most areas of one's life, being rich makes very little difference. You sleep in a bed much like anybody else's, you eat food that everybody else eats, you read the same books and newspapers and watch the same TV. But in the pursuit of one particular activity, the rich are different - travel. The CEOs of the US automakers made this clear with their superlatively dumb decision to fly to Washington in their private jets to beg for public money. What they had failed to notice - actually, they failed to notice everything, but this in particular - was that nothing inspires public bitterness more than showy travel arrangements precisely because travel is the big difference between the haves and the have-nots. In an airport the have-nots are condemned to spend desultory hours in a 'retail environment' largely consisting of nasty shops selling  - the irony! - 'luxury brands', their dazed imaginations being periodically raised from boredom to suffering by announcements about security alerts and delays. The haves get their lounges where - a real joy this - you can leave your bags anywhere you want and they won't get blown up. Speaking from recent experiences, I can tell you that business class lounge facilities are much the same as those of first class lounges - though the latter seem to have more elaborate food - also that first class people are older, slighty more deviantly dressed and some are former political leaders. And, as Martin Amis observed in The Information, they read worse books; nobody knows why. When they arrive - I'm assuming they arrive, even though some seem to be in the lounges for the sake of it, perhaps they are paid to sit there by the airlines - they can stay at the new Atlantis in Dubai which has the important virtue of making Dubai's Burj Al Arab look, for the first time, like good architecture. They can also hire the new Bentley Azure T and, of course, an Alysia yacht. I suppose the point is it's not as easy being rich as it used to be. Once the poor were very poor and, as a result, the rich were obviously rich. Any Edwardian could, at once, spot the different between a 'gentleman' and everybody else. Now the poor aren't so poor, they buy designer knock-offs as good as the real thing - a habit that has rendered the Louis Vuitton bag quite useless as a status symbol - and they travel almost as much as the rich. Travel thus threatens to be a distressingly democratic experience, hence the need to separate out and flaunt the experience. But you have to keep moving because, in the end, even travel turns out to be a great leveller. I just saw a clip of the opening party for the Atlantis. The rich were dancing very, very badly. In the end, you have to arrive and be as much as a klutz as everybody else.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


It appears to be World Philosophy Day. Who knew?  I've never been able to decide whether I actually care about philosophy as it is conventionally defined. Much of it seems to consist of fantastically elaborate justifications for amazingly banal opinions. And, as the questions in the linked article demonstrate, there's also a nasty streak of futile cleverness - alarming simple folk with what are, in fact, mere games and misleading ones at that. Yet philosophy does, at its best, clarify and promote a healthy scepticism. Since it draws (or should draw) no final conclusions - a conclusion in the sense of a fact would not be philosophy but science - it makes us aware that inconclusiveness is very deeply embedded in our language and, therefore, our natures. Only people who understand this are worth knowing and so, perhaps, only philosophers are worth knowing, though such people are seldom philosophers by profession. Anyway, happy World Inconclusiveness Day. I think.

He's Back

Right, you bastards, I'm back and it's no more Mr Nice Guy Brit. Thanks to him for keeping the blog warm and alarmingly well-visited. I have been in a faraway country of which we know little. I was relieved to hear that Obama had won - McCain/Palin would have meant a further decline in US power and that scares me - but it's a bit late to talk about that. I return to find John Sergeant has pulled out of Strictly Come Dancing. This is obviously a disgrace of the first order but I have no idea what it means. Also, in these dark times, we must remember two of life's great consolations: the spectacle of powerful men utterly failing to understand their moment in history and the incompetence of public relations executives. Both come together beautifully in this story.  And don't get me started on Russell Brand. God, it's great to be back, blogging and profoundly misanthropic.


posted by Brit

Time for me to be off home, make way for the main man. I'll bugle a last post.

Thanks to Bryan for asking me to blogsit and to all of you commenters for contributing. It's been a lot of fun. We have chased away a horde of trannies with the help of the Wurzels and the Battleship Potemkin. We have tumbled off teeter-totters into the Quantum Flux. We have celebrated weighty Americans, lost to Kasparov, beaten University Challenge, thrown paint at an old man and cured Great Wakering. We have taken liquid lunches, won The X-Factor and (not) voted for Obama. We have been consoled by Gwyneth. We have learned nothing.

