Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Beauty of a Blog

Read this and weep - really weep. It's a beautiful thing.

Get Graham

Years ago I acquired that celebrated affliction A Bad Back. A suave consultant made a steeple of his fingers and referred me to his physiotherapists who, like bankers, are said to know a thing or two. With a large, floppy plastic model they explained to me the workings of the spine and the way in which what they recommended would cure me of my pain - though I would have to carry a cylindrical cushion around with me for the rest of my life. I followed their advice, the pain intensified. I pointed this out, but, as they knew a thing or two, they refused to believe me and insisted I must be doing something wrong. Finally an operation - that seldom, I later learned, works - loomed. A friend suggested I call one Graham Tuthill, a shiatsu masseur. He cured me completely in two sessions by, in part, doing the opposite of the physiotherapists. If I ever get another twinge, he comes along and cures me again. I carry no cushion. He also cured Nige's back and, on one memorable occasion, the three of us went on a celebratory bender in Lewes, where, I am told, they still burn Catholics, but not Texan Jews.  Graham now has a web site. I have no views on the theory behind his latest therapy. All I know is Graham is a good man and a natural healer who really does know a thing or two. In short, if you have A Bad Back or almost any other affliction or, indeed, you feel the occasional urge to drink lots of beer and make a fool of yourself, get Graham.

How to be a Banker

Think: 'I am incompetent. In successive banking crises I have lost every penny I ever made from my investment strategies. I do not understand the algorithms we use to assess risk, but I know they don't work other than as mechanisms for confusing our customers. I am too stupid to understand the risks my traders are taking. I make ordinary people miserable by selling them loans they can't afford and by wrecking the economy. I make predictions but they are always wrong. Yet I cannot be punished. The banking system is now so concentrated and interdependent that there is, effectively, only one bank and, therefore, governments are terrified of allowing us to suffer from our own failings. In good times I am a capitalist; in bad times a communist. I will always be paid. I will get my bonus.'
Say: 'Oh you don't understand, Bryan, we've been through this before. We know a thing or two in the City; we've been handling this kind of thing for centuries. There's some very smart people down there. We'll be back on track after a couple of years if we can just get the government to get its act together.' 

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kinky Friedman

An email arrives from Nige - 'As a Texan and a Jew, you imperatively must get yr hands on the Best of Kinky Friedman. You will not be sorry.' I have been in some appalling scrapes that began with Nige saying, 'You will not be sorry', but I am such a sucker... Kinky Friedman, the ragtime cowboy Jew, it is.

Vincent van Miliband

David Miliband's article in the Guardian is a van Gogh. Vincent painted a boot, a bed or a chair as a portrait of somebody who wasn't there. The article is a portrait of Gordon Brown, who also isn't there.


Judging  by some brief TV footage, the defendants in the Srebrenica trial looked like pretty simple men who didn't have a clue how they came to be where they were. For a moment I startled myself by feeling sorry for them. Absurd, of course, they are killers of the innocent and unarmed who had been responsible for perhaps the darkest day in Europe since 1945. But my brief sympathy was inspired by the fact that these looked like average people and some very persuasive psyschological experiments - notably the Milgram and the Stanford - have demonstrated that average people will, in the right circumstances, do extraordinarily nasty things. These experiments suggest that you could pluck people from the streets, give them the tools and the indoctrination and most of them would happily engage in another Srebrenica. This anoints the low ranking mass murderer with a kind of terrible innocence; he's just an average joe doing what average joes have alway done, obeying orders. It is a phenomenally depressing view of the human world, but, confronted by the evidence of history, even the most optimistic among us would have trouble arguing that it is not accurate. And now Radovan Karadzic is to go on trial. I know, I know, it is the right thing to do - but how much better it would have been if he had died in a summary battlefield execution and spared us the sight of another face just like our own.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Wire: Not Now Showing on the BBC

Since writing about The Wire, I have watched yet more of it - I am now on to season four. I am excessively prone to saying things are the greatest, so I won't say this is the greatest TV series ever made, but I've never seen a greater. The writing will influence screenwriting for years to come - not just the black street patois but also the remarkable dialogue given to the cops and city officials. It is not simply realistic, it is literate, occasionally to the point of extravagance. The characterisation, meanwhile, is monumental. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell are colossal figures - evil, heroic and alarmingly sympathetic - and, as in Shakespeare, even the briefest walk-on becomes a fully rounded human being. Of course, award-givers overlook it - though it has just received one Emmy nomination. The story about this is on the BBC web site. The BBC did not broadcast The Wire because, apparently, it could see no audience for it. This means we should not pay the licence fee because if the BBC is only looking for audiences, then it should not be subsidised by a hypothecated tax designed to protect the best, not necessarily the most popular, broadcasting. As it is, our great protector failed to pick up the greatest - there I've said it - TV show of this generation. The case for shrinkage is becoming overwhelming.

How to be a Travel Writer

Use Italics as in, "We drank poffizzi, the bitter liqueur the peasants distil from gravel, and watched the sun go down over the zapoffa as the women, clad in their brilliantly coloured afaps, came in from the fields singing bipustor, their songs of love, death, automatic weapons and diseases of the goat." There you go. Piece of cake. Make a million.

