Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stonehenge Indifference

While in America I was lost for words when one young reporter told me she wanted to come to England to visit Stonehenge. I have never visited Stonehenge though I have occasionally noticed it while driving on the A303. It inspired in me feelings of - well, nothing really. Now, it seems, it was used as a burial ground for much longer than we thought. Right. I'll remember that the next time I'm passing. Meanwhile, somebody has stabilised the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This story prompted in me the realisation that the one monument in the world that fires my indifference more than Stonehenge is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If it were upright, it looks as though it might be quite nice, but leaning it's just an oddity. Stonehenge is another oddity, a folly in a barren field. I would be quite unamazed to discover it was a fake put up by Lord Byron and friends on a whim. I think I persuaded the reporter that Lincoln was a better bet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Happy Feet: The Cowboy Boot

You may be wondering why, while discussing form and function in relation to Chartres, I failed to mention cowboy boots. While in Joshua Tree on the holiday phase of my Grand American Tour, I came across a hippie shop selling second hand cowboy boots. Customers were evidently rare - they were delighted to see me - and customers who found a pair of boots that fitted were even rarer - 'Wow! That never happens!' And so, for $48, I bought a pair of dead man's boots; I would guess they cost around $500 new. I had previously wondered, while watching No Country for Old Men, how actual people rushed about the desert in these boots. I now discovered why - they are uncannily comfortable and amazingly cool (in both senses). Fired up by this, when I got to a cowboyish city I bought a new pair - even more comfortable - and then ordered a custom made pair - that's me being fitted - which will arrive at the end of August. I now intend, if possible, never to wear anything else on my precious feet. One London friend was shocked - 'but they have those bits that rise up your legs.' Well, I suppose they might get me ejected from certain gentleman's clubs in St James, but I have always maintained that no gentleman belongs to a gentleman's club. A New York gay friend told me they were 'gay', but I've given up trying to decipher what that means or why it should be a problem. The form-function point is that the appearance of cowboy boots is capriciously decorative and even the shape of the foot piece looks wrong. But, when worn, they make perfect sense. A rigorously formal approach to footwear design would never have come up with this. If you're wearing anything else - well, don't.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Don't Fight, Ted

Sen. Ted Kennedy is always said to be 'fighting' his cancer. In the New York Times, for example, Bob Herbert implores him to 'hang in there' and uses the words 'fought' and 'struggled' about his own father's response to cancer. The idea of fighting cancer - or any other disease - is now a standard media trope; it is even used about newly born babies. It is a word that fills a rhetorical gap. Reporting simply that somebody 'has' or 'is suffering from' cancer would seem to fall short of what the news requires. Worse, I imagine, would be 'has calmly accepted his fate' or 'placed himself in the hands of his doctors'. Worst of all would be 'is raging bitterly against his disease'. Personally, I have never seen anybody in any meaningful sense 'fight' a serious disease. I have seen people behave with greater or lesser equanimity, but never fight. How, after all, would one do it? Possibly the idea of fighting a disease is sustained by the evidence - ambiguous but persuasive - that one's state of mind can occasionally affect the course of a disease or it is simply a product of the fact that, nowadays, one can, indeed, spend one's last months in a desperate rush through the supermarket of possible cures. Either way, people have arrived at the notion that one can deploy mental strength as a weapon and that this is a virtuous thing to do. This supersedes a previous virtue - that of dignity and serenity in the face of death. Mental strength is, in this case, not a weapon but a consolation. A moment's thought will reveal the superior response. It is better to die consoled than defeated.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Psychotropic Peach

America is Carbohydrate Central. Every meal comes loaded with bread, fries, chips, pasta and more bread. On landing after the seven-week jaunt, therefore, I felt bloated and decided to go on a personalised version of the Atkins Diet - basically no carbs whatsoever. ((Curiously I discovered yesterday that Michael Portillo has been on a personalised Atkins, but this was in the Observer so the feature failed to give me the one necessary fact - how much weight he'd lost.) You may discover the very intellectually respectable reason for my sudden low-carb enthusiasm in The Sunday Times Magazine this week.)) For the next three days I felt increasingly dreadful, a condition I assumed was due to jet lag and re-entry issues. This morning I woke up feeling as though I had flu and, stricken with depression, I was convinced that the world thing was not worth the effort, which was a problem as I had to go out and work. I stared in revulsion at the mounds of protein in the fridge. Finally, I cheated and ate a peach - verboten at this stage of the diet. The effect was almost instanteous. I was suddenly alert, alive, happy and bustling about full of ideas. I subsequently discovered this effect may have something to do with insulin, tryptophan and  serotonin. The change in my mental and physical condition was staggering. This was welcome of course, but also vaguely troubling. I was a different person post-peach; a few molecules of fructose had changed my personality. Like all right thinking people, I despise the sneery, triumphalist drive of the scientists to prove we are 'only' brain chemistry, but sometimes one can't help feeling they may have a point. Or perhaps God is in peaches and absent from protein.

Don't Forget...

... read Nigeness, more fun than you'll have here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Unknowable Future

There has been a curious discussion over at Iain Dale about economic forecasting. Iain had observes the wild inaccuracy of the government's published oil price predictions and comments, 'You'd think this document needs radical updating.' Assuming he means updating to take into account the present price of oil, this is a profoundly irrational remark. The inaccuracy of the predictions is conceptual; it does not arise not from a lack of information. Predicting the oil price is impossible and always has been. Nick Drew, in the comments, points out that Galbraith, Keynes and Drucker have all made this point about economic forecasting in general. It doesn't work and never has. But people still blithely assume we just need more information. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to show that more information leads either to worse forecasts or to increased confidence in forecasts, which is even worse. The really interesting question here is: why do we continue to produce such forecasts - and pay people large sums of money to make them - when they are always wrong, or at least wrong enough of the time to make them useless? Government will say forecasts are needed for planning. Again, profoundly irrational - what use are plans based on inaccurate forecasts? The contemporary imagination seems to have problems accepting the unknowable future. Forecasts are comfort blankets; they don't actually protect you from monsters.