Ta ta.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

National Gewgaws

posted by Brit. Bryan will be back very soon

Alas, the end of my time in charge of Bryan's blog is rapidly approaching. The audience is becoming restless, coughing and checking its collective wristwatch. The improbably-extended shepherd's crook is sneaking onto the stage ready to hook me by the neck and whisk me off... But with a jolt I realise that I have neglected a key element of my Thought Experiments Mission Statement: namely, to ensure that Malty is recognised as an official National Treasure.

Unfortunately, closer scrutiny reveals the true size of the task. Malty is, after all, far too cranky, controversial and, well, close to Scotland to fit the typical NT description (I'm sure there are a few Jocks on the list but beyond Connery and Corbett, I'm struggling.)

To qualify as a National Treasure a candidate must possess a certain sort of cosy invulnerability. A recognisable voice and a solid body of television work help (Attenborough, Dench), but the key thing is that his or her faults must be beyond criticism. Whether it be an inability to act (Connery, Moore, Caine, the other Attenborough) or dance (Sergeant), or perhaps an excessive prolixity (Fry, Motson, Madeley) or eccentricity (Patrick Moore, Madeley again), the NT character flaw is part of the package, producing a smile rather than a sneer.

At the opposite end of the scale are the National Anti-Treasures. These dregs of British public life are covered in detail here. However, my concern is with a different section of celebrity, as yet unclassified but which I shall call, for the sake of argument, National Gewgaws.

I do not refer to anything so trivial as 'people we love to hate' (Cowell, Goody, Mandelson). Rather, National Gewgaws are those figures whose failings and flaws are our flaws, familiar but magnified, accepted but not forgiven. We must follow their trials and tribulations in sorrow, sympathy and rage, mockery and guilt. They are shameful, they are consoling. Winehouse and Charles clearly fit the bill. English sportsmen are riddled with the yips, and so English sport is riddled with Gewgaws, Henman being perhaps the ultimate. Marks and Spencer is of course the Gewgaw of retail, every season and half-year profit statement bringing fresh disaster or triumph, and we must all share in the agony.

Malty, I think, will never attain true National Treasure status, but he may yet join the ranks of the Gewgaw. It is, in any case, a far more interesting class of lunatic.

Coiled steel

posted by Brit

I made the mistake of watching the news last night. One damn thing after another, isn't it?

A lot of rubbish is spoken and written about evil. Here's some more. Some people think that evil can only be exhibited by humans. Those people haven't looked closely enough at cats. The other week, as I strolled innocuously back from the papershop, a neighbour's cat fixed me with what can only be described as a steady look of hate. Bravely, I tried to stare him out. No chance. He slowly rotated his head as I passed, holding my gaze, and his eyes contained nothing but malevolence - clear and unmistakeable. I returned home quite shaken and in dire need of a cup of tea.

Other people think that evil doesn't really exist at all. This is no more meaningful than suggesting that, say, generosity or laziness don't exist. The best line Ted Hughes ever wrote was Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn/ More coiled steel than living*. He was trying to describe animal instinct or mindless purpose or something, but as a description of evil it'll do until a better one comes along.

*A line that has inspired other, possibly greater poets...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fairness and froggish men

posted by Brit

Yesterday's post on sociobiology raised the question of fairness. According to the philosopher Raymond Geuss in a recent edition of Start the Week, the concept of 'fairness' has peculiarly English origins. Indeed, other languages such as German take their word for 'fairness' straight from the English, there being no direct linguistic equivalent.*

Interesing one, fairness. It's a sort of appeal to a natural justice (rather than a human or even Divine judgement or application of law) with hints of 'playing the game' and a hope of reasonableness and an even distribution of luck over the long run.

With its avoidance of absolutes it's a fundamentally conservative concept. And yet paradoxically, as Randy Newman here explains, the fact that life isn't fair (along with the existence of froggish men with beautiful wives) explains the failure of Marxism in the 20th Century.

*This puts me in mind of one of my favourite Bushisms: "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur." Pity it's a hoax.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On sociobiology

posted by Brit

Way back when, there used to be this thing called the Nature-Nurture Debate. That's long extinct, but its close cousin, Sociobiology, is still evolving alarmingly.

Sociobiology is the awkward antechamber where geneticists, anthropologists and artists get cross while trying not to bump into each other on the way to their respective lecture-rooms. Nick Cohen writes succinctly and well about it here.

The problem, as Nick explains, is that while some sociobiological explanations of human behaviour instinctively make sense and are, indeed, sensible (eg. "why old men desire beautiful young women and why rich old men are more successful in bedding beautiful young women than poor old men"), there are a lot of zealous sociobiologists keen to explain every tittle and jot of human interaction by reference to what our distant ancestors were getting up to with unfortunate caribou in the privacy of their own caves.