Staring at Albania

I am back. I did not get kidnapped by brigands in Albania, I did not even cross to Albania. I merely pined for its apparent emptiness from the 'holiday hot spot' of north eastern Corfu. I did not buy any boots and I am deeply sorry that Nick Cohen was asked to follow up my story on Man on Wire. (No I'm not; I fell about.) I note that, once again, the minute I leave the country you break something - this time it was Gordon Brown. Actually, it's always Gordon Brown. And, on that matter, his holiday wear consisted of black trousers and an inordinately long and very expensive grey jacket. Doubtless a stylist was involved, possibly one with a sense of humour. But I am busy....

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bryan News

The Master, silent upon a peak in Corfu, has taken to gazing longingly across the straits to Albania, which, he says, 'looks nice'. God knows I've warned him, but if this Hiatus doesn't end, chances are it'll be because he crossed those straits and ended up as a doner kebab, rotating on a vertical spit in an Albanian back-street eaterie. On the other hand, I think he might be back among us quite soon...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Hiatus

I shall probably not be posting for one week. Argue quietly but rancorously among yourselves.


Is art for children art? I've always taken the view that there is no such thing as children's poetry, there is only poetry. Yet there are many children's things that qualify as art - stories by Wilde, Kipling, Carroll etc.. On the whole, however, I stick to my view that the best material for children is art's lobby, not its great room. But what about the movies? Children's films are now routinely sold as 'family' films to ensure all age groups are covered. The films in question are invariably made with enough adult material to justify the tag. As a result, it has become routine for the best of these kidult films to be celebrated as art or even great art by critics entranced by the ingenuity and, in the case of cartoons, by the ever increasing technological sophistication. This is usually harmless unless you take it as evidence of the infantilisation of our culture, which, periodically, I do. The case of Wall.E, in this context, is very interesting indeed. I went to see it because of certain rave views in America which said that this was great art. I was almost prepared to believe this as Pixar's Toy Story was, indeed, pretty impressive. But art it certainly isn't. The plot is a mess, there is little real drama, it's far too long and it's not funny. (Incidentally, it's also very fattist, but so am I so that's okay.) Wall.E spends so much time banging home its environmental message with a riot of colour and action that it completely forgets its own narrative dynamics. I assume it works for children, but I'm not sure. The brats around me seemed pretty subdued throughout. So why is it called art? Well, the message - that we are messy, destructive creatures - is true and topical enough and it is technologically breathtaking to the point where I suspect normal critical faculties have been bludgeoned into submission. But the real point is, I think, that people want this film to work at the highest level. There's a yearning for the childish to be true. There always was - look at Carroll - but it is intensified by marketing and technological ingenuity.  The underlying irony in the case of Wall.E is that, beyond the environmentalism, there is another message - that it's okay to be a machine. Is that really the great new childhood truth?

Distraction on a High Wire

In The Sunday Times I write about the culture of distraction and the hollowed out self. Also I celebrate Man on Wire, a wonderful documentary movie.
The picture is of Split Rock in the Joshua Tree Desert, whose resemblance to a surfacing whale has, until now, gone unnoticed.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


England cricketers now indulge in a group hug when taking to the field. This is not, well, cricket. Cricket is when the players skulk out locked in their private hells, struggling with their demons, muttering, sometimes weeping, always smouldering with resentment. It makes for a better game.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Living the Dream

This woman is an inspiration to us all. She is living as Oprah for one year. I am torn between living as the sublime Richard Madeley or sinking into the dark heart of Elberry

Swiss Odour

On the back of a can of Neutradol I read these words: 'The Swiss odour problem solver'. What is this Swiss odour? Is it some woody, nutty amalgam of Toblerone and cuckoo clocks? Is it the bracing tang of ski boots, mountain air and cow bells? I think we should be told.

Living the Hard Rock Life

I see the Hard Rock Cafe - that living embodiment of all that was laid-back, groovy, right-on, cool, rock 'n' roll and socially progressive about the sixties - pays its waiting staff well below the minimum wage, only making this legal by including tips in the package.  Rock on, guys.

More on Balls

Responding to the exam marking chaos, Ed Balls, the education secretary, said on the BBC 6 o'clock news, 'I am angry, I am upset.' One wonders which part of 'it's not about you' he doesn't understand. He added he was going to demand an apology from the American company that marked the scripts. An hour later, on Channel 4 News, he was a different man. It wasn't really a crisis, these were just a few errors that were bound to happen... etc. He was no longer angry, he was no longer upset. Clearly he had taken a call  - one wonders from whom. Balls is a remarkable phenomenon, a senior politician with no talent whatsoever for politics. The Economist this week said Brown had 'a tin ear for public discourse'. Balls is stone deaf. The obvious explanation for this is the way the Brownies spent the Blair years cloistered with their bitterness and longing. Isolated and convinced they were right, they never actually did any politics and, now in the blinding light of day, their shortcomings are exposed. But Balls is such an extreme case that one wonders if some other force is at work. My own impression is that he doesn't seem to care about the real world effects of what he does, only on its Westminster impact. He can never be angry or upset about real people. One wonders about his future career....

