Sunday, December 31, 2006

The best thing about the holidays... napping. Forty winks. Catching a few zeds. Or as the Brit pater familias always put it, with that strange human reluctance to admit that we're actually going to sleep during daylight hours: "Going upstairs to contemplate the Mysteries of the Infinite."

I am now firmly of the opinion that remaining fully awake through an entire afternoon is against human nature, all religions and the inherent mechanical laws of the Universe.


A new blog to add to your favourites list: long-time friend and sparring partner Peter Burnet has at long last hoisted his own flag, at Diversely We Sail.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Kidney update

If you're ever in the vicinity of Clyst Hydon, Devon, I can heartily recommend the steak-and-kidney pudding at the Five Bells Inn.

Chock-full of the stuff. Wash it down with a pint of Royal Oak.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The goose is getting fat

Aaaaaaah The Two Ronnies! As English as yellowing Penguin Classics and cannons at dawn. Since it’s Christmas, here’s one that’s as familiar and comfortable as a pair of old slippers….

A Merry Yuletide to all of you: with thanks to all those who’ve helped make TofE such an exciting place this year, and curses to those who’ve hindered.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Everyone has the right to be equally miserable

Jamie Whyte writes a beautifully clear and concise piece in The Times, called How human rights always lead to human wrongs

….Initially, our self-evident human rights were simply protections against the abuse of power. Today, entitlements to all manner of goods are making themselves evident to human rights oracles. Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, claims that we have human rights “to food, to work, to healthcare and housing”.

This inflation has changed the politics of human rights. Whereas human rights once supported limited government, they are now invoked in favour of the welfare state and the maximal government it requires. Which is why the human rights movement, although well intentioned, has become a malign force.

In an article to mark Human Rights Day this month, Ms Arbour claimed that poverty is caused by human rights violations. It is true, of course, that if people had food, healthcare and housing, they would not live in poverty. But it is absurd to say that lacking these things causes poverty. Lacking these things
is poverty. Why do millions of people lack decent food, healthcare and housing? That is the question.

The human rights lobby sees poverty as an essentially legal problem. All humans are entitled to food, healthcare, housing and so on. But countries where poverty is common have failed to enshrine these entitlements in law. If they embraced human rights, poverty would be legislated out of existence.

If you are tempted to agree, perhaps you will also like this idea. The government should enrich us by passing a law that entitles all Brits to an annual income of at least one million pounds. The difficulty, of course, is that Britain’s GDP is considerably less than one million pounds per person. It is impossible to provide everyone with this income.
The same goes for the more modest entitlements that human rights enthusiasts claim to be universal. Providing every citizen with decent food, healthcare and housing exceeds the productive capacity of many poor countries. Mauritania’s annual GDP, for example, is only $400 per person. It would be nice if Mauritanians were richer, but declaring that they should be will not help. Entitlements to wealth do not create wealth. On the contrary, they hinder wealth creation.


The causes of poverty are debated by economists. Yet most agree that property rights are essential for wealth creation. Without them, wealth cannot be accrued. And if people cannot accrue wealth, they have little incentive to create it. Why invest capital and effort in a business if you cannot feel secure in your ownership of it, and of the profits that flow from it? Communism and anarchy create poverty in the same way: by undermining property rights.

Property rights are not universal entitlements. If I own some land then you do not own it. You lack entitlements that I enjoy, such as the profits made by farming that land. Such inequalities are inherent to property rights. Which may explain why human rights activists do not care for them. In an 800-word article on fighting poverty, Ms Arbour did not once mention property rights. Instead, she lamented “unequal access to resources” — something entailed by private ownership of them.

Tens of millions of Chinese have worked their way out of poverty in recent years. It was not achieved by extending human rights law in China. Nor is it an “economic miracle”. It is a predictable consequence of establishing property rights.

It is a strange aspect of the Leftist outlook – which has a monopoly on many international institutions and public bodies, but not on any successful Government in history – to ignore the lessons of reality.

Rather than examining why the West has succeeded in creating unprecedented wealth and standards of living, while Communism has succeeded only in creating unprecedented misery and atrocity, it is considered more important to talk about ideology, as if ideology mattered.