There was an example of this on Start the Week recently, when psychologist Susan Blackmore tried to suggest that the concept of "fairness" must have a genetic origin because the world's children universally cry "That's not fair!" when something goes against them. This forced Raymond Geuss to point out that while whingeing when you don't get your way may be a childhood universality, an appeal to "fairness" is a curiously Anglospheric ploy, the concept being closely linked to England's cultural and judicial history.

Unfortunately, this all leads to a further problem, whereby the absurdity of some of the sociobiological 'explanations' - and, I would argue, the joy with which mainstream journalists seize on them - opens up a lot of scoffing room and allows evolutionary sceptics to dismiss everything as a "Just So Story", and thus throw all the babies out with the bathwater.

By 'evolutionary sceptic', by the way, I here refer to the kind of scientific illiterate who thinks Intelligent Design is a valid academic subject. I don't know where these people get that notion, but I expect there's a genetic explanation.

The origins of meh

posted by Brit

So the word 'meh' has entered the Collins English Dictionary. Used to express indifference, vague contempt or boredom, the official acceptance of meh is an example of the influence of internet-speak.

As usual, the Americans think they invented it (they think they invented all sorts of things, like baseball and motor cars. Meh!).

However, today I can exclusively reveal the true origins of the word on Thought Experiments. It is a corruption of Auden's magnificently-timed 'Mneh', which features in the sixth stanza of Moon Landing. In context, the meaning is unambiguous.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Heart of Beat

posted by Brit

Bryan has a brainy scientific piece and explains why paranoia sells in today's Sunday Times. Go and read him.

Meanwhile Cosmo Landesman fills in Bryan's usual Culture spot with a lightish piece on the Beats (On the Road is 50 years old). It's not an uninteresting article, but Cosmo doesn't get to the heart of Beat*. The heart of Beat is the combination of a healthy rebellion against the predominant culture, with the extreme egotism and selfishness of the 14-year old who never grows up.

Like most earnest, literate teenage boys I slogged piously through On the Road and, in my earnest innocence, thought it was the bee's knees.

There's nothing wrong with the existence of literature for earnest, literate teenage boys - they need to read stuff too. But later you realise that everything Kerouac said that was worth saying, David Nobbs said far better in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

*Heart of Beat - that's a nice one, isn't it? It was a fluke. And no doubt it's been done before.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Good name for a blog, that

posted by Brit

At school there were a lot of rock bands about the place. They didn't play much actual rock necessarily - often they didn't even own any musical instruments - but every now and again they would get together and change their name.

Often bands would form, split, reform, resplit, reform with a girl singer, sack the girl singer, merge with another band and then split again, all within the space of a fortnight and without having played a single note in anger. During this time they could go through anything from ten to - ooh, I don't know - say, 300 names.

The consequence was that everyone was always looking out for a 'good name for a band'.* Nige is still at it. I'm still at it except these days I keep seeing good names for a blog. I almost want to start blogs just to use names like Jewels and Binoculars or The Borrissey Blog.

Glenties would be a fine name for an argumentative political blog.

Why, just scrolling through the comments of any random post, such as this one, reveals a goldmine of top blog or band names: 3rd-Hand Ford Escort from Elberry, Obsessive-Compulsive Hiking Freak from Ian Russell, and best of all, Mark's The Fruits of Incest.

*Can't remember too many of my contemporaries' band names, except for Cosmic Jug and Plastic Squirrel.

For passer by

posted by Brit

A while back Passer By challenged me to write some verse about our broke bankers. Well, I had a go. Like everything else, it tries, it fails somewhat, you know. I've put it up here - take it or leave it. May it brighten up your Friday. Thankee.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remember Vakulynchuk!

posted by Brit

Another good thing about blogging is that when you get of a bit of l'esprit d'escalier, you can always put it in another post. Weeks after what will be forever remembered in Thought Experiments legend as the October of the Transhumanists, obscure pro-death arguments are still throwing themselves at me. The Wurzels provided one, now Vakulynchuk provides another.

Vakulynchuk, as the well-informed readers of Thought Experiements will not need telling, is the Stalin-tached rabble-rouser in Eisenstein's classic Commie propaganda flick The Battleship Potemkin. I watched it recently when suffering from a brief but debilitating bout of food-poisoning. (When you're ill and there's nothing better to do, The Battleship Potemkin is the kind of worthy film you can force yourself to watch.) It is notable chiefly for two things: the famous Odessa steps sequence and, amusingly, the apparently arbitrary insertion of unnecessary captions, especially at the beginning (my favourite is "Boiling soup" - I defy even the most reverential film buff not to hoot between chin-strokes when that little beauty pops up).