Phew, good to see Bryan's back to blogging so soon. ..
For myself, having started blogging reluctantly (and still not exactly at home with the technology), I find I now enjoy it, and in a sense need it, so much that I think it's high time I had my own blog, where I can chunter on to my heart's content (while Bryan, I suspect, steers Thought Experiments into deeper, more serious waters, with fewer posts). Rather to my surprise, I have managed to set one up (and, this being Eurovision time, have already posted). Here, for any who might be interested, is the link to Nigeness, the blog that's all about - well, by now you surely know the sort of things it's going to be about. Though who knows where else it might lead...

Chartres: Maybe Back to Blogging

I just read - for pleasure, not work - Philip Ball's Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind. It's a good book and a very good read, though it is a summary of scholarship rather and an original argument and slightly lacking in aesthetic intensity. The reason there is so much scholarship about Chartres is because of its beauty - Is it the greatest building in the world? And, if not, what is? -  not because of its social and theological context or structural integrity. (This beauty is, for me, combined with panic as I have a phobia for large, dark, interior spaces and the last time I went to Chartres I was only just able to go inside.) Any book about Chartres, therefore, should begin with and give precedence to the irreducible fact of its beauty. Coming to terms with beauty has always been a problem for writers about architecture. Ball, in preferring earlier, starker Gothic to the later more decorative variety, teeters on the brink of the fallacy that has dogged architectural criticism of the last hundred years - the idea there is some necessary and rational connection between clearly expressed function and beauty. This is absurd as it would justify those big warehouses or stores around the M25 as high art. They are full of expressed function - you can see every i-beam and truss - as buildings and as economic propositions. Even the great modernist writer Nikolaus Pevsner casually tossed aside his own faith in function when he distinguished between architecture and a bicycle shed - if there is such a distinction, then the whole 'form follows function' ideology would seem to be in ruins. The truth is there is little conceptual difference between the most rigorous and refined modernism and the most fanciful baroque; both go to extraordinary lengths to aestheticise the simple task of enclosing space. Beauty as necessarily function is even more absurd when considering Chartres because religion is the function and that, obviously, resists all contemporary, secular critical categories. A preference for bare 'functional' architecture is not an indicator of ideological purity, but of taste. Ball quotes Jacques Heyman - 'A structural engineer, looking at a Gothic cathedral, will see, not a massive array of nave piers, but the skeletal structure formed by the centre-lines of those piers; not a thick vault, but a thin doubly-curved sheet spanning between the mathematical centre-lines of the ribs.'  This isn't as impressive as it sounds because that is what a structural engineer would see in any building that had not actually fallen down and, if that's all he's seeing, he should perhaps get another job, or life. But this is a very good book and useful book. I simply wanted to use it to make the point that the desire for critical purity is the aesthetic correlative of the desire for scientific completion. Both are utopian fantasies of a terminal neatness. Chartres is untouched. 

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Not Back to Blogging

A few interjections aside, I have been away from this blog for seven weeks in America. I could have blogged but I didn't and, now back in London, I am finding it almost impossible to blog on. This appears to be because I don't know what to blog about, and, more to the point, I don't know what I was blogging about. Well, obviously, I was just posting chance thoughts and observations. There is a sentimental and romantic view that such improvisations are, somehow, more true to oneself than more considered creations. But, in truth, in blogging, as in painting or poetry, improvisation is seldom what it seems. It is more a product of the environment than the self (I know that thought needs unpacking, but I think I can leave that to you). In blogging the environment is a combination of the information to be derived from stats and from commenters. I could, over time, tell myself I was getting better at blogging, but, in fact, I was simply adapting to this environment, usually unconsciously. 'Better at blogging' meant, therefore, creating a self to meet the selves that I met online. Looking back beyond the US hiatus, this blog self looks entirely alien. (This could be because of the intense seriousness and, yes, genius of some of the people I encountered in the States and, indeed, British life, especially political life, looks extremely grey and shrunken to me now. There's something wrong with us, but I am not in a mood to blog about that.) Worse, that blog self looks rather unpleasant if not completely stupid. I am, therefore, uncertain how to proceed, though I do know that I don't want to be unpleasant and stupid. And that, for the moment, is all I have to say about that.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Prezza Shocker

Startling news reaches me that John Prescott is to appear, in a cameo role as 'an understanding policeman', in a forthcoming Radio 4 production of that fine socialist doorstop The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. That's if he's not incapacitated by a recurrence of his famous bulimia...


It's slightly unnerving when something like this happens (see my post Progress Prevails? below). And no I hadn't seen an early copy of The Spectator...

The Smiling Weeble

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, boys, smile. While you've a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that's the style...
The worse it gets for Labour, the more they smile, taking their cue from the Great Helmsman himself, who is permanently wreathed in what he takes to be smiles these days. On Question Time last night (of which, as usual, I could only endure fragments), Labour had wheeled out their house Weeble, the beyond ghastly Hazel Blears, whose response to every question, answer, interjection or indeed anything, was to broaden her simpering smile until it threatened to crack her face clean in two. An extraordinary performance, but no more so than Gordon on a smile offensive (the operative word). It won't wash, of course. All the smiles do is to demonstrate in yet another form precisely what is wrong with this lot and why, finally, the nation wants shot of them: they are fatally, smugly and hopelessly disconnected from reality, and there isn't an idea left in their pretty smiling heads (as Hariet Harman demonstrated beyond peradventure in a desperate performance on Today this morning). But enough - no more politics today. .