There comes a point, however, where well-meaning but misguided becomes stubborn, arrogant and eventually, evil.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Desert Island Discs

Aaaaaaaaah, Desert Island Discs! As English as gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn - the Sunday morning sound of plummy voices and scratchy records, sandwiched between The Archers omnibus and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, with the rich kitchen aroma of lamb roasting and the imminent promise of slipping down the local for a pre-lunch bitter, back for grub, then a solid afternoon’s dozing in front of the football. Unbeatable.

Desert Island Discs, born in 1942, is the longest running music programme in the history of radio, proving that the deep, geeky pleasure of compiling personal Top 10 type lists, of categorizing your cultural make-up, was merely taken to its logical conclusion (and then way, way beyond) by Nick Hornby, not invented by him.

D.I.D is the mother of all List shows. Virtually every famous or worthy Briton has appeared at some point, including Noel Coward, Rowan Williams and all the last five Prime Ministers. The format is simple enough – you get to choose your eight favourite records to take on a desert island and between justifying your selections you talk about the triumphs and disasters of your long and fascinating life.

Over the years I have identified three different approaches taken by the guests to the problem of choosing just eight tunes from the billions available.

The first approach is just to pick your eight bestest songs. Thus Tory MP Ken Clarke had eight swing jazz records. The second is to pick the eight tracks that are least likely to drive you mad after endless repetitive playing in the isolation of a desert island. Though sensible if you were actually about to be packed off to a life of interminable solitude and boredom, this method seems to me to be taking the thing rather too seriously.

The third ­– and I suppose the most suitable method for the programme – is to take an autobiographical approach, selecting tunes that represent important stages or moments in your life.

The fourth method – which I will call the Politician’s Method – is to pick (or get your PR team to pick) music that you think will make you appear cool.

My two penn’oth (as at 15 December 2006)
In truth, most castaways take a line mixing all four approaches, and so will I. But since it is much more fun to agonisingly whittle down your own list than to read those of others, I will whistle through my selection tolerably quickly. (It is agony by the way, because after a while you start getting really quite upset about leaving things out. I’ve had to jettison the Beatles, Beethoven, Bob Dylan – and that’s just the B’s).

(By the way, you also get to choose a luxury and one book (in addition to the complete Shakespeare and the Bible). Those are easy enough. A life without Test Match Special is not worth the living, so Radio 4 Longwave is the obvious luxury, and the book will of course be the Aubrey-Maturin series in one huge volume.) So on to the records:

First up is Buddy Holly’s Rave On, which the Brit Pater Familias had on an LP and which was the first piece of music to make me spontaneously jump on the spot. As soon I was old enough to work the record player, I would play it repeatedly, leaping about the furniture like the miniature rock 'n roll monkey I was. That introductory “We-a- -he-he-he hell” is still the best thing in rock music.

The next four selections can be hurdled at a relative gallop, being all classical and all heartbreakingly maudlin. I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah is a burst of Catholic beauty; then Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto; followed by Chopin’s Nocturne No 7 in C sharp minor; and Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid (which is a cello/violin piece used recently in the Master and Commander film and thus the perfect accompaniment to my reading).

Number Six is Cemetry Gates by the Smiths. I have to have some pop music, since so much of my time and money has been frittered away on it, and this song’s Englishness would help keep me sane. Number Seven is Gerry and the Pacemakers’ version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, for obvious sentimental and tribal reasons.

You are also required to rescue one of your eight records in an imaginary tidal wave. This is straightforward enough, since record number eight is O Mio Babbino Caro, from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

This two minutes of sublime light shone on our world of petty woes is here channeled through Angela Gheorghiu. Get your tear-pricking and spine-tingling apparatus ready:

(YouTube also has renditions by Kiri te Kanawa and even Maria Callas. O brave new world!)

Since none of us will ever get on the actual programme, please feel free to use the comments section as an outlet for your own Desert Island Disc compiling urges.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

And still talking of it

The ultimate act of self-sacrifice that no one noticed

Emine Saner
Thursday November 30, 2006
The Grauniad

To motorists on Chicago's Kennedy expressway on the morning of November 3, the fire was just an annoyance, slowing their journey into work. It appeared as if someone had set the city's sculpture of a giant flame, which stands by the road, on fire. Most of those commuters didn't hear for some time that it wasn't the sculpture on fire, but a 52-year-old anti-war protester, Malachi Ritscher. Many probably never heard about it.