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Up North with Ailric

Three men were aiming shotguns at me the first time I stepped out of my hotel in Wakefield. A small crowd was egging them on. I took it well, casting a cold eye on life  on death, and smiling with the kind of cool unconcern that Yul Bryner did so well in The Magnificent Seven. In the event, they fired but I did not die. These were electronic shot guns and they were aiming not at my head but at a plastic version of the clay pigeon. It was all part of a Yorkshire Water management jolly. But the hotel being in Walton Hall, violence was always going to be in the air. From here Chieftain Ailric began his campaign of resistance against the Normans. It's also on an island in the middle of a lake. I was puzzled at first to see two blokes pushing a raft towards the hotel - Normans? - but it turned out they were restocking the bar. The whole mise en scene - fake guns, management jolly, Ailric, rafted booze - was so northern I burst out laughing. I was brought up in the north, but, as a child, I wouldn't have noticed its eccentricities. These slowly dawned on me when I went to Cambridge and found myself being mocked by Nige among others for my accent and for my habit of keeping coal in the bath and pigeons in cages in the garden. I did neither, though I did build rafts. The wonder of the north is that in spite of everything - motorways, superstores etc - it remains so defiantly northern. Standing in the rain, Ailric is still resisting the Normans and telling anybody who cares to listen that we're having no summer again this year and he just had a go with an electronic shotgun. 

After Iran

I have now been told several times that an Israeli attack on Iran is very likely to inevitable either before or immediately after the American election. Assuming Iran's retaliation includes US targets, this would suck in America and, if before the election, probably get McCain elected. If after, then President Obama would find himself with a $2-300 oil price. This not really being my subject, I have no idea how to assess these matters.  But, if true, then the post-oil world will begin in the next few months.

Isamu Noguchi

And, on the subject of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, an Isamu Noguchi exhibition is opening there tomorrow. Noguchi is unfashionable, probably as well known now for his coffee table as for his sculpture. This is a pity as he is a very great artist indeed. The show at the YSP is, we all agreed at the preview, the best exhibition in Britain at the moment. The YSP, I should add, is one of the nation's greatest artistic assets.

Marvin the Mower

On the roof of the Underground Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park there is a solar powered robot mower. It performs a circle, thinks a bit, then a straight line, thinks a bit more, then a long curve. It is engrossing, especially the thinking bits. I have just learned that two previous mowers had flung themselves off the grass roof. Concerned, I am attempting to detect signs of acute depression. Thus far, I can only see mild, wistful sadness combined with a hesitant commitment to obligation. But you never know.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thought for the Day

Arriving in Wakefield is not unlike arriving in Dublin. For some reason.

Tattoo Anguish

And, while I am being offensive, you might like to study the storm of outrage still in progress as a result of my Ponder Post 10: Tattoos? Daily I marvel at the anguish and impassioned debate inspired by my loathing of skin ink. Is it the fact that it is about skin - a substance that inspires thoughts of racism - that makes them all so upset?

Chili Beef

Discussing the Glasgow East by-election with Michael Burleigh last night, I came up with the line, 'You don't vote Labour because you're poor; you're poor because you vote Labour.' CaptainB, as we know him on this blog, looked up from his chili beef (Yauatcha - very groovy but slightly weird waitresses) and said, 'I might pass that on to the Tories'. So this is just to say - when Cameron Osborne emits this line, remember you read it here first. Oh and on the world and stuff - we agreed it's all going to get much worse, unless, of course, it gets better.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lay On, Macduff

It is shocking beyond belief that Gordon Brown (right) is being seen as Heathcliff when he is so obviously Macbeth, disintegrating in the later stages of the play. Not only is he Scottish but he also killed the king - Blair - driven on by his public relations executive wife, Lady Macbeth (left). David Miliband will have to be Macduff and Ed Balls is, it goes without saying, A Porter. 

Bad Vans

Anyway, speaking of bad words, I should have made the point that 'yid', 'hacks' and sundry other tribal signifiers do not mean a particularly bad member of the tribe. All yids are yids and all hacks hacks as far as I am concerned. This removes all stigma. But what about white vans? I have often been summoned by white van drivers offering dodgy gear like 'high end' stereo speakers which are, in fact, banged together from bits knicked from Currys. So I was walking along Notting Hill Gate when I saw a parked white van, the nearside window open and a man waving and trying to persuade some pedestrians to talk to him. None did because, of course, around these parts they've got all the high end speakers they need and, anyway, they hate white van man with a rare passion. I, however, being devoid of prejudice, strode boldly over to the man, a slightly desperate bloke who, in the event, wanted to know the way to Shepherds Bush. But, in the white van, he was, to everybody else, a crook, though probably not a hack or a yid. 'White Van Man' - we need to get the Fabians on to this shockingly discriminatory phrase.

