Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Liam Byrne (left) so much resembles a cotton bud that he actually sounds like a cotton bud on the radio. He is repeatedly wheeled out by the 'government' to explain why massive cuts in public spending are not actually cuts. This is such an awful, humiliating job that I have begun to feel sorry for the old cotton bud. But perhaps he thinks this is what a career in politics is all about and he is, in fact, deliciously happy.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 12:12 pm
Having just returned from a traumatic movie preview, I found myself watching Wimbledon for the first time. It should have been the news, but the Centa Court Thrilla between the Snarling Scot and the Silent Swiss over-ran. My first question is: does nobody volley any more? Was volleying banned at some crunch meeting of the tennis authorities? If so, I think they should reconvene. I, for one, always liked a good volley. My second question is: Andy Murray, better with/better without? He's better than Henman, of course, in that he appears to be conscious. Also I like the fact that he is very, as we used to say, untogether, threatening at any moment to dissolve in screaming anguish. On the other hand ... well, no I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, Murray - better with.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
In fact, I feel equally speechless about poor old Wacko. His music was not the soundtrack to my life, though the mutations of his physiognomy did provide endless fascination. The Simpsons episode in which a Jacko imposter was feted in Springfield in spite of the fact that he looked nothing like the man himself struck me as very profound. Who was Michael Jackson? Neither he nor anybody else seemed to know. What else is there to say? Again I leave it to you
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 11:52 am
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Jeremy Paxman kept me up last night by trailing a confrontation between Ken Livingstone and Bernard-Henri Levy on the subject of Sarkozy's remarks about the wearing of the burqua. Only the prospect of Ant and Dec taking on Ludwig Wittgenstein on the vexed question of the private language argument could have induced more eager anticipation. In the event, Ken seemed to get the better of Bernard-Henri who, perhaps, wasn't quite at the top of his game - the hair, the jacket-shirt combination, the tanning session and the 12 hours at the gym in preparation must have addled his brain. Ken looked as though he'd walked out of Primark and into McDonalds for his shoes before having his hair cut by an illegal sleeping rough in Hyde Park and his skin bleached by his cleaning lady. Paxo tried to steer them to the heart of the matter, the cultural differences between our two 'great' nations, but he needn't have bothered, the abyss that is the Channel was up there on the screen for all to see. And burquas? I don't know. I don't like them, they depress me and they depress everyone I know. But what are you going to do?
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:33 am
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I drove past the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate yesterday evening. There were a few hundred demonstrators on the far side of the street shouting, chanting and holding up pictures of Nega Aghan-Soltan. (I made the mistake of watching the full video of her death on YouTube. The very fact that it looked like a movie death made it somehow worse.) I sounded my horn in support, almost running into the car in front in the process. My wife was partially obscuring my view as she leaned across to shout and wave encouragement. It is strange and cheering to have a cause in the Middle East that even the most sceptical can unconditionally support.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:14 am
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The first thing Speaker Bercow should do is move the Commons out of its present dreadful, pub-like room and into Westminster Hall, the only surviving part of the original Palace of Westminster.
Years ago I was a local hack in Wimbledon and I toured the Palace with our MP, Sir Michael Havers, and a group of his constituents. The voters were pathetically impressed in a Europhobic, Battle of Britain, 'this is what we are fighting for' kind of way. I was bemused.
During the build-up to the election of the Speaker, I heard a TV reporter refer to the 'famous chair' on which he/she sits. Famous? Where? Among whom?
Then I heard ex-Speaker Betty Boothroyd on the radio talking about how much she loved 'the house'. Her pomposity was like the Great Wall of China, visible from space.
Everybody seems to think that the Houses of Parliament are a sublime and loveable architectural embodiment of British tradition. In fact, the present Palace is a ridiculous building that is about as much to do with British tradition as my iPod. Its design was a grotesque Victorian compromise between those who favoured Gothic and those who preferred classical. Charles Barry, a classicist by temperament, did the plan and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, something of a prat, did the Gothic skin and interior detailing. The plan is good and the river frontage is explicitly classical. The rest is basically a bad three-dimensional Pre-Raphaelite painting, a Disneyesque evocation of Britain as a land of knights and churches which has come, in use, to resemble two giant pubs stuck in the middle of a truly nasty and extremely pompous club for fat philistines with occasional romantic longings and an inflated sense of their own importance. Neo-gothic, unlike neo-classical, seldom works.