Thursday, May 22, 2008

100 Books to Read After You Die

We live in a listomaniacal age (a sign, no doubt, of an exhausted culture), but really this one takes the biscuit. Coming across it, I was particularly struck by the 'Pre-1700' section - clearly classics are no longer required and the great Greeks and Romans laboured in vain. Required reading now is stuff like Chaireas and Kallihroe by Chariton (which I confess I'd never even heard of). To me this list looks more like 900-plus books not to waste your time with. Which brings me to my proposed list - 100 Books To Read After You Die. This is for all those 'critically acclaimed' or highly (and apparently reliably) recommended books you read and afterwards regretted wasting so much of your life on - books, in other words, that can safely be put off till after death, when there will, one trusts, be no reading (though a traditionally conceived Hell might involve forced reading of Tolkien...). So - books that might well be very good, even 'great', but really don't need to be read, at least not in full - or, indeed, books which are just wildly overrated. Keep your life for the books that really are worth the effort, save the rest till you're dead.
My proposal to kick things off - with a dozen and more titles at one stroke - A Dance To The Music Of Time...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Brace Yourselves...

Bad news from the Eurovision front. I was looking forward to seeing Dustin in the final. Have these Eurovision people no sense of humour? Well er no. Obviously.

Progress Prevails?

I've no wish to prejudice the mental wellbeing and equanimity of the blogging community, so be warned if you plan to actually read this to the end. What struck me was the headline itself. In what sense has 'progress prevailed'? The outcome on the abortion limit was to maintain the status quo, and the only thing that changed was the business about the need for a father. Progress, then, towards what? This is the question all forms of progressivism have to face. Here, progress would presumably be towards an ever later abortion time limit - 28 wks next, then 32, then 36... And towards the total redundancy of the male, in some happy Guardianista future where sisters are doing it for themselves. The Guardian-reading classes might well be happy with the outcome of yesterday's debates, but 'progress' really doesn't come into it. Does it really come into anything? Towards what are we progressing, and why is it a good thing?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Asylum or Sanctuary?

Here's a misguided attempt at rebranding, based on the quasi-magical notion that changing the name will change the thing itself. As the man says, 'There is a disconnection in the public mind between sanctuary and perception of asylum seekers.' Quite so, and there will be even more of a disconnection when you start calling them 'sanctuary seekers'. Asylum is indeed the wrong word, because it no longer reflects the reality of mass migration from the earth's many and various hellholes in search of a better life. There is, in effect, little or no distinction to be usefully made between economic migrants and 'asylum seekers' - a term we rarely heard until tighter immigration laws closed other routes in and cheap jet travel and the growth of people trafficking brought in new realities. 'Asylum' is a word - and a concept - more suited to the 19th century, and sooner or later developed nations will, I fear, have to opt out it altogether.

Quote Competition - No Prizes

I just came across this quote:
'My girlfriend always laughs during sex - no matter what she's reading.'
Any guesses who said that? No cheating, it takes all the fun out of it...

The Guilty Petal

It's hard to be surprised any more by asinine legal rulings, but surely this one must take some kind of biscuit. Apart from anything else, how on earth was it established that it was a petal - and a petal from that particular source - that brought this generously built innocent crashing down? Still, there it is - and we can now expect every florist in the land to be surrounded with protective fencing and hazard signs. As for fishmongers, it's only a matter of time... And will greengrocers dare to sell bananas? And so it goes on, the madness...


Yesterday, hybrid embryos; today, as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill makes its way through the parliamentary mill, the abortion time limit comes up for debate. Both sides are playing 'viability' as their trump card - on the one side, because of an undoubted historic reduction in the age of foetal viablity, on the other side because of a recent research report finding that overall the viability age, in the context of preterm babies, has not come down in the most recent years. This latter has been seized on with particular relish by the no-changers, even though, in every interview he's given, the Professor who led the study has tried to point out that, in terms of the current debate, it's more or less irrelevant, since it only considers babies born early because there's something wrong, and who therefore are much less likely to survive. Anyway, is viability the clincher? I don't think so. Perhaps it's time to wheel out this thought experiment again.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ethical Voyeurism and Selective Squeamishness

Watching the news last night, the inevitable harrowing scenes from the Irrawaddy Delta and Sechuan were abundantly on display. In China, we watched a dying man making a last phone call to his wife as he lay crushed under a huge block of concrete. In Burma, we saw a grief-stricken family watching as their patriarch died. What purpose does such footage serve? There is nothing we might be spurred to do about either situation which would be of any use - the earthquake response has been, apparently, efficient and concerted and there is little chance of anyone more being found alive, while in Burma the military junta (despite 'Lord' Malloch Brown's optimistic snap judgment) continues to prevent serious aid getting to where it's needed.
Is this intrusive footage anything more than a kind of 'humane', ethical voyeurism? The news crews' intrusiveness into private grief is apparently deemed quite permissible with people in faraway places who are 'not like us' - such footage of a homegrown disaster would not be shown. We are notably queasy - in a supposedly taboo-busting age - about showing death at all: witness the fuss over the Paul Watson documentary (which turned out to be fudged anyway).
And this squeamishness can have serious effects, as in the case of late abortions. Television is happy to show the most graphically grisly surgical operations, but there is a de facto blanket ban on late abortion footage, which therefore remains the preserve of the 'pro-life' organisations, who have, of course, plenty of it. The result is that the debate on late abortions takes place in a climate of ignorance - most of those taking part have never seen (and probably have no clear idea of) the 'procedure' they are discussing. Those who do know the reality are, it seems, refusing to carry on - i.e. the three-quarters of NHS doctors who won't perform late abortions. Brown has come out clearly against cutting the time limit on abortions - and, with a touching faith in the the words of interested scientists, has presented a vote to permit embryonic stem cell research and hybridisation as, quite simply, a vote for curing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cancer. This looks to me like a fine combination of ignorance and mendacious manipulation.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Over There