Bad Words

James May, I notice, describes Top Gear as 'a pikey car show with three daft blokes on it'. 'Pikey' is a term for gypsy or, more properly, traveller. Another motor man, Martin Brundle, also used it. Pikey is, says the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 'highly derogatory'. Meanwhile, the Fabians - amazing they still exist isn't it? - want 'chav' banned as it betrays a 'deep and revealing level of class hatred'. No it doesn't. You see, dear, antique Fabians, every group in society is identified by one or more such words. I am a hack, a yid (half), a bourgeois and probably many other things. Now, if everybody has such a tag, presumably the ancient Fabians, if they are to be consistent, should be demanding a mass suppression of hundreds of words in common use. Ah, they might say, but there is a difference between, say, 'nigger' and 'hack'. Some would disagree. I seem to remember Trevor Nunn saying the word 'luvvie' meaning actor was as offensive as 'yid' meaning Jew. Nunn is right in one sense - there is an equality between 'luvvie' and 'yid' - but he is wrong to get upset about it because nobody should get upset about any of these things. Those obsessed with supposedly offensive words deepen the divides they aspire to bridge. They do so by picking one offensive word rather than another and thus creating a conflict where none previously existed. But, if everybody has such a label, surely the grown-up thing to do is shrug and move on. I'm a yid, you're a nigger, he's a chav. So in the real world, what? It is the decision to take offense that creates the offense. I don't take offense and I hope I'm at one with all thinking pikeys and chavs... if there are any. Oh, lighten up, it was a joke.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Darth Cheney

A new book suggests, in the words of Frank Rich, that in Bush's White House 'the president is a secondary, even passive, figure, and the motives invoked by Mr Cheney to restore Nixon-style executive powers are theoretically selfless.' I found myself thinking lately that Bush may have undergone some kind of psychological meltdown - I assumed recently because of his increasingly weird demeanour, but perhaps not - and that Cheney was more or less running things. I've wondered about Dick Cheney before; his apparent desire to Israelify American society is disturbing and irrational - it hasn't, after all, worked for Israel. But there are, for the moment, too many unknowables about this. But there is one known - torture. As time passes the administration's embrace of torture - apparently at the command of Cheney - comes to seem ever more catastrophic. Equally, the justification for the legalisation of torture - that, since we do it anyway, we should make it above board - advanced by Alan Dershowitz is ever more beside the point. The only point is that Bush/Cheney stepped across a line we believed ourselves, officially at least, incapable of crossing. And now, unsurprisingly, we don't know who we are. 


Is this the most laughable list ever created? What, after all, is an intellectual? Dawkins is in there and I seem to remember he came top of some previous Prospect poll. But, love him or hate him, I can't imagine any definition of 'intellectual' that captures him. I would have thought, for example, that scope/range was one essential attribute, but he has none. And, on this latest list, where's Roger Scruton, John Gray, James Lovelock or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, all friends of mine and all, if the word must be used, intellectuals beyond the imaginings of almost everybody on this list? 'Intellectual' is such a sweet-sounding, seductive word that people just can't leave it alone. 'Thinker' doesn't come close, though 'smart ass' might work if we are to justify the Prospect list. I have one other nomination - Brother Mouzone from the second series of The Wire. He's a real intellectual, a voracious reader who, in his spare time, is one of the most ruthless killers on the eastern seaboard. A glaring omission, I'm afraid, Mr Prospect.


I don't understand this knife thing. One policeman said it is a problem that has been building up for some time. Why? Knives have always been easily available so a sudden knife wave can't be the reason. And is it all hysteria? Figures suggest the number of knife attacks has remained unchanged.  On the other hand, knife use by under-sixteens and unreported attacks are not covered by the figures.  If this is all hysteria and there has been no real increase, then we can sure be there will now be a big increase as the media spreads the idea of carrying a knife as a cool thing to do. The government initiatives from the increasingly wrecked-looking Jacqui Smith are absurd. But are they necessary? What is actually going on? Can anybody explain?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Banksy Unmasked. Again

Yes, he is Brad Pitt. I may have got that wrong; I tend only to look at pictures and headlines. And, wait a minute, he is 'perhaps all too predictably, a former public schoolboy brought up in middle-class suburbia'. What does that mean? Are people around the country nodding knowingly through the haze of their metabolic syndrome? 'Ah yes, wouldn't you know it? A former public schoolboy.... Another muffin with extra sugar please.' Unlikely. I suppose the point being made is that radical subversives tend to come from the most privileged classes, which may be true. This, in turn, means they are not really radical or subversive, they're just playing at it, which may also be true. The working and proper middle class, meanwhile, are doggedly conformist and would like nothing better than to die for their country in a daring but futile raid led by a colonel with an unlikely name that isn't pronounced as it's spelt and whose ancestors drove the Neanderthals out of Northern Europe. Mind you I bet that Bansky, when push came to shove, would make a pretty decent dead lieutenant mourned by his potato faced underlings There's nothing like the class fantasy to hold us all together as a nation.

Happiness is...

... listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. Unless you know better.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Great Short Story Titles

Idly seeking some reference I came across one Joseph Ashby-Sterry, who, in 1869, published a story called The Haunted Counterpane. I formally nominate this as one of the all time great short story titles - unless you know better.