Anyway, Vakulynchuk leads the crew of the Potemkin in their mutiny against the cruel Czarist officers, and is killed along the way. His brave sacrifice inspires the others, ultimately to glorious victory, much in the manner of other revolutionary martyrs such as Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, and Michael Hutchence.

Which leads us to such questions as: in a transhuman world, what do we do for our martyrs? Must all revolutionary heroes be like Castro and grow old enough to witness the full, dismal extent of their failure? Or will death be so unthinkable a price to pay when immortality is on offer that nobody will ever be prepared to lay down their precious life for anything? I don't know. I'm just running it up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes.

Richard, Charles and Andrew

posted by Brit

Good news - Dick Madeley's back in action. Don't forget to pop over and say hello.

Meanwhile BBC 1 showed a lot of the Prince of Wales last night. Like most, I used to pour a fair bit of scorn on Charles and his unstoppable flow of opinions and Trusts, but over the years the scorn has waned and been replaced by a good deal of admiration. A remarkable man in a remarkable situation, who inspired this masterpiece of maudlin melancholia not written, needless to say, by Andrew Motion. Poet Laureate? Pull the other one...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Invasion of the Dark Greenies

posted by Brit

Ruth Tierney reports on the disturbing phenomenon of 'carborexia' or 'Dark Greenie-ism'. Contagious and possibly incurable, the symptoms are disproportionate guilt about the effects of your carbon emissions, a firm belief that you are one of only a handful of guardians of the planet's future, and an uncontrollable desire to keep making other people feel bad until they too catch the disease.

Frighteningly, Dark Greenies appear just like ordinary geography teachers. Until you try to speak to them.

Conundra 2: Quantum of Solace

posted by Brit

Anyone seen the new Bond movie yet? Don't bother, turns out it doesn't exist...

1) Quantum of Solace is a pacy, visually imaginative follow-up to Casino Royale.
2) Quantum of Solace has brought the brand's successful relaunch crashing back to earth - with a yawn.
3) Contradictions cannot exist.

Therefore Quantum of Solace doesn't exist. Oh well, better stay in and watch X Factor instead...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


posted by Brit

Over on McCabism, Gordon casually proves the non-existence of God.

The philosophical conundrums in the comments remind me of my university days. I drove my housemate to the very verge of insanity with the question: "Are there more numbers than odd numbers?"

He refused to accept that the correct answer is "no" (it is correct), and drew diagrams and all sorts. We almost got to fisticuffs over it. Good times, good times.

Critical paralysis

posted by Brit

The second funniest book ever written* is Enderby by Anthony Burgess (well it's four books really but you can buy omnibus editions.) In case you haven't read it, Enderby is a broke and flawed genius of a poet, spending his hours sitting on the lavatory drinking 'stepmother' tea and composing outrageous verse like this:

'Wachet auf!'A fretful dunghill cock
Flinted the noisy beacon through the shires.
A martin's nest clogged the cathedral clock,
But it was morning: birds could not be liars.
A key cleft rusty age in lock and lock,
Men shivered by a hundred kitchen fires.

In the introduction to the Enderby's Dark Lady - the fourth instalment - Burgess recalls how a reviewer of the first novel complained that: "It would be helpful if Mr Burgess could indicate somewhere whether these poems are meant to be good or bad". Burgess calls this unusual situation "a fine instance of critical paralysis."

Critics, eh. We need them, art needs them, but there is nothing funnier than seeing them come unstuck. It must be a fraught business, being a high-profile professional critic. It's so easy to say what you think you ought to say, not what you really think. And if you do too much of that, the game is up.

*The funniest book ever written is, of course, Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Brit's patented University Challenge Drinking Game

posted by Brit

Good news everyone, University Challenge is back on BBC 2 tonight! (For the benefit of non-Britons, University Challenge is a long-running quiz show for horribly bright boffins).

The problem with University Challenge is that the questions are too difficult and the contestants answer them too quickly. This leads to a great deal of the I Knew That One Syndrome for the viewer (that's where you feel you 'know' the answer but you just can't retrieve it quickly enough from whichever remote cupboard of your brain it has been gathering dust to shout out before the spotty brat hits his buzzer), which is very frustrating.