Westminster Hall, in contrast, is one of Europe's and possibly the world's great interior spaces. It struck me dumb the first time I saw it. The hammerbeam roof is a glory of medieval carpentry. The stone structure is almost 1000 years old and its tone is utterly different from anything else on the site. Real, muscular grandeur contrasts with Pugin's fussy mincing. The MPs, having moved into this great room, should be made to stand at all times, anything to stop them lolling like drunks on those green pub benches. Also standing, ideally on one leg, focuses the mind and would shorten debates. On entry into the hall they should be made to kneel and kiss these old stones. I am serious. Very.
My point is that many of the delusions and denials we now see in our political classes are influenced by these architectural surroundings. They live in a fake that feels like a pub and they behave like fakes in a pub. They do not derive inspiration, solemnity or a sense of history from Pugin, merely an ersatz fantasy of the past. This is reflected in the glutinous sentimentality with which they cling to their 'love of this house' or the famous Speaker's chair or some lazy identification of this feeble style with the spirit of the Blitz. They think this is tradition, but the greatest British tradition is pragmatic re-invention, not fake medievalism.
Finally, Speaker Bercow should arrange for the destruction of the Victorian Palace. Only the Hall and Big Ben - as a sop to tourists - should remain. There should then be an international architectural competition to fill the resulting gap. I am, I repeat, quite serious. The present crisis of Parliament is aesthetic before it is anything else.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 1:05 pm
I feel a kind of numbness about the election of John Bercow as Speaker. I've nothing against the man - well, I might have if I worked at it - but it is yet further evidence that the House of Commons is determined to deal with the collapse of its status by pretending nothing has happened. Margaret Beckett was destroyed by her own whips' attempts to get her in - ha, ha - and Bercow was installed because Labour knew it would upset the Tories. So much for the dignity of this process and of the office. If they had been serious about anything they would have elected Frank Field, the only genuine reformer. But he didn't stand because he couldn't get support. 'He's hated,' I was told. This is because he's thoughtful, flexible, incorruptible, open to ideas of other parties - a mensch, in short, just what the bone-headed klutzes lounging on their deep buttoned, green pub benches hate most. Like the bankers, MPs are desperately trying to restore the status quo ante and, like the bankers, they are succeeding.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:55 am
Writing that piece about the car industry awoke my dormant autophilia. I was even going to buy a new car but, in this as in so many other areas of my life, the abject failure of the coup against Brown sapped my will. Now I just find myself browsing car stuff on the net. Today this review of P.J.O'Rourke's new book which is, of course, about cars (thanks, Frank). The big quote is:
'Pity the poor American car when Congress and the White House get through with it - a lightweight vehicle with a small carbon footprint, using alternative energy and renewable resources to operate in a sustainable way. When I was a kid we called it a Schwinn.'
I do pity American cars because they're so bad. I know people are sentimental about muscle cars and even gigantic SUVs, but they remain fantastically stupid, inefficient machines, barely able to get round corners. In O'Rourke's mind, however, they have evidently taken on some kind of Palinesque significance as symbols of hard-headed conservative mistrust of government and bright ideas like global warming. But, in fact, they are symbols of a failure to live up to conservative/capitalist values. The American auto industry all but destroyed itself by insulating itself from the world and by churning out cheap, low tech models which could only be sold in its home market. They also showered gold on their own work forces, thus destroying any hope of competing with the Japanese. Any fool can get a roar of approval with O'Rourkean lines - I've done it myself - but it does require one to avoid thought at all costs.
Monday, June 22, 2009
I have always found the existence of extremophiles immensely consoling. These are creatures that live in environments previously thought incapable of sustaining life. Their discovery, among other things, reignited speculation about the existence of extraterrestrial life because they broadened the range of conditions in which we could expect life to exist. Deinoccocus radiodurans, a bacterium able to survive radiation levels once thought to be destructive of all life, is the extremophile star. But now, Wired tells me, it radiation-resistance has been surpassed by Halobacterium NRC-1. Then there's desulforudis audaxviator which, basically, eats rocks and if, therefore, entirely independent of other organisms. It is the only known single species eco-system. What is consoling is, I suppose, the tenacity and creativity of life. But I also like the way they refute our anthropocentric conceptions. Living things don't have to be anything like us and staring hopelessly at the stars looking for 'earth-like' planets may be a nasty case of missing the point. If there is intelligent life out there it may be a rock-eater dwelling in a nuclear explosion and he might not even want to say hello.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:22 am
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
The Special Parliamentary Committee to Make MPs Look as Stupid and Venal as Possible (TSPCTMMLASAVAP) has pulled off its greatest coup. Issuing 'redacted' - I'll come back to that word - expenses claims that have already appeared unredacted is a stroke of genius. Just when you thought the reputation of parliament could sink no lower, TSPCTMMLASAVAP comes up with this, a gesture whose only possible function can be to make everybody involved look like a complete jerk. Meanwhile, TSPCTMMLASAVAP's other project - to impose the grim visage of caravan-owning Margaret Beckett on the nation as Speaker - is going surprisingly well. At this rate they'll increase voter disgust to the point where turnout at the next election will be zero.