Duck and Civilisation

Duck asks such an interesting question on my previous post that it deserves a post of it own. 'Is the idea of civilisation utopian?' There's an easy answer to this - no. Utopia implies perfection whereas civilisation is just a case of making the best of a bad job. Civilisation redeems us from the wild condition but does not necessarily offer perfection, only an improvement. (You may argue about whether it is an improvement, but that's another matter.) Remove the idea of perfection, however, and the answer becomes more interesting. This blurs the meaning of utopian, but never mind. Reframing Duck's question we get: does civilisation entail the hope for/idea of a better world? I think it does. But, to traditional conservatives of the right and left, this must be a very modest aspiration. All civilisations end and what is right for one is not likely to be right for another. Utopians tend to ignore one or both of these truths. The hope for a better world embodied in civilisation is simply a case of patching up a leaky vessel on a stormy sea. Nothing wrong with that as long as we don't delude ourselves we will ever reach the promised land.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On Heroes

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for drawing my attention to this article by James Bowman. It echoes some aspects of my own article on current US cop shows. The gist of Bowman's argument is in this sentence:  'American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of the disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes.' He cheats in order to stand this point up by dismissing superheroes and space opera heroes as evidence of a desire to put no pressure on the audience - 'It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire.' Er, bollocks. What about Juno then or any number of 'real life' films with real heroes? Having, perhaps, noticed this problem, Bowman then cheats further by, towards the end, restricting his lament to war films and westerns. Well, yeah, but these are more issues of genre aesthetics than moral shifts in Hollywood. You can't make a John Wayne film because they've all been made. And, while on that subject, Bowman's analysis of that great movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance leaves out the crucial aspect that this is, in part, a meditation on heroism and the Wayne character certainly does not become the unconditional hero he seems to imply. John Ford is a greater artist than Bowman understands.
But what about this sentence? 'Where there is no hope of a better world, there can be little to distinguish heroes from villains.' This is also bollocks but it's slightly more interesting bollocks. Bowman is suggesting the hero must be an agent of the future, a common delusion of utopians, most recently the neocons. But I can think of no greater hero than Chandler's Philip Marlowe and there is no prospect of a better world in any of those books. Or there is McNulty in The Wire; anybody who does not see his profound heroism is morally blind and the whole point of The Wire is that the problems of the present are intractable. True heroism is about keeping going when everything, the future included, has turned against you.
The movies are as full of heroes as they ever were, though it may be true to say that the apparent horizon of heroism has narrowed. It is a commonplace of contemporary heroes that they are aware of their limitations and do not, unless they are superheroes, expect to save the nation or the world. Indeed, it is a crucial aspect of their heroism that they fight on in spite of this. To wish, as Bowman does, that the movies would feed an (entirely fictional) audience appetite for supposedly traditional heroes is to miss the peculiar beauty of which both film and especially TV is now capable.

Obama Wins

That's it. Thanks to Andrew Williams I can formally announce that the presidential election is over. Obama has won. Not voting for him has become an absurdity. Why? Because the last work of fiction he read was Gilead by the sublime Marilynne

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Cops Move in on a Horrible Thing

Good grief! The power of this blog to influence world affairs never ceases to amaze me. One minute I post on the horror of the half mast jean the next minute the cops in Michigan start arresting people. Sometimes I scare myself.

Silence and the Power Law

Forgive the silence. This is not because I got drunk with Nige last night. I was not drinking though I managed, nonetheless, to hold my end up on another night of magic. Rather it is because I have been working too hard, in particular I am attempting to understand power law. Wikipedia does little to lighten the darkness. I think I am there but would be grateful if any of you bright sparks could do it in a couple of sentences. I can do relativity in seven words - action at a distance happens in time - but this has so far defeated me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Biking Killers

I've always known cyclists acted as if they were above the law, but, until now, I hadn't realised they actually were. This terrible story with the lead character of Jason Howard who shouted 'Move, I'm not stopping' prior to killing Rhiannon Bennett reveals that killers on two wheels can get away with a fine of £2,200. If he'd been in a car, he would now be in prison. The other day I was near Edgware Road and turned when somebody shouted. A man was lying on the floor and the cyclist who had hit him was cycling on shouting 'look at the lights!' Even if it had been the pedestrian's fault, - I had no way of knowing -  a human being - ie not a cyclist - would have stopped to see if he was okay.  'Arrogant' is the word the judge applied to Howard. It is the besetting sin of the cyclists who fling themselves about the streets of London, in doing so risking my freedom - I would doubtless be jailed if one flung himself in front of me and I hit him - and sanity. The Howard case might/should change all that. 

On Ignorance and Lawrence Durrell

Peter Ackroyd once remarked to me that the older he got, the more ignorant he realised he was. True, I thought. This must have been at least fifteen years ago, so we must both now be labouring under the burden of an awareness of more or less total ignorance. Well, I am anyway. I say this because my matutinal urge to blog has, today, been stalled by an oppressive sense that I don't know anything. I am staring at a series of thoughts of the day from my preferred sources - that we are in a bear market (don't know), that estate agents will go out of business (don't know but I do think we could do with far fewer),  that there's a lot of sadomasochism around (don't know and don't care),  that Cameron and Obama will fix our broken societies (really don't know but feel it is unlikely) and so on. Dismayed, I fell back on something I do know - that these really were the worst aircraft of all time. Or were they? Journalists are required to conceal their ignorance. This is fair enough to the extent that, within limits, we probably do know slightly more than most. It is not fair enough to the extent that it supports the blustering and preening of columnists or sustains the comfort zone of public discourse. But, of course, everybody pretends to know more than they do or to be more certain than they actually are. I suppose we must, otherwise, like me this morning, we'd spend our entire time in a condition of slack-jawed immobility and indecision. The way to avoid this is to, as it were, sweat the small stuff, in my case to suppress my tendency to generalise or to race too quickly to the big picture, which is, of course, the prime source of all error. Nige has always been much better than me at sticking with the small stuff; he remembers the names of butterflies, I don't. God really is in the details (Mies). In fact, now I think of it, my crisis was probably brought on by Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell, which I was reading last night. Durrell - now largely unread, I think, but, of course, I don't know - was a great descriptive stylist. His sentences are loaded with close-ups because, to him, what matters is the sensuously exact detail. I was impressed and, I hope, influenced because, in the midst of such lovely precision, ignorance of the big picture might turn out to be bliss.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Church of England