However, help is at hand, for I have devised a brilliant University Challenge game for you to play at home, which will enormously enhance your enjoyment of the programme. You simply sit and watch the show as normal, shouting out whatever answers you see fit, and then you award yourself points as follows:

Rule 1: If you correctly answer a starter for 10 before or simultaneously with the buzzing contestant - 10 points

Rule 2: If you correctly answer a follow-up question before or simultaneously with the team captain - 5 points

Straightforward enough, yes. But here's where it gets interesting...

Rule 3: The Clever Clogs Rule.
If you correctly answer a starter or follow-up question and the contestant gets it wrong, you get double points - because this shows just how brilliant you really are.

Rule 4: The Decent Guess Law.
If you incorrectly answer a question but it is the same incorrect answer given by the contestant, you get 2 points - because at least you were in the ballpark.

Rule 5: The Eavesdropper's Gambit.
If you overhear the right answer during the murmurings as the team confers over a follow-up question, and yell it out before the captain finally decides, you merit 2 points.

Rule 6: The 'I Really Did Know That One' Concession.
If you honestly, really did know the answer but it never got past the tip of your tongue in time, you can have 1 point, why not. (Nb. this rule requires honesty and self-discipline.)

And finally, here's where the drinking comes in...

Rule 7: The Venezuela Variant.

If the answer is 'photosynthesis' (always a good guess for biology ones), 'Napoleon' (most history questions), 'red shift' (astronomy) or Venezuela, then you have to down a bottle of gin.

Good luck people, let me know how you get on...

The X Factor and heroes

posted by Brit, in Bryan's continued absence

Readers of Thought Experiments spend their Saturday evenings either (a) contemplating profound philosophical conundrums and turning them into esoteric poetry, or (b) in America, so you will never have heard of The X Factor.

I will therefore explain that it is a populist television programme which consumes approximately 93% of ITV's weekend schedule, and which has two aims. The first and by far the least of these aims is to find, by way of gradual, painstaking whittling, a member of the public to sing a Christmas Number One (the previous two winners have been called Leona and Leon, so by my process of logical deduction the prize will this year be won by someone called Leo. Get down the bookies now and put your mortgage on it). The second and more important of The X Factor's raisons d'etre is for a smart alec bully called Simon Cowell to humiliate a bumbling Irish porker called Louis Walsh.

But anyway, I do not intend to sneer at The X Factor any further because I come to praise it. A few months ago I visited SeaWorld in Florida, and among the many surprising and delightful things I encountered there was a reaffirmation of the US's attitude to its military servicemen. Soldiers and their families are given free entry, special reserved seats and discounts galore everywhere they go. At the beginning of the killer whale show, members of US and UK forces in the audience - "heroes" - are asked to stand. Their close-ups are projected onto the big screen and are met by a huge wall of applause - unaffected, genuine, apolitical, non-cynical.

As an Englishman witnessing this, I felt many things, and not least, shame at the way we treat our own active servicemen. In terms of the media, the BBC is the worst. Oh so good at covering the pomp and solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, where the soldiers of the Somme are sufficiently abstracted and poeticised to celebrate, the Guardianista Tristrams of BBC News have completely bought the Michael Moore line when it comes to the men and women in Iraq or Afghanistan. The notion that soldiers can be "heroes" is banished. Instead they must fall into one of only two categories: human rights abusers and prisoner torturers; or hapless idiot victims of our wicked foreign policy, uneducated and suckered into signing up.

The one comfort is that this attitude has never reflected the attitude of the general public, and it has taken The X Factor to prove it. The show's charity single is in aid of wounded servicemens' organisation Help for Heroes, it is called Hero, and it has smashed sales records for the year. Say what you like about Simon Cowell, but don't knock him for populism - the alternative is often far worse.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Everyone sang

posted by Brit

Something for Remembrance Sunday, now. Poetry can do a lot of things, and this does a lot of them.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Astral Weeks

posted by Brit

When Joseph Heller was accused of never having written anything else as good as Catch-22, his response was simply to shrug and say, "Who has?"

Van Morrison could probably use the Heller defence for Astral Weeks. The old grump is performing what we are obliged to call his 'seminal' 1968 album in its entirety live at the Hollywood Bowl. Mind you, if anything is seminal, Astral Weeks is, being an extraordinary piece of music in a rambling, shambling, jazzy, folky style that Van has never recreated in the 40 years since (40 years, can that be right? blimey), despite releasing approximately fifteen thousand albums in that time. To be fair, he hasn't tried much (the closest one is probably Veedon Fleece).