A funny, disenchanted piece on Obama here. For myself, I've come to the conclusion that the Dems have self-destructed yet again, and that whichever candidate emerges from this mess, they're not going to beat McCain. I never thought Hill could win against him, and now Barack looks like a fatally contaminated brand. Sad.

You'll Never Guess Who I Had In The Front Of The Cab...

So I hailed this passing taxi cab, and who should be behind the wheel but Boris Johnson! Good Lord, I said, you must be a busy man. Oh it's not so bad really, he said - I was sitting in the garden with the children this afternoon. And so the conversation rattled on, agreeably enough. Nice chap, quite self-effacing. Oh did I mention this was a dream?
Anyway, Boris's name came up on the radio this morning in this rather good talk by Lucy Kellaway. For myself, I find the boasting culture utterly repugnant and could no more 'big myself up' than fly to the moon (or indeed New Zealand - it's just too bloody far). This reflex self-deprecation cum self-effacement has no doubt held me back in my various occupations, but that's fine by me. The boasting culture seems to me not only repellent but pointless, as so much of the bragging self-promotion is based on lies or nothing, or a toxic combination of the two. This is why The Apprentice is so addictive - that it is constantly exposing these young thrusters as so many bladders of wind with no talent for anything except self-promotion. In the 'real world', they'll be doing fine, but in the far more real world of The Apprentice they collapse into the pathetic wannabes they really are. The Apprentice is like the best comedy in its tonic work of deflation and exposure. A much-needed corrective too, in our age of windy braggadocio.
(Apologies for my brief absence, by the way - too much activity at NigeCorp and Nige Towers. And now they've gone and 'updated' the technology here at NC, so heaven knows if this will actually 'publish'...)

Shirley Hazzard

I was in Boston to meet Nicholson Baker and then I was in New York to meet Shirley Hazzard - see The Sunday Times today. It has now twice been suggested to me that I am in rehab because of the desert missives. This is not so - unless you count getting out of London to be rehab, which I do - I had two weeks work and then two weeks holiday - Joshua Tree, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs - and then another three weeks work, the locations involved I cannot yet divulge. I am a drifter, hopping freight trains and breaking hearts. But also compiling some formidable expenses.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

In America

I was parked in a strip mall in Palm Desert outside some sort of emergency medical centre. It was about 100 degrees. Behind me, amidst the usual American and Japanese ordinarymobiles, was an irridescent green Lamborghini Murcielago. It looked like an alien spacecraft, sitting there unnoticed by everybody except me and a soldier who walked around, whistling in envy and amazement. He caught me watching him and shrugged as if to express fellowship with another regular guy who could never afford such a car. I shrugged back to accept the offer. A while later I heard a terrible noise. It was a tearing, terminal coughing combined with desperate attempts to breathe. I could not see where it was coming from until, at last, I saw a paunchy, fortyish Asian man coming down the steps from the medical centre. He was just recovering from the spasm and noticed me staring at him. 'I'm dying,' he said and shrugged like the soldier, but this time as explanation and apology. His manner was so matter-of-fact and the coughing had been so appalling that I knew it was true. He walked out into the lot and climbed awkwardly into the Lamborghini. The car seemed to be justified. It was a last present to himself.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On the Road

Hello, it's me, still wandering aimlessly about America. Barack Obama has a black father and a white mother. But they keep saying he's black, why isn't he white? Perhaps my American readers can help. 

'The Womens Is Deficient'

This is good news, expect for its cost to the public purse, i.e. us. But it remains deeply worrying that the police have bought into a mindset that puts 'community cohesion' and 'feelings of public reassurance' before prosecuting those whose openly expressed idea of community cohesion is to exterminate the filthy kuffir, homosexuals, Jews etc, and about whom we should most definitely not be 'reassured'. The result is - as in so many other areas of police activity - harassment of those who make a soft target (the fundamentally blameless) while the real, major offenders are virtually immune from prosecution. Have any of those featured in Undercover Mosque been prosecuted as a result? Has there even been any serious effort to prosecute them?
The title of this post, by the way, is one of the more amusing utterances of one of the featured sages.


I must admit I was mildly bemused when I heard that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King (that picture might be slightly out of date), was declaring that 'the nice decade is over'. Did I miss something? What was nice about it? It seemed pretty nasty to me. Maybe he meant all the money and pretend money swishing around, the crazy mortgage deals and loans - but no such thing. Mervyn is un homme serieux, and here's the explanation. That's one worrying graph too... Oddly, the same acronym applies to that strange body that decides whether the NHS should be allowed to dole out new drugs. Niceness is everywhere. How nice.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Einstein Letter

This is mildly disappointing, or quietly gratifying, according to taste - though why his views on the matter should be of particular interest I don't know (the quasi-sacerdotal 'genius' thing, presumably). He seems to equate 'the Bible' with the Old Testament, which is surely a little perverse.