The sad thing about the impending schism in the Church of England is that both sides have stumbled into the folly of literalness. The great glory of the Church has always been its sweet, liberal vagueness. I was brought up in this faith and I wallowed in the fact that I seemed to be able to think what I liked. This may sound crazy amidst the literalism that has since swept the world. But I had the Book of Common Prayer and George Herbert, in the face of which literalists had and still have nothing. The current confrontation should have been swept under the carpet. Literalists think this is always a bad thing. I don't. It's a particularly valuable policy now when most people don't care very much what the Church does and, besides, it worked for 400 years and not sweeping is now threatening the existence of Anglicanism, a sweet faith of holy vagaries.

Two Horrible Things

1) I had dimly thought that the male fashion for wearing jeans so low that they exposed a significant acreage of underpant had died in 1995 when it was cruelly satirised in Clueless. But this summer in London it's back and I find myself constantly having to avert my eyes from more Gap, Calvin Klein or M & S than seems strictly necessary. The less experienced wearers of this style, I note, have acquired a splay-legged lope to prevent even further exposure.
2) The BMW X5 was a wondrously pointless and ugly machine. Well, not content with climbing that mountain, BMW has now launched the X6. It is even uglier. In fact, contemplating one on the street yesterday I realised that BMW has discovered that Holy Grail of car designers, the Flying Turd.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Psychotropic Peach 2

As, because of my diet, I am now effectively two-dimensional, I look at this map (thanks to the great Finkelstein blog) with a distinct sneer of superiority. What on earth are they eating in Mississipi where a third of the people are obese? But, equally, what are they eating in Colorado, the only dark green state with a mere 18.4 per cent obesity rate? Mind you, that still sounds pretty high. I would guess Florida is only at 23 per cent because the fatties we send over to Orlando don't stay for long. The big question is: which part of 'carbohydrates make you fat' don't these people understand?

Pemberton's Coke

Coca-Cola is going for heritage with its new ad, evoking the creator of the drink John Stith Pemberton. This would appear to be a bold move. Pemberton, it seems,  was a morphine addict. He claimed Coke cured dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches, impotence and, yes, morphine addiction. One of its ingredients was cocaine. Coke is now loaded with high fructose corn syrup which, personally, I wouldn't touch with a barge pole. But I guess advertisers can sell anything. Coca-Cola once tried to sell us Dasani, basically Sidcup tap water run through the industrial equivalent of a Brita water filter. It was laughed out of existence in Britain. And advertisers are still telling us that sour milk with sugar has mysterious beneficial properties, a theory of Mechnikov's based on no evidence whatsoever. 

Best Tennis Ever?

I accidentally saw the last hour of the Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer and, in spite of my prejudices, I was gripped.  I was also intrigued. The commentators said several times that this was the best tennis ever played. Ever? Is this possible? One assumes that great talent is more or less evenly and sparsely spread across the generations. Did they mean that Federer and Nadal are the greatest tennis players ever and they just happen to be playing at the same time? Or does the technique of the game advance over the years so that if, say, Rod Laver were playing now he would be a better player? I suppose I am asking, is tennis an art or a science? Science advances, art does not. Or is this all just contemporary vanity? We want to believe that the best happens to us rather than to our forebears.

New Meanings 5

Where did 'referenced' come from? I just received an email saying 'the paper referenced...'. It means 'referred to...'. has reference has a verb so I suppose it's respectable, but I don't think we should go down without a fight. 

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Archers

Of course, like all right thinking people, I don't listen to The Archers for fear of losing my reason. (For my American readers, it is a radio soap about farmers, or,  as it used to be called, 'an everyday story of country folk'.). But I have just found myself sitting with the omnibus edition entering my left ear in analogue and my right ear in digital. The slight lag between the two heightens the already madly heightened surrealism of the drama. The dialogue seemed to go as a follows: 'Digester, digester, digester.....', 'Digester... digester,' 'Digester!' What or who is this frigging digester? I don't want to know but I feel I should.

Time to Shrink the BBC 2

I notice that my suggestion that the BBC should be reduced to one TV channel and one radio station is now being embraced by a think tank and the Observer. I came round to the view once it became clear that the BBC's versions of popular genres were no better and frequently much worse than those produced commercially. Once that happens there can be no justification for the BBC making such programmes. It is worth noting, in this context, that none of the cop shows I discuss today is on the BBC. When I floated BBC shrinkage, I assumed it was impossible, given the power of the organisation and the inertia of media politics. But if it's being floated in a media house journal like the Observer.... well, it's probably going to happen.