Ritscher's death, four days before the American mid-term elections, wasn't the shocking, national news story he had hoped it would be when he doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, next to a video camera and a small sign reading, "Thou shalt not kill." It hardly made a ripple in Chicago's mainstream media until an alternative newspaper picked it up. Nationally and internationally, his death has gone virtually unnoticed.

Although he had held protests against the Iraq war for several years, Ritscher's final act has largely been dismissed as that of someone suffering from mental illness - he had a history of depression and alcoholism and surely nobody of sound mind would choose this, one of the most agonising ways to die.
But although his mission statement, posted on his website before he died, showed he was somewhat eccentric (he wrote that he regretted missing an opportunity to assassinate Donald Rumsfeld), it is by no means an incoherent ramble. "If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world," he wrote. "I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country."

My emphasis in both cases.

Talking of which

This strange man is standing outside Parliament bedecked in a protest sign that reads "Denied the right to protest".

Monday, December 11, 2006

Too much government

On ePolitix today:

The prime minister has unveiled 500 new measures to cut Whitehall red tape.

Nineteen government departments will publish plans to save businesses and charities more than £2bn a year.

Is it just me, or is that opening sentence somewhat self-contradictory?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Apropos of nothing

This morning, as I walked back from the papershop with my Times tucked under my arm, a sunny winter morning, hilly pavement, terraced townhouses, the brandy cobwebs clearing, I passed an unremarkable couple standing and chatting on a corner. He too had a newspaper; she was a thin, mature lady holding a lead, at the end of which was a Chihuahua shivering in a little tartan doggy coat.

I walked on and thirty yards down the road I passed another unremarkable couple standing and chatting on a corner. He had a newspaper; she was an even thinner, even more mature lady, holding a lead, at the end of which was a Chihuahua shivering in a little blue coat and what appeared to be a little blue doggy scarf.

O what a piece of work is man.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cancel Christmas

Never before in the history of Test cricket has a team declared in the first innings with so many runs on the board and gone on to lose.

Maudlin doesn't begin to cover it, but as England contrive to record literally the most extreme example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the history of the sport, we can finally see that last summer was indeed a glorious freak, and once more sink back into the familiar arms of the kind of epic failure that has been our faithful companion for most of our cricketing lifetimes.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Measuring Maudlin

Being an American, and thus predisposed towards the crudely literal, Duck took exception to my description of his musical tastes as ‘maudlin’ because he looked up the word in a dictionary.

Dictionaries be damned: properly understood, maudlinity is nothing to be ashamed of. Celebrate your maudlinness! Much great art is magnificently maudlin. Maudlinosity lies somewhere in the middle of a sliding scale of sweet sadness, which begins at Melancholy and reaches its darkest depths in Morose. But beware: without care, it is all too easy to fall off the poignant path, the lachrymose lane, and land in the ditch of naffness that is Moribund.

The following examples should clarify matters so that there can be no further confusion about the subject, beginning with a seasonal theme:

Melancholy: In the Bleak Midwinter
Maudlin: Silent Night
Morose: A dead reindeer in the snow
Moribund: Jingle All the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Melancholy: Solitary night-hawks at the bar, after hours
Maudlin: A solitary walk in the rain, after the funeral
Morose: Bowling alone
Moribund: Simulating bowling alone on your Nintendo Wii

Melancholy: the life and death of Lenny Bruce
Maudlin: Somewhere from West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein
Morose: Leanord Cohen singing Hallelujah
Moribund: The German stage production of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Melancholy: French existentialism
Maudlin: English sonnets
Morose: Russian angst in ballet form
Moribund: Esperanto

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Some thoughts on the subject of The Ballet

Of the many forms of artistic expression that humanity has contrived for purposes of aesthetic fulfilment and popular entertainment, ballet is the one that leaves me coldest.

I can just about tolerate, in a maudlin Merry Christmas sort of way, a very traditional comic piece like The Nutcracker – or maybe I can just tolerate The Nutcracker. And even then it’s the music I enjoy, not the prancing. Just as the tone-deaf Captain Hornblower would rather be on deck receiving a full broadside from a French frigate than be forced to sit through a musical concert (to him all music is a mysterious, meaningless cacophony of scraping and yelling); and just as Britterina would rather undergo root canal work than watch a cricket match on television; so it is with ballet and me: I gaze on, nonplussed and frustrated, at professional dancers going about their business, helplessly searching for some kind of cultural connection, or at least basic amusement.