With only six shopping days now left until Christmas, if by some chance you don't already own it, you should stick Astral Weeks on your Wishlist - along, of course, with this book.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Gwyneth recommends art, Oliver, seasons

posted by Brit on behalf of Bryan

Bryan, buried in his bunker beneath a mountain of work, is deaf to all but the most urgent of interruptions. The long-anticipated new missive from Gwyneth is of course top of the list, and he has urged me in no uncertain terms to pass it on to you.

Here are some suggestions for several interesting exhibitions to go see, possibly in a city near you. Some of them I have been to and loved. And some of them came from friends who I trust in all matters of culture.

I've also included some of my favorite websites that everyone can take a look at no matter where they live. The only one that is not free is
Zagat, which I have an obsession with. I literally do not go out to eat until I reference it (it’s a thing I may need to get over). I love Epicurious andChow for other foodie-related things. For off-the-beaten-track home and kitchen things, I like the Handpicked Collection and CB2, as well asWilliams-Sonoma and Divertimenti. Sometimes I window shop on Net-a-Porter or Matches when my kids are asleep.

I am also loving Jamie Oliver’s new show on Channel 4 in the U.K.,
Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food. You can watch the full episodes on the website.

The absolute best thing to see at the moment is the changing leaves. I’ve just come back from a week in New York where the trees looked ablaze. If you live in a place where the seasons change, enjoy this time of year!

If I were to make one criticism, it would be that perhaps Gwyneth struggles to bridge the gap between the personal nature of recommendations ("Here are some suggestions for several interesting exhibitions to go see") and the more general, anonymous nature of mass email newsletters ("possibly in a city near you").

But I quibble over trifles. She's shooting for the moon...

Obama 3: The flippening

posted by Brit

Real belly-laughs to be had here, as Republican bloggers, their brains quite scrambled by disappointment, find some footage in which they allege Obama flips McCain the bird during a speech.

To what ultimate end or purpose Obama might choose to embellish what are supposed to be epic, history-making addresses with such childish gestures, the bloggers do not tell. The po-faced comments are a joy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thursday Debate: The Dying Art of Lunchtime Drinking

posted by Brit

All this talk of cider puts me in mind of a chap I used to work with (small publishing company, he was Editor, I his Assistant). Every lunchtime he would slope down to The Oak and indulge in an hour of eloquent complaining about his employer, and while doing this he would sink three pints of thick, gut-rotting scrumpy.

Remarkably, this heroic routine didn't seem to affect his afternoon work one iota (but then he did have a background in the newspaper business). Personally, my constitution won't hold with liquid lunches. If daytime drinking is required, the only hope is to carry straight through until you reach that odd 'sobering up' point about 6pm, otherwise even a quick/swift/cheeky half is enough to send me into a fitful, nightmarish desksleep come mid-afternoon.

So, daytime drinking, people: yea or nay? And if yea, how much?

Obama 2: World's smallest bounce

posted by Brit

From today's Guardian comes this magnificent line: Shares slumped in London this morning, tracking Asia and Wall Street lower, as the "Barack bounce" proved short-lived...

Meanwhile in The Times, Anatole Kaletsy argues that America is no longer conservative (blah de blah) and the Fink gives us four reasons why America has changed. My view is, well yeeeees, but why must we always rush to define and redefine America? First, 46% voted for McCain despite the economy and Palin and Iraq and the rest of it, and second, don't forget the rule that whatever you try to say about America, the opposite is also true.

As ever, The Onion provides the best analysis (beware the last line if you're at work and loud guffawing is a problem).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Professional Wurzel

posted by Brit

Enough of America for now (but plenty later, I expect).

Darkness has fallen on Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night/Fireworks Day (so odd they named it thrice) and already the neighbourhood is lit up and banging away like a bad dream of Baghdad (how the hell do they afford it? Fireworks are £20 a pop aren't they? Talk about bang for your buck...)

Nige reckons the Britons don't do Guy Fawkes these days, but obviously that news hasn't reached Bristol yet. Mind you, we are a bit behind here in the West Country, can't keep up with those fancy modern London-types with their baguettes and fax machines and EU-lites and new-fangled ways. We're basically hicks here: Bristolians (didn't) vote for McCain.