And redacted? Why should we accept this grotesque euphemism? It means prepared for publication, not at all the same thing as blacked out. These documents have been censored, a word that captures the full resonance of what is happening here.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:26 am
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Thanks to Recusant's comment, I have discovered the single greatest newspaper article ever written anywhere. Beatrix Campbell explains why it's okay to accept an OBE in spite of the fact that 'the archaism of our constitution hails values that are inimical to the values that are being celebrated by the gong.' She got her 'gong' - she loves that word - for services to equal opportunities. Equal opportunities are 'inimical' to an honours system 'clothed in royalty and imperialism'. And yet they still gave her the gong and Bea feels comfortable accepting it because, in spite of being royal and imperial, it celebrates the radicals as being 'the best of British'. Personally I think the rabbit was in the hat all along.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 3:08 pm
I mean we all know that Gordon Brown is Very Bad At Being Prime Minister, but, somehow, even I thought that even he would have managed to improve a little after his Near Death Experience. Silly me. He's announced a non-public inquiry into the Iraq War, which is worse than having no inquiry at all. Apparently he might change his mind, that must be his Prestbyterian conscience kicking in again. He's screwing up financial regulation to the dismay of the Bank of England. Also, following the NDE, he's created a massively unelected administration, perhaps modelled on the Iranian Guardians, and handed much of his own power to the unelected Mandelson. Shouldn't we be taking to the streets or something? I'm pretty free next week.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:13 am
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Wonderful as Andrew Sullivan's coverage of Iran has been, I am uneasy about his repeated use of the headline 'This is What Fascism Looks Like' over videos of atrocities. Surely, it's also what communism looks like or any number of oppressive ideologies. In fact, it's occasionally what Britain and America look like. Or, in jaundiced mode, I could say it's what human life looks like. Finding reasons to kill each other is one of our species' most distinctive characteristics. I suppose we could stuff this whole killing each other thing into a file labelled 'Fascism', but that limits our ability to say anything about Germany, Italy and Japan in the thirties and forties. Perhaps we just need a word to describe the Iranian regime. Theothuggism works for me.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:36 am
Nige draws my attention to this very sane piece on drinking by Roger Scruton. In the midst of this Roger makes a startling point - 'When we speak of an intoxicating line of poetry, we are not referring to an effect in the person who reads or remembers it, comparable to the effect of an energy pill. We are referring to a quality in the line itself.... Likewise, the intoxicating quality that we taste in wine is a quality that we taste in it and not in ourselves.' This is entirely consistent with the argument, but it's an astonishing claim. Years ago I remember somebody attacking F.R.Leavis for claiming that the values he found in great literature were, in effect, inherent in the works themselves, prior to readers. Leavis denied he was saying this, pointing out that this was like saying whisky was dead drunk in the bottle. But this is, in fact, precisely what Roger is saying about wine and poetry - it is, somehow, intoxicating in itself, independent of or prior to the drinker or reader. I suppose the point is that the long human traditions behind their production have become embodied in wine and poetry and that, therefore, their power is independent of any individual experience. But, against that, one could say there must be individual experience at some point if the word 'intoxicating' is to mean anything at all. I have no conclusion to draw. It's just one of those arguments that seems right, feels right, should be right, but, somehow, resists complete acceptance.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:28 am
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I watched the Ronaldo drama from Spain. The coverage was strikingly different. The Spanish papers said Alex Ferguson was miserable and the United board had sold Ronaldo against his wishes. The Daily Mail reported the tight-lipped Scot was glad to see the back of the posturing Portuguese and went on to smear Ronaldo as a girlie-man. I wonder which was right. My own experience with United suggests the club is used to dealing with tame journalists.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:52 am
Nige mentioned that, while away, I glimpsed the blinding light of Emmylou Harris's All I Intended To Be. This is a great, great album, justifying, once again, Nige's judgment that she is the best female singer since Ella Fitzgerald. One track makes my hair stand on end every time I hear it - Going' Back to Harlan. The lyrics are wonderful, mysterious - what an opening line! - and the performance is spine-tingling. You'll be buying the album of course, so here is another performance by Emmylou with the McGarrigles. I spoil you.