Ballet criticism, however, is another matter. The writings of Clement Crisp – one of the most acerbic and pithy critics of the London theatre scene – are well worth reading. In a review of the show “Bussell and Zelensky” in today’s Financial Times, he neatly encapsulates everything I most fear and loathe about my artistic nemesis:

Zelensky then appears in 18 minutes of Russian angst (even more fraught than the usual brand) made by Alla Sigalova and “inspired” by a poem by Osip Mandelstam about “a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself”.

Black curtains are lowered behind him, he flails about as a Handel concerto grosso wends its way, and nothing happens at all, save the thought that differences in our views about what is “choreography” and what is dreary posturing are as vast as the distance between London and Novosibirsk, where Zelensky now directs the ballet troupe.

After a gaping interval, three couples from his Siberian troupe appear in “Whispers in the Dark”, one of those murky exercises in which the performers romp in all-too-familiar permutations over a stage made less than interesting by shafts of light and dry ice. A score by Philip Glass. Exquisitely predictable activity from girls in flat shoes and horrid little black frocks (which make them look, shall we say, stalwart, as does the choreography) and men in black leotards and bare chests.

The Nutcracker at Christmas is one thing. But in my vision of Hell, a man in a leotard endlessly dances a Russian poem about a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself, on a stage made less interesting by shafts of light and dry ice.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

That crazy old Loch Ness Monster

Nessie is a better-known Scot than Robert Burns or Sean Connery, according to a survey.

More than 2,000 adults across the UK were asked to say who they believed to be Scotland's most famous figure.

Poet Burns came second place in the poll, actor Connery was third and Robert the Bruce was fourth.

As Rabbie Burns would have said:

Ach nae, tha daft wee Loch Nessie Moanster
I will nae gan ee no Tree Fitty….

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Kick-a-Ken Doll

A night worker at Madame Tussauds faces losing his job after posing for photos groping star waxworks.

In one of the pictures Bryan Boniface is shown pulling down Kylie Minogue's hotpants and [censored - ed].

In others, he is seen beating up Sven Goran Eriksson, throttling London mayor Ken Livingstone and grabbing disabled Professor Stephen Hawking.

Bryan's ex Sofia Oliveira leaked the shots when their 11-year romance ended, reports The Sun.

Bryan, of London, said: "I'm in hot water."

A spokesperson for the museum said: "We do not encourage this."

This story is notable for two reasons.

First, the amusing economy of words in the quotes (“I’m in hot water.” “We do not encourage this.”).

Second, because it clearly points the way to a bold and profitable new direction for Madame Tussaud’s.

Given the lamentable disappearance of the stocks for allowing the general public to vent their often justified anger at various celebrity good-for-nothings, incompetents and fraudsters, Smash-a-Sven and Kick-a-Ken dolls should prove enormously popular as the next best thing.

Major pests such as Livingston and Eriksson would obviously be permanent fixtures in the rubber Rogue’s Gallery, but you could happily accommodate a rotating Dummy of the Month feature for those celebrities - like Jamie Oliver, Clare Short or the Prince of Wales - whose tendency to irritate the nation is more variable. International guest stars such as George Bush and Christiano Ronaldo could also feature, though it would be superfluous to put the World’s Most Annoying Foreigner in the stocks since he’s already done it voluntarily.

In a similar vein, we should also abandon this annus horribilis’s utterly pointless Sports Personality of the Year show in favour of a Sports Dimwit of the Year. The ‘winner’ should be roundly booed and presented with an ornamental wooden spoon for Outstanding Contribution to the Humiliation of British Sport in 2006.

Current nominees are Frank Lampard, Steve Harmison and the clear favourite, Andy Robinson.

Friday, November 24, 2006

This is Anfield

Few soccer-bashers appreciate that hooliganism – with its bleakest hour at Heysel – was a brief moment of darkness in the 1980s, between decades of glorious light.

This woman earns a living as a political commentator

Polly Toynbee in the Grauniad:

If David Cameron takes up the Clark report, this would mark a breakthrough.

Tories would stop pretending that wealth trickles down from the top. They would never again claim that a rising economic tide lifts all boats. They would have to confess that no crumbs fell from the rich man's table during the disastrous 1980s and 1990s. In 1979 14% of children lived below the poverty line; that had risen to 33% by 1996. By denying that this yawning gap mattered, the Thatcher governments sent a century of social progress into reverse.