When I tell people I live in Bristol, they naturally assume I spend my days drinking cider and listening to The Wurzels. This is only half true: I can't abide cider. I do however seem to cross paths with The Wurzels quite frequently, and not often deliberately. Yes, they're still going; the Wurzel juggernaut keeps chugging along, trailer-load of silage in tow, with a Butlins show here and an ironic youth festival gig there. They've only got three memorable songs, and here's the kicker: they play I've got a Brand New Combine Harvester twice. Twice! Once near the beginning and again for an encore.

Think about that for a moment, and consider just how many times they must have played the bloody song since they released it in 1976. Which brings me at last to the point of this post... I'm often troubled by performers who have to do the same thing over and over again. How can they bear to do it? How can Mick Jagger possibly face the prospect of singing Satisfaction for the zillionth time? Apparently the worst one is playing in the orchestra in a long-running West End musical - there's a real problem with flautists falling asleep in matinees mid-tune. Even guided tours bother me because I worry that the poor sod has had to crack the same mild joke ten times today already and he's not even got to his elevenses. Yes, I know most jobs are repetitive and mundane but somehow public performance ones are much more depressing in this respect.

The only thing that can keep them going, of course, is professionalism. It's a sad, sad thing. You can see it in the singer's eyes as he counts in Combine Harvester yet again... this is your life son, you're a Professional Wurzel. This is all you can do, and so you must keep doing it again and again until, at last, the blessed relief of death and the peace of the grave.

Good grief, these arguments against immortality pop up in the strangest places, don't they?

American consolation

posted by Brit in Bryan's absence

Face it, Barack Obama was the only real option. Most of my American blogging friends are bone-deep Republicans, so they'll be hurting this morning and I understand that, but really, there's no need to fear much and there's an awful lot of consolation to be taken.

Of course Obama will not be some crazed socialist, he's a politician of the Quantum Flux. And it doesn't hurt that he delivers a mean speech. Internationally, you may even find there are benefits to having the leader everybody else wanted and who gives diplomacy a try (the previous regime may have been more right than wrong with the 'Old Europe' jibes, but does saying it out loud really get you anywhere?). There will be a resurgence of international goodwill towards America because of this result - that may be unfair on McCain, but what can you do?

Obama is a hope candidate, and like all hope candidates (Blair being our most recent), he is doomed from the start by absurd expectations and by his own limitations. But this result is about America, which continues to be the most amazing country on the planet. Never again will anybody be able to say that you only elect middle-aged white guys - some of you may groan at that, but it isn't a small thing. In fact, it's a Big, History-Shaped Thing that "anybody can be President" is no longer just a nice theory.

Any nation that can go from George W Bush's second victory to Barack Obama's first within four years is pretty special. You're still Top Dog.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I'm (not) voting for Obama

posted by Brit

Good voters of the United Kingdom, today is an historic day for British democracy. For today we (don't) exercise our cherished right to vote for the President of the United States (because we don't have one, not being eligible).

It has been a long, hard-fought campaign between worthy adversaries, starting, as it did, some time around the end of the Peloponnesian War. The coverage has been relentless and exhausting. Our sympathies have been pulled one way and then the other. We have been awe-struck by the prospect of (not) electing our (or rather, their) first black President. We have been thrilled and then appalled by Sarah Palin. We have still not learned anything about Joe Biden and we still struggle to remember that that is his name.

But today, the (lack of) choice (because we don't have a vote) before us is clear:

(Don't) vote for Obama to give the world a much needed boost of optimism, to restore hope to a battered, crunched, overcooked planet, and to take the first step towards healing America's global reputation; or

(Don't) vote for McCain for more doom, gloom and gaffes, fear and loathing, derision and darkness, for the Black Gates to open and all the beasts of Mordor to pour forth and lay waste to the Earth.

My friends, dig deep and search your hearts. Then (don't) get down to that polling station (because there aren't any in Britain) and (don't) make (the slightest bit of) a difference. I know you will (not) do the right thing. I believe in you.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Rowan Atkinson and Word Verification

Having just found wifi in this forgotten place, I find my site has been hit by tsunami of spam so word verification is now on, I'm afraid. Meanwhile I can draw your attention, rather late in the day, to my excellent Rowan Atkinson interview in The Sunday Times.

Deeper into the Quantum Flux

posted by Brit, in Bryan's continued absence

Bryan has insightfully pointed out that the old terms 'left-wing' and 'right-wing' are now virtually meaningless, as politics enters an era of Quantum Flux. This is not the same as the End of History, a fantasy which Bryan has also successfully skewered on the grounds that "dominant orthodoxies always think they are the last word and they are always wrong and because history is not a linear narrative but a succession of tragic contingencies."