Art, etc.

Bit of a work crisis here at NigeCorp (trouble in the turbine halls, messy, don't ask), but here are a few ponder points...
The Turner Prize - 'Art made by people for people', to quote one of the judges, or the Yarts establishment in an annual frenzy of mutual masturbation? They might at least change the name to protect the innocent and let them rest in peace...
This is art all right, but is it beautiful? No point in asking if it's worth that kind of money - at that level of the market it's meaningless.
The forthcoming movie of Brideshead Revisited - do we need this? The fondly remembered TV series was actually turgid stuff, far too long and literal. Come to that, is the book that good?

Carmenère - This Is Love

Last night, by some oversight, my dear friend J. Cheever Loophole and I were invited to a wine tasting. In the course of this Bacchanal, I discovered a grape I had never come across before, and I was hopelessly smitten as soon as it passed my lips. Carmenère is the great 'lost wine' of Bordeaux, rediscovered by an amazed French viticulturalist in Chile, where it had been cheerfully growing, unidentified, since the early 19th century when Chileans had sailed over to Bordeaux and taken cuttings of whatever they found (and were allowed to take). As they were foraging in some of world's great vineyards, they got good stuff. Then Phylloxera wiped out the Carmenère, along with everything else, in France. In Chile it thrived, and by the 1980s the enterprising Chileans were flogging it as Merlot to the Americans (Merlot being the only red wine they'd heard of). Now the Chileans value it for itself - and even the French are deigning to replant it.
What's it like? Well, I'm no connoisseur, but it's a stunning mouthful, packed with the usual berry and spice stuff, but with sharp, intriguing savoury notes - like nothing I'd tasted before. The really good news is that you can get a decent bottle of this nectar, this elixir for barely £6. If it was French, it would be four times that - it is seriously good. Stock up. Santé!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Good news from the blogosphere - Richard Madeley is back in action, and on cracking form. Of course, he's me really - well, he says he is, and that's fine by me...

The Madness of Ed, The Sanity of Boris

It's a well known fact that prime ministers who serve any length of time sooner or later go mad (vide Thatcher, Blair), but Ed Balls, Gordon's anointed heir (how's that for a poisoned chalice?), seems to have achieved the feat before even getting a taste of the highest office. His plans for the school leaving age are beyond jaw-dropping. The men in white coats cannot be far away. Meanwhile, Boris's latest plan seems eminently sane. Boris Mark II (the new-look serious version) seems to be doing rather well so far...

Too Many People?

Talk of overpopulation as the prime problem facing the planet - even if it comes from the lovely lips of Selena Dreamy - always leaves me feeling queasy. The question is, what would you do about it? (Not you, Elberry - death sqauds aren't an altogether realistic option, outside South America anyway). Enforced contraception was tried and failed in India (a brutal business too - see Rohinton Mistry's great novel A Fine Balance). Even a totalitarian state like China was unable fully to enforce its one child policy, despite forced abortions etc. Surely the only humane solution is to encourage capitalism, as it seems to be universally true nowadays that the more economically active and money rich we get, the fewer children we have - the prosperous natives of most of Europe are barely bothering to breed at all, leaving that kind of thing to the underclass. Elsewhere in the world, the poor breed because they have to - lift them out of poverty (microcredit? I'm all for it) and they'd soon stop. Anyway, there's always Nature, currently hard at the work of depopulation in Burma and Sechuan. Or we might just wipe ourselves out...

Monday, May 12, 2008

... But Is It Art?

Here's a most ingenious defence, and potentially an exciting new area for Art to explore (perhaps with the aid of a generous Arts Council grant). Stone is clearly an advanced thinker, though arguably De Quincey got there first with his essay On Murder, Considered As One Of The Fine Arts.

Brown Unhappy, But Not a Hedgehog

No surprise that Frank Field sees Brown's future this way - but what struck me was his description of poor Gordie as being 'so unhappy in his own body'. This might seem to be 'personality politics', another bit of character assassination, but I think it's an important point. A leader should seem happy in himself, because one of his/her jobs is to make us feel good about ourselves, or at least no worse. The spectacle of Brown is at best depressing. I'm sure that when he enters the room, it's as if the lights have gone out and it's suddenly Sunday afternoon in the manse - the reverse of political 'charisma'.
The supreme exemplars of the relaxed cheerfulness that makes politicians popular were Reagan and Clinton (Bill)- and Blair, having sat at the feet of Clinton, managed much the same trick. All three were hugely successful electorally. Broon, on the other hand - for all his desperate stick-on smiles - comes across as a soul in torment, his nails chewed to the quick, his briefing papers scrawled over manically. After a while - especially with all the evidence that's piling up now - this begins to look like incompetence, like the man in charge being out of his depth. He's surely done for. As I've said all along, his only hope of being elected was to go for the snap election, before we'd had the chance to get his measure - but he couldn't bring himself to, and now he's doomed. Still, according to Wee Milliband, at least he's not a hedgehog.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Puzzle Tree

Here's a curiosity. In an ordinary front garden near where I live, there is - and has been for at least ten years - a four-species tree. The mother tree, as it were, is a Locust or false acacia, but, at heights of from 8ft to 10ft of the ground, its trunk is growing Elder ( a rather weak growth, no more than a couple of feet, but still leafy and hanging on), Oak (a robust growth, projecting over 6ft from the trunk) and, higher up, a flourishing bush of Holly, about 4ft high. I can only assume that some experimentally minded gardener decided to poke an elder berry, an acorn and a holly berry into clefts in the locust's fissured bark and see what happened. The chances of any - let alone all three - taking must be very slim. But there they are, year after year. Are they living parasitically, or have their roots managed to reach ground? How long can all three last, and what will be the end of it? So far, the locust seems perfectly happy with the arrangement and continues to come into leaf and flower prolifically every year. Has anyone out there anything similar to report?