PS In a moment of madness brought on by intense heat and the iPod interface, I posted as if Goin' Back to Harlan was on All I Intended. In fact, it's on Wrecking Ball.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:01 am
It was 109 degrees in Sanlucar and I felt blissfully well. Advancing years - possibly this is a portent of my ultimate destination - have made me inordinately fond of intense heat. I feel at 120 degrees I would at last become at one with my body. Great heat seems to be its own justification, filling the minutes with purpose and meaning. Sweat stains are badges of belonging.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:54 am
Sitting on a beach in Andalucia - the nice, non-Brit bit sans ink-splattered matriarchs beating and bawling at their children, sans lager-addled 'men' with ghetto-blasters, sans Chelsea shirts, sans pale, diseased bodies - I decided it's time to abandon what's left of our national identity and sink into the warm, civilised embrace of Europe. It was a working class resort and the beach was packed. Yet there was nothing more than a gentle murmur of voices and the cries of perfectly behaved children splashing in the glorious Atlantic breakers. These people had a sense of the public realm and their place in it. We don't. We have an idiot government presiding over a celeb-dazed population, all blindly pursuing their rights and the exaltation of their barely conscious selfhood. It was raining when we got home.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:46 am
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
You've got to hand it to Gordon Ramsay, he's managed to shock the Australians with a display of uncouth sexism - no mean feat, believe me I've tried. Sadly, he has had to climb down, which makes him a bit of a prat going up and a worse one coming down. It's a pity he's become such a jerk, he was a good chef once and that used to be a job with gravitas. Mind you, so was Prime Minister.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 2:13 pm
People do really enjoy saying fascism is bad and wearing horrible woolly Tibetan hats with hanging strings. Both make them feel warm inside. One shouldn't really object. Both sides - Nick Griffin of the BNP and the anti-Fascists - were obviously having a whale of a time, made even whalier by the presence of dozens of cameras. Both sides vindicated, they all went home happy to watch the show. 'Ah,' you say, 'but the BNP has had a breakthrough, they're dangerous.' I think they might be dangerous but not because they're likely to get a grip on power. More likely, they will not achieve any kind of grip and, drunk on all this publicity, they'll start doing really nasty stuff to get more attention. That's what fame does to people, especially thick, ugly ones. The silly hats are, therefore, making matters worse. Yet better for themselves, of course, throwing eggs is fun, as is righteous indignation. Being a prig does more for your self-esteem than a gym membership. These things pass the time in the absence of truth, beauty etc..
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:32 am
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
I've done business with Cheltenham & Goucester for years. I could often have found better deals elsewhere but I stayed because the people were friendly and efficient. Now these people are to be fired to be replaced, I don't doubt, by call centres. Why? Because Lloyds needs to make savings. Why? Because it took over HBOS. And why did HBOS collapse? Because of, among other things and people, Andy Hornby who has acquired a soft landing for himself at Alliance Boots. Boots used to be like C & G, but it's horrible now. The shops are always in a state of chaos; I avoid them when I can. Why is it so bad? Because it is now owned by a private equity company which sees its customers as cattle. This is not unlike the view of the Labour Party, whose leader so loves the turbo-capitalism which is alive and well and still making our lives worse.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:01 am
To return to more important matters - thanks, Frank, for this, a scene from Double Indemnity in which Raymond Chandler appears. It is fifty years since Chandler died and sixty-five years since this great film - script by Chandler from a James M.Cain novel, directed by Billy Wilder - was released. I have watched this movie dozens of time. The sheer perfection is overpowering and addictive. It has everything - the sickly evil of Stanwyck's Phyllis, the easy opportunism of MacMurray's Walter Neff and the gutsy honour of Robinson's Keyes. The passion and pace of the direction - Wilder was always good, but this was his masterpiece - make it impossible to stop watching. Seeing that clip made me want to see it again. Now. It is all about America, of course, about plucking civilisation from the wilderness and mire of fallen humanity. Keyes gets it right in the end but at the cost of his friend. The closing exchange is devastating - ironic, offhand, suffused with male inhibition and momentously sad.
'Neff: Know why you couldn't figure this one, Keyes?. 'Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.
Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Neff: I love you too.'
With stuff like that to think about, I really don't know why I've been torturing myself with trivia these last few days.
PS I just realised those closing lines remind me of the last two lines of Dylan's Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight.
'Tomorrow is never what it's supposed to be
And I need you, yeah.'