Cops and Nudges

In The Sunday Times I write about US cop shows - The Wire, The Shield and Dexter - and I review Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. The cop shows are wonderful; the book is a maddeningly boring exposition of an interesting idea. The picture is of no relevance to either.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Andrex Academics 2

Sometimes it could only be Saturday. The Top Gear boys are tearing their hair out while standing on Mexicans, Great Gapper warns that we can no longer afford chocolate Belgians, 'Yes, it's the moon. Over.' (Or so they say...), John Cage is still banging away on his old Joanna and it's become pretty clear that Iranian peaches cannot be had in Norfolk even for ready money.  But, meanwhile, having been afflicted by a bad case of l'esprit d'escalier, I need to expand on the matter of Andrex Academics. I used extreme cases - Mao's China, Hitler's Germany - to deride Cashmore's all cultures are equal posture. Say we ignore these cases as aberrations; I don't think this is reasonable but let's try it. This would seem to strengthen Cashmore's case which now becomes all cultures are equal when not convulsed by extraordinary circumstances. This feels consolingly liberal until you notice the concealed metaphysic. To whom are all cultures equal? They are not to me - I prefer British, American and European culture to all others. I would guess they're not to Cashmore either. In fact, the individual to whom all cultures are equal is a fiction. He has been invented to satisfy the science envy of the soft sciences. Science works by seeing the world through the eyes of a fictional individual - an objective seer, devoid of all bias. This is how Cashmore aspires to see culture. It is a category error. There can be no scientific view of culture. Back to Saturday.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Andrex Academics

Some years ago a column I wrote in The Independent inspired a letter from an academic in some super-soft discipline, probably media studies. He enclosed a questionnaire. He wanted to know how I had come to write the column. The questionnaire was laughable, designed solely to produce one outcome - my exposure as the hired lackey of some mighty corporation. I replied, telling him his methods were a disgrace to the academic community, insisting, nevertheless, that I be sent a copy of his research as I would, of course, sue if it contained any suggestion that I had been corrupted and pointing out that I quite fancied the idea of a quick twenty grand. This memory came back to me while driving up the M11 on Wednesday half-listening to The Moral Maze, an amiably earnest R4 show which doubtless will be dumped or tweaked by the marketing whizz now in charge of BBC radio. I began fully-listening when Ellis Cashmore appeared as a 'witness'. Cashmore is 'professor' of Culture, Media and Sport, surely the Andrex of academic disciplines. You can listen to him on the website - it's the programme about celebrity - he appears at about twenty minutes. You may need a new laptop as these machines don't take kindly to being flung across the room. The gist of what Cashmore said was contained in his line 'Cultures are no better or worse than each other'. Right then, Prof, here's my time machine and, woosh, here we are in Tiananmen Square during Mao's Cultural - geddit? - Revolution. You, being an intellectual, are about to be stamped to death for the entertainment of the peasants. Luckily, I am on hand to, first, console you with the thought that all cultures are equal and, secondly, to operate the time machine and whisk you off to Germany in the thirties. I, having a Jewish mother, am being dragged off by Brown Shirts, but, luckily, you are on hand to console me with the thought that all cultures are equal. Sadly, you cannot operate the time machine.... Who are these people? What are they for?

The Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day, guys, we'll have you back when you're ready - well, not John Bolton obviously and I'm in two minds about Lenny Kravitz (what's that all about?). There's a striking 4th July leader in the New York Times. It is badly written- the first two sentences are absurdly tortured - but interestingly so. What the writer is trying to say is that the date, though a contingency, is made more significant in that it signals not just freedom - ha! - from the Brits but also the start of summer. Summer is very important to the Americans; they write about it very well. One of the great books by that great, great artist Wallace Stevens was called Transport to Summer, a lovely title that that captures the sense of the season as an occasion for pastoral transcendence. The NYT leader tries to do the same thing in the paragraph beginning, 'The early vegetables in the garden are over...' and climaxing in the truly gruesome sentence beginning, 'High summer is the time of black shade...'.  One would think this stuff would read like fantasy to the paper's Manhattan readers, but it probably doesn't. Walden Pond is never far from the most rabid urbanite's imagination. Summer, to the Americans, is the season that transcends - 'High summer has finally come,' says the leader writer, his hands seemingly clasped in prayer. We're keen on summer too, but as a hit and miss affair, something that occasionally works but, just as often, doesn't. I don't think Americans ever say 'we had no summer this year' but we do. Anyway, it's your day, transcendentally-inclined cousins, have a good one - well, not John Bolton of course, and maybe not, come to think of it, those horrible people in the ads who say Aleve has changed their lives, when, in fact their lives could equally well have been changed for about $4 a shot less by the identical generic. (You're worried about gas prices? Stop buying Aleve!) They really get on my nerves.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Suppression of History