Another Sunday and still no word from the Master, so presumably nothing worth reading in the Sunday Times - apart, of course, from Prezza's memoirs hem hem. And Cherie's at it too, her volume hastily brought forward in case Gordie's gone by the autumn. Of course it isn't possible to feel sorry for Gordon Brown, but this is getting pretty tedious and no longer funny.
Otherwise the main item in the news has been the unfolding horror in Burma (at least most media - even the BBC! - have rejected to the Myanmar option). This is clearly going to be one of those horrific situations that 'the world' can do very little about because of the paranoid obstruction of self-serving rulers - and yet we see and know enough to get an idea of how bad and how hopeless it is. In a truly closed regime - China under Mao, for example - this kind of thing could happen and the world would know nothing, there would be no news, no TV reports, just the regime's lies if anyone got wind of what was going on. Now the world is so open - thanks, not least, to satellite imagery - that even in North Korea it would be hard, probably impossible, to cover up a natural disaster on this scale. Anyway we are still powerless, and reduced to a kind of benign voyeur status.
To escape all this, I took myself off to the Surrey downs yesterday, which was thoroughly restorative. The birds were singing like crazy - chiffchaffs and other warblers among them - but I'm sorry to say that, even on such a warm sunny day, the butterfly count was very low. I blame John Prescott.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Global Warming: Even the Good News Is Bad

Much publicity today about how English wine is allegedly benefiting from global warming. The way things are going, we are assured, the South of England will soon be turning out red wine on a Mediterranean scale. Naturally I don't believe a word of this, not least because of the mounting evidence that we're probably already in a cooling phase in the northern hemisphere. And why would anyone bother with an English red wine? The much-vaunted whites are sorry stuff, compared to what you can get for your money if you buy French - and heck, if the good lord had meant us to drink English wine, he wouldn't have plonked France down on our doorstep, would he?
Anyway, a TV report last night from this very vineyard (which I've visited, and indeed walked through - nice place) included a contribution from the geologist who first spotted Denbies' winemaking potential. Oh yes, he said, they'll be making good robust reds all over the South of England soon - but of course (of course?!) by the end of the century, global warming will have made it far too hot to produce any wine at all in England. You can't win, can you, with global warming...

Cardinal Points

'Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins does not believe in?' asks Cormac Murphy O'Connor pithily in an interesting lecture that has received a gratifyingly large amount of attention. Which unfortunately meant a grilling by John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning - the last thing the Cardinal and his message needed. Of course Cormac came out of it seeming a thoroughly good egg, but he was unable to get across much of what he wanted to say/ reiterate, sidelined by an intelocutor who really doesn't 'get' religious belief (as he demonstrated in his recent interview series devoted to the subject). As the great Marilynne says somewhere, nothing true can be said about God from a defensive posture. But the Cardinal's basic point is well worth making - that there ought to be an acknowledged common ground between believers and non-believers, in the realm of doubt where both groups live much of the time (except of course the Dawkinsites, who simply know the truth). There's another area where the believers should be more assertive too, I think - in stressing the fact that most (if not all) of what secularists cherish in secular societies and secular 'enlightenment' values grew out of the fertile soil of Christendom and is at bottom, in the broadest sense, Christian; there is no easy escape from the gravitational pull of Christianity, and whenever western societies do break the bond with the Christian past, the results tend to be catastrophic. But, in the end, the best argument for Christianity has always been a matter of living the life, not arguing over dogma - least of all with those who, like Dawkins, will not hear.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Victory in Europe

Good grief - I' ve just realised it's V-E Day! Or it was in 1945 (and it was hot and sunny in London on that day too). This seems now to be a virtually forgotten date - how extraordinary. Some very evocative pictures here. I particularly like the heavily laden lorry carrying Toby ales and stouts, and sundry revellers. A different world...

A Flaneur Considers the Bees

Lying on the grass in Kensington Gardens just now (immaculate three-piece suit, panama hat, jauntily tied cravat, summerweight spats), I was pleased to see that the grass was alive with Solitary Bees, buzzing to and fro on low-altitude reconnaissance missions. Needless to say, solitary bees are said to be endangered and under threat (no doubt from global warming), but the news clearly hasn't reached Kensington yet. Every year around this time they're out in force.
(By the way, check the link on the Solitary Bees site to Homes for Solitary Bees. Strangely touching.)

No Waxwork, But an Angel

Tragically, it seems that we might never have a waxwork of Gordon Brown in Madame Tussaud's - according to some accounts, there's a poll of Tussaud's visitors going on, according to others they've already given up on the idea. It's a bit redundant anyway, as the man already looks as if he's formed out of some half-molten, unfleshly substance (cold porridge perhaps).
However, it seems we are to be treated to a gigantic Angel of the South - here are the contenders. Why on earth, you may ask, do we need this? The Angel of the North, an ugly thing which just about works in situ, was a sop to the chippy northerners to make them feel a little better about themselves (amazingly, they even liked it). We southerners need no such grotesquely oversized gestures. But if we are to have one, which will it be? The popular favourite (and therefore the likeliest winner) is clearly Mark Wallinger's kitsch and oddly boneless white horse, but personally I'd go for the Rachel Whiteread, on the grounds that she's a genuine and interesting artist (the only one who did anything worth looking at with the vacant Trafalgar Square plinth) and her awkward pile of rubble with the cast of a house perched on it somehow says something about the South of England, and about England as a whole. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of something that anyone's likely to want to hear... Any thoughts?