Ironic, offhand and endlessly sad.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:51 am
Oh well, it's over - for now. I was so close to being right I could taste it. Now the only hope for a national day of rejoicing is a Guido rumour that Purnell will stand. I had hoped that good old backbench treachery would, once again, ride to the nation's rescue. Instead, the PLP meeting consisted of little more than horde of bullied and blackmailed peons applauding Brown and banging desks like schoolboys. What celebrations, one wonders, would they have reserved for actually winning an election or even for doing just badly rather than catastrophically? And so we face the prospect of another year of national humiliation at the hands of this man. It's a good thing I don't take politics seriously, otherwise I'd be really angry.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 4:08 am
Monday, June 08, 2009
I have a strong sense of held breath. Labour has collapsed in Europe, Brown looks terrible, Mandelson is in charge.... and, er, what next? I can't read any more Brown-must-go, the next 24-hours-are-critical, cabinet-of-cowards pieces. Maggie Pagano does the right thing and demands an explanation for Alan Sugar, but, other than that, it's all been said dozens of times. Something needs to happen, something that even the high arts of Mandy can't conceal. But what?
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:25 am
Paul Krugman writes a column in the NYT from London. Gordon Brown, he says, is being punished for the economy. He doesn't even refer to expenses, the botched non-election, the botched 10p tax rate, McBride, legislative paralysys, general all-round botchery, the things that have, in fact, pushed the economy out of the headlines and out of our heads. In fact, in all the discussions I've had in the last couple of weeks about politics, I can't remember anybody even mentioning the economy as the cause of Brown's woes. Distinguished, Nobel-prize winning economists do have rather specialised agendas.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:37 am
Sunday, June 07, 2009
Mandelson's appearance on the Andrew Marr show this morning sustained me in my conviction that editors must now get together and agree to withdraw from the lobby system. Marr could not really lay a glove on Mandelson because he could not break the lobby and everyone at Brown's press conference - Brown, the hacks - knew he was lying when he said he had not tried to get rid of Darling. In fact, he tried to make him go on Thursday night and Friday morning. The lobby, thanks to the years of New Labour spinning and bullying, is now a conspiracy against the electorate. Destroying it would go some way to purifying politics and political coverage. There are now no arguments for its continued survival.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:28 am
Mandelson's assessment of Brown in the leaked emails confirms my own view of the relationship - 'I see Mandy as a movie director who used to work with Cary Grant (Blair) and now finds himself with some klutz who once had a walk-on part in Emmerdale.' Meanwhile, the greatest publication in the observable universe reports that Balls and Mandy are slapping each other and screaming. I shall offer a theory about this relationship. In the emails, Mandy says, 'A new public persona cannot be glued on to him.' Brown cannot be remade, in other words, we must work with what we have. Mandy is an empiricist and a pragmatist. Balls and the other Brown bastards are rationalists. They think the world can be remade by reason. They are destined to suffer the agony of the rationalist - perpetual frustration and incomprehension. They are also destined to make war on empiricists. Hence the Mandy-Balls issue. There is a further point. The linked emails are old - January '08 apparently. In theory, this could make things easier for Mandy in that he could claim things are very different now. But, of course, they're not. The Brown he so accurately anatomised then is precisely the Brown we have now. Our 'Prime Minister' is a machine that can never be fixed.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:02 am
Saturday, June 06, 2009
'A vulgar, sexist bully,' writes Peter Riddell of Alan Sugar. Yesterday even Harriet Harman was rendered speechless by this appointment. The point is that in any sane list of British businessmen worthy to be elevated to this role Sugar would not come in the top thousand. I'm not sure he would appear at all. So he's only there because of The Apprentice. Sheesh! The depths to which Brown is prepared to stoop never cease to amaze. He should also be warned that Sugar is a public relations loose cannon as I discovered when I interviewed him. Brown wouldn't get that, of course, his own nose for public relations was lopped off at birth. His runners - Balls, Alexander etc - were all over the lobby telling hacks there was going to be an election soon after his appointment by coup. This was reported then there wasn't. Now they've done the same, telling everybody Darling was toast. But he isn't. Brown is now a joke even among the Westminster hacks. He is, of course, married to a former public relations executive. But perhaps, like Caroline Flint, she's just window dressing. Anyway, once you've read Matthew Parris, that's all that needs to be said about this great steaming pile of horsehit on this Saturday morning.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:37 am
Friday, June 05, 2009
Kettle think it's like Ibsen's A Doll's House, Sylvester prefers Romeo and Juliet. Toynbee seems to think it's more like Air France Flight 447. I've always gone for Macbeth (and used the same headline twice). That's Hazel Blears on the left. Meanwhile, we await Brown's new 'cabinet' - Balls, Cooper and, er, some blokes he met in a pub in 1983. A friend emailed me just after Purnell did the decent thing and killed his boss. He called me a 'genius' for forecasting all this in January. He's right, of course, but it wasn't my genius at work on this occasion, it was a heady combination of wishful thinking, clairvoyance and an absolute conviction that Brown wasn't up to the job. I've only met him once. I can't remember when, where and why, but I do remember him coming across the room bearing his cyborg smile and an extended hand which I took reluctantly. Many years later I did a lot of research for a piece on Brown - when he was Chancellor - that never materialised. Not being a Westminster hack I had not previously been exposed to the stuff that came out. I was shocked, very. Even then it was clear that the man had been an unremitting catastrophe for Labour, also that he was a very bad politician indeed - no, as it were, balls and none of Blair's instinctive grasp of the rhythm of events. Intellectually, I was voraciously unimpressed. He just reads stuff, he doesn't process it. This is not personal - he may, for all I know, be a nice bloke, though that seems improbable after the McBride affair - it's professional. He made the wrong career choice. I voted Tory yesterday, not out of conviction but because I think it essential that the anti-Brown landslide be as large as possible and marginal or tactical voting would not achieve that. Purnell's right, he must go for the good of the country and, as that sweet, misunderstood woman Lady Macbeth put it, 'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.'