In a lecture the New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that Bush always thinks in terms of fifty year time frames, 'almost as if,' Brooks is being reported here, 'he couldn't conceive of political action except in long run terms.' I think I've read this about Bush before and I certainly know he's inordinately find of historians, which is the flip side of the same coin. Politicians in general are fond of historians - usually through vanity, but also in a genuine attempt to understand their own trade, which, rightly or wrongly, is the trade that most fascinates historians. Publishers love history; history replaced science as the stock non-fiction genre a decade ago. Newspaper executives are always drawn to historians and, of all the academic disciplines, history is the one that offers the best prospects of media-advancement through columns and TV shows. I have, lately, decided this is a disaster. There's nothing wrong with history as such - though it is a much more fluid and epistemologically dubious realm than we are led to believe by its various popularisations - but its application is almost invariably wrong-headed. (That last phrase is revenge, a history master once said it of me in a school report.) History is almost always treated as linear. For example, the unreconstructed right, in their daydreams, long for the coming - or the return from Avalon - of Churchill or Thatcher. This is linear thinking. Both were the right people in the right place at the right time; now they would be meaningless. And I have heard many newspaper executives discuss contemporary politics from the olympian perspective of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Human affairs aren't linear, they are chaotic. One might say human nature is consistent through time - which it probably is - but, in that case, you'd be better off reading novels instead of history. The danger of constantly appealing to history is the 'history will absolve me' (Castro) trap. If you think like that, then there is no limit to what you can do here and now because the limitless future will, at some unspecified point, decide you were on the right track. Note the way Mugabe keeps using colonial history to conceal his brutality. One can easily imagine Bush writing off the catastrophic strategic blunders in Iraq as mere trifles when seen from 50 years hence. We have had too much history and too many historians. (There are a noble, worthwhile few, of course; coincidentally, all are friends of mine.) History is dangerous, it could do with a period of benign neglect if not outright suppression.
PS. I have just noticed in the Mail - God knows how you find stuff on their web site so no link - that David Starkey (one of the friends mentioned above) was not among the 'group of leading historians' invited to dine with Bush at Downing Street. Starkey dismissed the ones that were invited as 'just a bunch of neo-cons' - in other words, they were there to tell Bush he would be absolved by history. QED.

The A.M.Ramblers

I posted on the wonderful home-made music I encountered in Texas. But there was also this pub in San Angelo. It was a barn-like place highly recommended for its music. I went there because a band called Austin Collins was playing and everybody said they were the best. In the event it was, for me, merely routine rock. Their support, however, was something else. I had them down as the most neurotic band in the world - it took them at least an hour to set up. But, suddenly, they burst into life. They were a joy, echt America. They're called the A.M.Ramblers. This is their site and you can hear them here

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On Literary Tone

Years ago I remember falling about laughing with Peter Ackroyd on reading a bad review of one of his books in the TLS. (Falling about was what we mostly used to do, but I haven't seen him for ages; we seemed to run out of things to fall about about.) What was funny was not the awfulness of the review - Peter's bracing response to such things was 'Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.' - but the fact that it had been sent to him by a friend who thought it was a good review. The review was replete with the most withering sarcasm. 'He has,' said Peter of his friend, 'absolutely no sense of tone.' Most people have no sense of tone. Many, if not most, of the readers' letters inspired by my articles involve a failure to grasp my tone. This is a problem because tone is a very large part of verbal expression and those who can sense literary tone take it for granted while those who can't simply flail about in a sea of misunderstanding. I could have posted this at any time about any number of things, but what inspired me on this occasion were the comments on Tim Worstall's post on my post about peaches. The tone of my post was affectedly dandyish and designed to imply a high degree of self-deprecation. My pay-off line about les peches d'Isfahan was deliberately absurd. Most of my very literate regulars saw this at once - this was a light post on a light matter. The serious point -  that my attitude to the peaches was changed by their availability in M & S - was anthropological; I was, dandyishly, observing my reactions rather than celebrating them. I have other tones for other occasions. Worstall's tone-deaf commenters see none of this and call me a 'foodponce', a 'snob', 'a desperate snob' and so on. As I say, this is just one example among many. There is nothing one can do about it as literary tone deafness is incurable, not least because sufferers are quite unaware of their affliction.

The Dawkins Mug

Chris Hale draws my attention to yet further evidence of Richard Dawkins self-branding. For a mere $10 you can now purchase a coffee mug celebrating his genius. Or there is that must-have accessory for the super-rational shopping mall mugger, the Richard Dawkins Foundation hoodie, a snip at $40. The march of science is, indeed, a marvellous thing. Onward and upward.


With the passing years it becomes ever harder to take an interest in Wimbledon. I didn't have much interest when I worked on the Wimbledon News and it's been downhill ever since. This year I have not seen a single game. But I do note that we seem to have replaced one national stereotype with another. Previously there was the reserved, inhibited Englishman Tim Henman. Now there is the flailing, angry, demonstrative Scot Andy Murray. The improvement would appear to be, at best, marginal. The great national festival of mourning known as Henmanout will be replaced, this afternoon I gather, by Murrayout. What endures is the venerable tradition of the not quite good enough tennis player. It is a consolation of sorts.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Clive the Eagle

Good grief!  Sir Clive Sinclair is still around and having daft ideas. Who knew?  Sir Clive is the Eddie the Eagle of technology, a very British and very cherishable thing. But I can't help feeling it would be nice, once in a while, to have a Roger Federer/Steve Jobs.

Jeff on Form

There's something about the deadness of the prose and the banality of the sentiment - not to mention the fact that he doesn't actually explain that this is a gay wedding - that makes this a particularly fine Jeff post. You should all go and congratulate him at once.