The Churchillian idea that all the state need do is provide a basic safety net to stop the poor starving is over. Poverty is measured internationally in relative terms, because that is how people feel it. To be poor is to fall too far behind what most ordinary people have in your own society.

Clark cites an analogy from my book, Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain, in which I described society as a caravan moving across a desert. All may move forward, but how far behind do the poor at the back have to fall before they cease to be part of the same caravan at all? Political parties will differ on how far that stretch can be - but at least now they agree all must travel at the same speed to stay within the same society.

Relative poverty has been a hard message to get across, so will the Tories now do some of the heavy lifting in engaging voters? Asked cold, the public tend to make a number of contradictory responses. They think the out-of-control greed at the top is obscene, and they think the gap between rich and poor is far too great. But the focus group of middling waverers used by the Fabian commission on life chances suggests that, at first, most people don't think real poverty exists. Then they think it is the fault of the poor themselves - feckless addicts or scroungers; if they have a phone and a TV, is that really poor?

But presented with facts about poor children having so much less than ordinary children like their own, focus group members changed their minds. When they considered the quarter of children who never go on a summer holiday and have no money to go swimming, have a birthday party or a sleepover or take school trips, let alone own a computer or a mobile phone, they thought it unjust. They thought it wrong that children avoid teachers' questions about what they did in the holidays, avoid collections of money, avoid PE for lack of the right kit. They understood the pain of being at the bottom of the pecking order from day one at school. Relative poverty is a dry phrase - but make it real and people feel for children born with their noses pressed against society's window.

If the Tories now say that degrees of inequality matter, then public attitudes can change. Labour may dare to use the I word - inequality. So far it has tended to describe poverty as difficult families: connect them to the jobs market and little else need change. But by stealth Labour has lifted 700,000 children above the poverty line, with most estates and schools much improved, generous tax credits and programmes such as Sure Start transforming lives. But Labour has done little to change voters' attitudes.

. But here is the opportunity for Labour to stop appeasing old Tory sentiments and say outright that gross inequality is a key reason for so much social dysfunction.

What would it take to cut relative poverty? Most of the poor are in work, so first they need a minimum wage families can live on: if you eat in a restaurant where the dish washers can't support their children, then the price of the meal is too low. That means we all need to pay more for services to pay living wages. Will the Tories accept that? It means higher tax credits and benefits too. And it might mean giving everyone as a right their own home, once they have money to pay for the upkeep; that gives freedom and assets to borrow against for their children. However it's done, narrowing the gap must mean telling the well-off that their growth in earnings over the next few years should be slowed, and the money diverted so the rest can catch up. Otherwise the caravan breaks in two.

Incredible. According to Toynbee, taking more money away from middle-income people will allow everybody to have exactly the same level of wealth, which is essential to prevent the major social ill of the 21st Century: the ‘relative poor’ getting jealous enough to steal things from the middle-income people.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Placed there by your enemies

Jeeves disapproves...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Isn’t Nature Disgusting?

An unusual clash between a 6-foot (1.8m) alligator and a 13-foot (3.9m) python has left two of the deadliest predators dead in Florida's swamps.

The Burmese python tried to swallow its fearsome rival whole but then exploded.

The remains of the two giant reptiles were found by astonished rangers in the Everglades National Park.

TofE and his Old Man once cooked up an idea for a television series, which would take a new, refreshingly honest angle on the wildlife documentary. It would be called “Isn’t Nature Disgusting?” and would ideally be presented by a man with an eccentric Australian accent.

He would be introduced to various of God’s excreting, stinking, dung-eating, cud-chewing, parasitic, disease-bearing, cannibalistic creatures, and would greet each one with undisguised repulsion.

As some arachnid enthusiast explained the wonders of the spider web, he would gag at the horrid thing’s furry legs and multiple eyes and cry “Get it away from me, for the love of God! I don’t give a dinkum for its bloody horrible web!”

Grimacing, he would hold snail shells between forefinger and thumb, and at arm’s length, then when the slimy head popped out he would fling it away in horror and dance a little flappy-wrist jig going “Ugh, nasty nasty nasty!”

Instead of marveling at the miracle of emperor penguins providing their chick’s first meal from food stored in their guts for months, our host would bellow “Gross! They’re eating its puke!”