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:08 am
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Astonishingly - gloriously - a literary prize jury has got something right. This from the first paragraph of Marilynne's winning novel, Home.
'So began all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail? And how could he be so recklessly intent on satisfying his notions of gentlemanliness, hanging his cane on the railing of the stairs so he could, dear God, carry her bag up to her room? But he did it, and then he stood by the door, collecting himself.'
It's all like that, prose so close to the delicacies of experience that its very plainness soars. The embarrassingly loud sob with which I finished this book - I was on a plane - matched the mighty inhalation I achieved after Tarkovsky's Sacrifice. He was the other great religious artist of our time.
I open Home at random.
'Such an offense against any notion of honor, her father had said, and so it still seemed to her, and to him, after all those years. She had followed her father's thoughts back to that old bitterness and bitterness simmered in his half-closed eyes as he reflected on the inevitability of his disappointment.'
We are seeing through Glory's eyes but, somehow, we seem to be in a room in which all thoughts are visible and felt. Marilynne's world shines with significance because, to her, it is significant in every aspect. What better way of writing a novel?
'His door was open. The bed was made, and the sash of the window was up so the curtains stirred in the morning air. He was neatly dressed, in his stocking feet, propped against the pillows, reading one of his books.'
No frills, just the world. Glowing. Nothing much happens in Home, but why should it? More, much more, than we can hope to handle is happening in the world and our heads all the time. This is a very American thing, a vision only Americans can now have - or, at least, express.
'I mean this,' she said to me in her home in Iowa, sweeping her hand across the view, 'would be heaven enough for me.'
'Heaven enough' on her lips is an astonishing phrase. What is our problem? Look at what there is, at what we have. Heaven enough. She is a genius so opposed to the spirit of the age that it is amazing that she is even published, let alone that she wins prizes. Know hope, I suppose. Yes, why not? For once.
Nige badgered me to read her for years, telling me at one point her thought was a bit like mine - oh yeah, sure, right. Finally I did and wrote that article and then, suddenly, everybody was agreed on her greatness. If it was down to that article, then Nige won the Orange this year.
And, yes, she was the American friend I exposed to London Luvviedom. She laughed me out of embarrassment.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 4:57 am
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
So Blears has gone and Darling won't go to the FO. On the bright side, Sky News just found somebody captioned as 'Gordon Brown's Friend'. I wondered who it was.
Brown can't now do a reshuffle because he holds no cards, though I can think of one possible solution. There are 140 ministers - I know, absurd isn't it? - give Ed Balls 70 of these jobs and Yvette Cooper the rest. It might all get a bit stressy, but everyone says they are very clever with proper degrees and stuff.
Oh hang in Gordo is coming out... No he's not. He's curled in a foetal ball in the hallway... Very wise, I find it often works.
Ah he's here. Light blue tie. Smiling. Botox obviously. Gone.
Somebody called Martin Salter with a haircut only an MP could possibly have. Lackey.
A few smelly-looking types on the green benches....
Bolton says he's already shuffling because of the presence of putty-featured Nick Brown.
'Is a visit to Dignitas the only answer?' asks ChrisH commenting on my previous. Of course, that was where Brown was going.
Welsh man with Hitler moustache. Nothing there.
Geoff Hoon on some other channel arguing with Andrew Neil about his second home. So last week.
Brown in House not Zurich. Johnson looks very sulky.