A New Challenge for Boris

The sudden spell of warm weather in London has, sartorially, brought out the very worst in the male population -as it always does. God knows standards are low enough to begin with, but once the sun shows through, all manner of horrors are unleashed. This year's favoured look seems to be a combination of flipflops, shorts and a singlet cut away at the sides to expose the maximum amount of podgy flesh and damp body hair (and, ideally, a roll of fat peeping shyly from below). The effect is particularly distressing on public transport. Perhaps Boris, once he's stopped the lower orders drinking on the Tube and buses, should move on to enforcing a sound dress code - a new kind of sumptuary law for a new age.
Gentelemen, here - as if you need telling - are the ground rules. Shorts: never (unless as part of Services tropical kit). Singlet: never. Flipflops: Only on the beach. T-shirt: Under certain controlled circumstances (see Appendix D). Trousers: Obligatory. Here, by happy chance, is the England football squad demonstrating how it's done. All right, it was a while ago...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Oldest Photograph?

There's something rather exciting, isn't there, about the possibility that this strangely beautiful image might date back to the 18th century. Something like the thought of medieval flying machines, or the idea that thrown clay pots from much earlier times might have functioned (accidentally) as primitive sound recorders...

The Future? You Don't Say...

Here's one of those cherishable predictions from the techno geeks of the way we'll all be living in the near future. Call me cynical, but on the face of it there seems to be a rather higher likelihood of pigs flying.

The Improbable Persistence of Modernism

Kevin McCloud, grand panjandrum of Grand Designs, blames himself. His progamme has encouraged a plethora of white-rendered boxy houses with punctured projections and a spot of cladding. Nowadays, it seems, anyone building aspirationally from scratch, opts for moderne, usually with 'eco' flourishes. The results can be quite impressive, especially from the outside, but it seems an odd way to build, at least in the countryside, and, with those vast expanses of uninflected glass and wide open interior spaces, these seldom look like houses one could comfortably live in. Small windows, separate rooms, plenty of furniture (especially bookcases, seldom in evidence in Grand Designs houses) and a bit of lived-in clutter are what we need to feel at home - especially in the country, where open-plan living behind vast windows is just asking for trouble from nosey neighbours and the local weirdos and roughnecks, or am I being paranoid? Aren't the nostalgic English supposed to be fatally in thrall to debased versions of the Arts & Crafts cottage? Jonathan Meades has lambasted English taste more than once on that score, and he's right, to judge by the ghastly stuff the big developers routinely put up. And yet here are all these white boxes - pure modernism, little changed in 70 or 80 years, once again the style of choice for the ambitious self-builder. Even in gnarled old nostalgic old England, where modernism is supposed never to have taken root. It seems very odd.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Our Hero's Fridge

On this day in 1851, two inventions were patented that would, when worked up a bit, change the everyday life of millions. One was the Yale lock (or at least Linus Yale's first patent) and the other was this splendid contraption, so much more characterful and visually interesting than the sleek modern refrigerator.

Olympic News

Exclusive pictures of Britain's latest Olympic hopeful.


A shame they couldn't find a better campaign slogan than 'Aren't Birds Brilliant!', but hats off to Worcester City Council (which, back in the bad old days, built a hideous and appalling ring road between the cathedral and the city centre) for this. I believe two chicks are expected to hatch any day.

I'm Not the One Who's in America, But...

So, Indiana and North Carolina coming up, and She still ain't dead - far from it. Talk about 'testicular fortitude'... Lord but it's unedifying though, isn't it? She'll stop at nothing, having put the wind up whitey by n*ggerising Obama via the Rev Wright, wresting an unwise remark about God and guns out of context and turning it into a vote loser, stealing McCain's idea of a summer fuel tax holiday (as any fuel kno), U-turning over Florida and the other void primary where Barack didn't even stand - which she's now prepared to use to swing the arithmetic - and presenting herself as the friend of the little guy and the only hope of a fair and effective health service (this to voters with short memories, presumably). No wonder Obama has effectively been bludgeoned into a stunned silence. One can only hope the thing's over soon, and, for the sake of the Dems at least, that Obama comes out on top. Whatever the psephologists and backroom wonks say, Hill couldn't beat McCain. She's still Mr America's pain-in-the-ass first wife, and the more strident and unscrupulous and unlovable she gets, the more she is.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Aurelian Matters

After that dreadful cold wet April, this is clearly going to be another bad year for most of our British butterflies - even though the poor creatures are said be feeling uncomfortably warm and heading north in response to our old friend 'global warming'. However, I'm happy to report that for the past couple of days my garden has seldom been without one or two of these little beauties fluttering around. And last weekend I was delighted to see several of these (those marbled underwings are so beautiful...).
Walking just now in Holland Park, I didn't see any butterflies (oddly), but I did notice that yesterday they celebrated Dawn Chorus Day with an early morning walk through the wooded parts of that most beautiful and un-London-like park. Excellent idea.