But enough of Bryan. My personal opinion is that it has been pretty ridiculous to claim to be in a right-wing or left-wing category for a while now, and that by doing so you expose a lack of thought.

Consider, for example, these five political see-saws* within a western liberal democracy: (a) wealth redistribution; (b) public/private ownership of services; (c) financial market regulation; (d) attitude to entrepreneurship; (e) individual liberty versus national security. One may balance to any degree on the left or right sides of each see-saw independently, without ideological inconsistency. If you are wholly on the right or left of all five then that's fine (if unlikely), but it should be because you've thought about each, not because you support Left or Right as you would a football team and you wear a Left or Right badge.

On last week's Start the Week, the philosopher Raymond Geuss made a wise point. He said that when it comes to formulating political beliefs, the wrong approach is to start with your favourite quality (freedom, equality, justice etc), and then try to imagine what a society would look like if it were arranged to maximise that quality. Instead, you should examine the political and cultural institutions you have already have and work from there.

The failure to do this leads to incoherence and fantasy, which is why pure libertarians are as absurd as hardline Marxists. Say what you like about them, but Blair and Mandelson and Cameron (and probably both Obama and McCain) are all politicians of the Quantum Flux - they understand it, whereas, say, Tony Benn does not and is now a quaint anachronism. The credit crunch fallout, with banks being bought up all over the shop, has only confirmed it. China, with its bizarre mix of communist repression and rampant free-marketeering, is the starkest global expression. We are heading deeper into the Flux, and the only thing we can know for sure is that it won't last forever, because nothing ever does.

*(US translation: teeter-totters, but only for left wing loonies - thanks David)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sport and money

posted by Brit in Bryan's absence

So the Stanford debacle comes to a fitting end - a rotten, error-strewn match and a humiliating thrashing for England. With the shadow hanging over them, cricketers are nervous wrecks at the best of times, so it's no wonder they crumbled when a rare and incongruous chance of lifetime financial security was cruelly dangled in front of them.

I'm patriotic enough, but never have I cared less about an England defeat. This, I'm sure, reflects the general mood of the nation's cricket fans. We support sportsmen when we think they're doing it for the love of the game or because they are in some way representing 'us'. This is why the Ryder Cup is the best thing about golf, and the Olympics are the international pinnacle of sport. Whether the players get rich in the process is of no real consequence. I don't begrudge sportsmen their dough, note - this isn't the usual tired complaint about overpaid prima donnas - it simply isn't a factor.

Stanford bought the English cricket team for a week and thought he could also buy a shortcut through the myriad complexities of nationalism, patriotism, history, culture and all the other important things about sport, good and bad, straight to glory. In doing so he has shown that he understands nothing about sport - if he did, he'd have known that by buying it he'd turn it into something else. I'm not sure what the Stanford game was, but it wasn't sport.

Read Bryan

posted by Brit

When, with well-rehearsed nonchalance, I boasted to my friends that I would be manning Bryan Appleyard's blog for a bit, their faces lit up with a mixture of wonder, admiration and envy. This waned somewhat when it became clear that I wasn't talking about the British Buddhist Society bloke, but they perked up again when I explained that Bryan writes most of The Sunday Times. They'd heard of that.

Anyway, Bryan's at it again, this time conducting a rare interview with Rowan Atkinson.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Death and cricket

posted by Brit in Bryan's absence

With the BBC reporting solely on itself these days, we must look elsewhere for our news. A few minutes of browsing and I find the biggie: Gloucestershire CCC are installing a new drainage and irrigation system to the outfield at Bristol. Check out the full, mind-blowing details here.

Meanwhile, staying with cricket, the tawdry Stanford debacle will finally draw to an end tonight with the stupid $20 million game. Kevin Pietersen will be relieved it's all over (interesting man, Pietersen. Despite often looking like a prat and being the first cricketer with a clearly identifiable WAG, his work ethic and captaincy capabilities are undeniable).

Cricket, for the benefit of Americans and/or ignoramuses, is the best game in the world because batting is the closest sporting metaphor for the human condition, where the shadow of death, or being out, looms large over every player. Cricketers understand about death. Perhaps there would be fewer transhumans (or 'trannies' as they prefer not to be called) about if the US took up the game. Funnily enough, promoting cricket to the Yanks is one of Stanford's key pointless goals, so maybe we should cut him some slack, the big, crass, egotistical jerk.