Guido says Caroline Flint rumoured to be resigning. Truly the revolt of the women.
Oh here we go... Defiant.
Brown thinks people should take a step back... er. Unbelievable evasion.
What are Mewslim communities?
Live blogging over. It gets in the way of my stamping and screaming....
It was Cameron's moment to be magisterial and he failed.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 10:21 am
A massive leader in The Guardian says Brown should go but the columnist Jonathan Freedland says it's too risky. Progressives, says Freedland, should vote Green and then work to save the Labour Party. Exasperation is the mood of the leader. Brown really doesn't get it. 'The McBride affair was poisonous to his reputation, but he did not seem to understand why.' 'Does not' would probably be more accurate. McBride was one of the nastiest eruptions in British politics I can remember. If Brown doesn't understand why, then he's not just inept he is wicked. But the big theme here is the word 'progressive' and the underlying assumption of both the leader and Freedland that the Labour Party is the only viable upholder of progressive values. This assumption - combined with a naive view of the meaning of progress - explains why the British left has long been and remains intellectually inert. First, let us say we accept the left's definition of progress. On that basis, Ted Heath's administration was more progressive than Labour because it took Britain into the EU. Equally, Margaret Thatcher outdid her Labour predecessors by breaking the anti-progressive, anti-democratic union bosses, destroyers of industries and jobs. Being 'progressive' does not necessarily mean being Labour. Secondly, to assume that progressive values do, indeed, inhere in one Party and, more particularly, one programme is to embrace the historicist fallacy. There is no one direction to history. So, for example, organised labour is not always right, sometimes it is dangerously wrong. If you want progress you must accept this or be lost in a wilderness of ideological struggles - like, in fact, the British left. Thirdly, the word 'progressive' cripples thought; politicians should avoid it at all costs. This is, in part, because political progress - like ethical, moral or aesthetic progress - has never happened and never will. For periods of time certain regions grow richer and more comfortable. This is not progress, it's luck and it ends. In such regions, the truly noble political goal is the pursuit of sustenance and stability, the protection of whatever it is - and, in our condition of radical ignorance, we can never be sure we know - that has provided us with this respite from the normal condition of the human animal. If, in this context, you redefine progressive so that it means this pursuit, a general ideal of sustenance and improvement within a system that we know is beleaguered and incapable of perfection, then it begins to make some kind of sense. It frees the mind from the demands of party, permits a humble acceptance of radical ignorance and supports the highest and most characteristic British political virtue, pragmatism. So yes, Brown should go now and saving Labour is a self-evidently frivolous goal, as will be, when the wheel turns again, saving the Tories.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:28 am
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
My first - as I remember - article for The Sunday Times Magazine was about euthanasia in Holland. It was commissioned by a deputy editor who had been brought in to lighten up the mag with celeb stuff. They didn't realise I had already cast my pall of gloom over the poor man. I careered around Holland in - as I remember - a VW Polo or some such, convincing myself that, beneath their bland and reasonable surface all the Dutch wanted to do was top each other. I fled, violently opposed to euthanasia. Now, of course, everybody's at it. Brits are flocking to Dignitas. Also, relatedly, there's the killing of Dr Tiller in the US. Abortion and euthanasia seem to be much on our minds. I used to be against both, but now I find it hard to care - not in a callous sense but because I don't feel it's any of my business. It's true that, ideally, dying should not be seen as a personal matter, but, on the other hand, I cannot quite see what remains to set up in opposition to the personal. Religion, of course, but we, in Britain, don't think we have that and, in America, it has been turned into a sordid shooting match. If a suffering friend was off to Dignitas with the blessing of his family, what form of counter-argument would I deploy? And I've seen enough suffering caused by handicapped children not to feel confident enough to talk anybody out of an abortion. If there is a persuasive argument against the purely personal in these matters - and I don't mean the thin end of the wedge, slippery slope type argument which is a purely practical, beside the point matter - then I'd like to hear it. Until then, every man, me included, is an island, entire of itself.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 3:46 pm
All the discussion about General Motors comes back to the idea that Americans have to drive smaller cars and they won't. In reality, they can drive their big cars as long as they have diesel engines, thus increasing mileage, reducing emissions and probably achieving Obama's targets overnight. But they won't do this either because of outdated health scares about diesel particulates.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:45 am
Being innocent - like, probably, Alistair Darling - is no protection in these evil times. True to his thuggish, tribal ways, Brown looks likely to use the non-expenses story to sack his Chancellor and install the thuggish, tribal Balls. Or Darling is guilty. I don't know. My instinct is that he's been Brown's fall guy from day one of his chancellorship. Meanwhile, check out the face of Peter Mandelson. Wrecked, I'd say. The irony is that this 'mastermind' of political virtuality is now about the only member of the Cabinet who is actually dealing with something real in the shape of the car industry - he has sound instincts on this matter and precisely zero power to do anything about it. I'd guess he told Brown not to appear in public and the Deluded One decided that must mean he should appear at every opportunity, flaunting his Prestbyterian conscience and worrying about Susan Boyle - some cognitive dissonance there I would have thought. It's like the last days of the Hapsburgs or Hitler or Saddam Hussein or somebody. I am no historian. Macbeth, perhaps, with Blair as Banquo or Duncan. This makes the times, though evil, interesting. What matters now is the condition of Alan 'Macduff' Johnson's soul - iron or rubber? It's the one big chance he will have in his political career. Grab it, Al, get the thugs out of our lives. 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...'