Miscellaneous, Very

A sunny Bank Holiday, and here I am lashed to the mast at NigeCorp chiz chiz (talking of which, I am pleased to see that the spirit, or at least the language, of my namesake, hero and role model Nigel Molesworth lives on here, of all places). I caught a bit of the dawn chorus today, and very fine it was. Other than that, the only thing that brought me any cheer was hearing that the great Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey is to be properly restored and uncovered to public view. I didn't realise that the pavement, or a version of it, also features in Holbein's The Ambassadors.
Anyway, enjoy your holiday, you idle swabs - and you, Absent Master!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Olympic Journalism 1896

This from Michael Burleigh's endlessly rewarding (and rewardingly endless) Earthly Powers:

In 1896 he [Charles Maurras] attended the Olympic Games in his capacity of freelance journalist. An antique bust, which an Athenian museum claimed resembled Christ, forced Maurras to seek the afternoon sun. As darkness fell, he identified the suffering God with the onset of the long night of the modern age. Contemplating the chaos of Greek politics, and the success of athletes from the two monarchies Britain and Germany, his thoughts clouded over as they drifted to the turbulence abroad in France...

Gordon, Jim, Bruce, Dawn...

Sunday morning, and no word from the proprietor of this site - so I guess nothing worth seeking out in the Sunday Times today.
If I were Gordon Brown (ugh, I think something walked over my grave) I'd be seeking out this man. He surely would find a way to 'fix it'. Personally though I'm still reeling from a headline I caught sight of in the Weekly Gleaner: 'Bruce Won't Bow. [subhead] Buggery Laws Will Not Be Repealed.' They er call a spade a spade in Jamaica...
And today was Dawn Chorus Day, and I wasn't even awake for it. Did I miss anything?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Things Change

Well there we are - Boris wins, Ken is gone, and the latter at least is cause for celebration. It was a strangely protracted business, cuing many a hilarious Zimbabwe jest - but in the end the result came, and it was the right one.
What has struck me in all the interviews with those on the losing side - Ken of course included - is the unspoken assumption that a Tory advance represents a reft in the very fabric of space-time, a fundamental anomaly, that can only be the result of 'mistakes', of 'not listening', of a failure to get the message across. I've often noticed this mindset in leftists, the assumption that their project is not only right but self-evidently right, and those who don't buy into it either haven't understood it or are outside the pale of rational discourse, irredeemable and best ignored or sneered at (the shorthand for these unfortunates' benighted worldview is 'Daily Mail'). The thing is, Brown has succeeded all too well in getting his message across - he's made it very clear who he is and what he stands for, as has Ken - and very large numbers of people dislike them enough to give them both a sound electoral drubbing. That's democratic politics. Things change.

Friday, May 02, 2008

From the Land of the Rising Sun...

Just one question about this - What exactly was his job?

The Thrush Nightingale Scandal, and Other Matters

Well I'm sorry, but, as a bright new Tory dawn bathes the land in an unaccustomed blue light, what I'm exercised about is this. Radio 4's Today programme filed a perfectly decent report on the upcoming Dawn Chorus Day (I'm sure regulars have it noted in their diaries already), including an interview down the line with bird man Chris Packham (the post-punk Bill Oddie), at the end of which they decided to test his birdsong identification skills by playing him a rather lovely snatch of song. Is it British? he asked. Oh yes, they said. Well, he said, it sounds a bit like a thrush, a bit like a nightingale... Got it! they cried. It's a Thrush Nightingale. A Thrush Nightingale? Well excuse me, Today programme, but that's hardly a British bird. It's a scarce visitor, seen on average about three times a year. Chris, sue the bastards! That's what Bill Oddie would do.
Nothing much else has gained a foothold in the tumbleweed prairies of my mind - it's a sunny morning, it's been a long week and a restless night. Somewhere in the small hours I caught more bad news (is there any other kind?) from the wider shores of Islam - I wonder what Captain B makes of it? - and good news about this behemoth, faltering at last.
And Boris, it seems, is going to win.
And, for any confused newcomers, I am not Bryan Appleyard.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Dead - But Is He Grateful?

I had no idea this fellow was still alive. Now, anyway, he no longer is. Like many of my generation, I have reason to rue the day Hofmann stumbled on his most famous find. Indeed, when I look back on my student years, I find Samuel Johnson's resonant phrase ever more precisely applicable - 'Stark insensibility.' It was.


As those of us who live in London face the dismal prospect of voting, in the hope (which I fear will be dashed) of replacing a Trotskyite thug with a tow-headed Tory 'character' , we need the kind of laugh this story so generously affords. It puts me in mind of the great set piece in Ronald Firbank's Vainglory, where the Professor unveils his newly discovered fragment of Sappho. I pass this on too in the great good cause of spreading a little mirth...

...And then, after what may have become an anguishing obbligato, the Professor declaimed impressively the imperishable lines. 'Oh, delicious!' Lady Listless exclaimed, looking quite perplexed. 'Very charming indeed!'
'Will anyone tell me what it means', Mrs Thumbler queried, 'in plain English? Unfortunately, my Greek -'
'In plain English', the Professor said, with some reluctance, 'it means: 'Could not' he wagged a finger ‘Could not, for the fury of her feet!''
'Do you mean she ran away?'
'O-h!' Mrs Thumbler seemed inclined to faint. The Professor riveted her with his curious nut-coloured eyes. 'Could not . . .', she murmured helplessly, as though clinging to an alpenstock, and not quite sure of her guide. Below her, so to speak, were the rooftops, pots and pans: Chamonix twinkling in the snow. 'But no doubt there is a sous-entendu?' Monsignor Parr suspiciously enquired. 'Indeed, no!' the Professor answered. '. . . Here is an adventurous line, separated (alas!) from its full context. Decorative, useless, as you will: a water-colour on silk!'
'I don’t know why', Lady Georgia confessed, 'it thrills me, but it does!'
'Do you suppose she refers to -'
'Nothing of the kind!' the Professor interrupted.