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 5:45 am
Monday, June 01, 2009
The death of Danny La Rue reminds me that Peter Ackroyd once pointed out that Wittgenstein's last words - 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life' - could have been spoke by the immortal Danny himself. They had so much in common, not least the private language argument.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 3:27 pm
Brown is doing a Dick Cheney - suddenly appearing everywhere, it's most provoking. He was just on Sky 'live from Worksop'. Is that possible? On Andrew Marr's show he spoke of his 'Prestbyterian conscience' which was seriously upsetting. He's bizarrely confident and he keeps doing that list thing - we did this, then we did that - which is intended to bully the interviewer into submission. That and setting up committees that will report long after - he hopes - everybody has forgotten the story are the only political tactics he seems to know. What he doesn't seem to know is that everybody's seen through them both. The amazing thing about our politicians is how bad they are at politics. Was it that Blair's tap-dancing covered up this ineptitude? Or is it that Brown's lads and lassies are exceptionally hopeless? Perhaps he's intimidated by people who are good at politics. Hence his bear-like embrace of Balls. Somebody, please, make it stop.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 1:36 pm
Speaking of House, I got into this show for the first time in the US, watching several episodes at a time. This puzzled me. Of course, Hugh Laurie's performance is dazzling, the show is beautifully made, entertainingly gory and very funny. Its increasingly absurd plots don't seem to matter once you have accepted the logic of the thing. But, I realised while watching the two series openers last night, every episode is exactly the same - two plots, one about House's life and one about a baffling case, are entwined and resolved with House's life still a mess and, usually, the patient cured by a masterpiece of diagnosis. The dramatic tension all springs from one question - is House's brilliance as a doctor and sarcasm generator enough to compensate for his human failings? I also realised that what keeps one watching is the ingenuity with which the writers wring variations out of this theme. House episodes are like Saki short stories - you read one and think, 'Hmmm that's clever', you read another, then another, then another until, finally, it becomes apparent that the variations are the point. Well, that and the fact that House's view on life and humanity are so spot-on. Oh, also we all have a fondness for obscure diseases - they're so consoling.
Twelve years ago I wrote an attack on theatre. Luvvies across the land stamped their feet, wept and fainted. I was even on a radio show recorded in a theatre with me on the stage and hundreds of incandescent theatricals in the auditorium. Good times. On Saturday, earnestly determined to entertain a friend from America, we went to see Duet for One at the Vaudeville. Juliet Stevenson's performance, I had been told, was magnificent and Charles Spencer, dean of reviewers, had called the show 'a masterclass in restraint and subtlety'. This was, no doubt about it, a hot ticket. It was, of course, crap. Stevenson's performance reminded me of an Eric Clapton concert I saw many years ago. He played his set - massively accomplished and boring - then did his encore. Plainly tired and bored by himself, he knocked out some bog standard, low life heavy metal. The audience roared. 'That's all,' I could see him thinking, 'it takes.' Similarly, Stevenson did loads of low life, coach party acting and the undemanding audience went home happy. That's all it takes. The play itself - a two-hander about a psychiatrist and a violinist dying of MS - was pathetic. Apart from Stevenson's histrionics and the psychiatrist's German accent and love of violin music (it is well known that all psychiatrists have German accents and love violin music), nothing happened. 'We seem to be back where we started,' said my American friend at the end, 'I think the writer could have done with another thirty days of deep thought.' At the end of which process, he should have taken up a new career. And so the luvvies march on, telling everybody that theatre is special, different, sacred while the rest of us watch House, read Geoffrey Hill and, on the advice of John Gray, William Carlos Williams - 'It is passion/earlier and later than thought/that rises above thought....'