Then at the end of every show we would see him back in his Hilton hotel room, washing away the dirt and the memories in his bath, snug and greatly pleased with himself. “By crickey”, he’d say to the camera. “It certainly is good to be away from all those bloody animals. Isn’t nature disgusting, folks?”

2 out of every 10 times I'm absolutely correct

Via Hey Skipper comes news of a book collecting the notoriously bizarre Lonely Hearts ads placed in the London Review of Books.

Eschewing the standard “GSOH”-style ad, readers of the Literary Review proclaim their attractions with such tempting titbits as: "They call me naughty Lola. Run-of-the-mill beardy physicist (M, 46)” ; or "Employed in publishing? Me too. Stay the hell away. Man on the inside seeks woman on the outside who likes milling around hospitals guessing the illnesses of out-patients. 30-35. Leeds” or "I've divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don't think placing this ad is the biggest comedown I've ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34”. And other such stuff.

The New York Times, reviewing the book, is utterly bemused:

LONDON, Nov. 20 — Perhaps only someone from Britain could genuinely believe that a personal ad beginning, “Baste me in butter and call me Slappy,” might lead to romance with an actual, nonincarcerated person.

Mr. Rose’s book lifts some of the stranger ads, which highlight the English obsession with self-deprecation and fear of unironic sentiment.

But in the strange alternate universe that is the personals column in the London Review of Books, a fetish for even the naughtiest dairy product is considered a perfectly reasonable basis for a relationship. Rejecting the earnest self-promotion of most personal ads, the correspondents in the London Review column tend instead to present themselves as idiosyncratic, even actively repellent.

In so many ways, too. The magazine’s lonely hearts have described themselves over the years as shallow, flatulent, obsessive, incontinent, hypertensive, hostile, older than 100, paranoid, pasty, plaid-festooned, sinister-looking, advantage-taking, amphetamine-fueled, and as residents of mental institutions.

They have announced that they are suffering from liver disease, from drug addiction, from asthma, from compulsive gambling, from unclassified skin complaints and from reduced sperm counts. They have insulted prospective partners. As one ad starts, “I’ve divorced better men than you.”

The subtlety (if that is what it is) of these courtship techniques may well be lost on people used to American-model personal ads, in which stunning, good-sense-of-humored characters seek soul mates for walks in the rain and cuddles by the fire. But while the ads in the London Review, a twice-monthly literary journal favored by the British intelligentsia, are weird in the extreme, they are also peculiarly English. This is a country where open bragging is considered rude and unironic sentiment makes people cringe with embarrassment.

Kate Fox, a cultural anthropologist and author of “Watching the English,” compared the London Review personals to an advertising campaign several years ago that showed people recoiling in revulsion from Marmite, the curiously popular gloppy-as-molasses yeast byproduct that functions as a sandwich spread, a snack or a base for soup (just add boiling water).

“An advertising campaign focusing exclusively on the disgust people feel for your product strikes a lot of people as perverse,” Ms. Fox said in an interview. But when Britons exaggerate their faults, she said, they are really telegraphing their attributes. “It does speak of a certain arrogance, that you have the confidence and the sense of humor to say these things,” she said.


Many of the ads reflect the writers’ diverse intellectual interests.

A woman in the current issue, for instance, specifies that she is looking for a man “who doesn’t name his genitals after German chancellors” (not even, the ad says, “Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, however admirable the independence he gave to secretaries of state may have been.”)

…Many ads inexplicably reference writer and professor John Sutherland. Gerald Kaufman, a Labor member of Parliament, and Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, have also been mentioned frequently, for no apparent reason.”

Rather than approaching this one from the angle of English eccentricity/loathing of sentimentality etc, I will instead pay tribute to Skipper by viewing it through the lenses of natural selection.

The London Review of Books is a magazine aimed at an audience of smart, well-read, witty, self-aware people. Therefore to get noticed one has to appear smart, well-read, witty and self-aware.

So once somebody has written a Lonely Heart like: "Not everyone appearing in this column is a deranged cross-dressing sociopath. Let me know if you find one and I'll strangle him with my bra. Man, 56", or "List your ten favourite albums... I just want to know if there's anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35", then soon enough everyone is obliged to follow suit or try to top it, and merely stating that you are cuddly or intellectual or have a GSOH will leave you looking very dull indeed.

Thus the evolution of the Lonely Hearts ad has taken on a life of its own, with its own bizarre rules and in-jokes.

I said, No, No, No

Fortified by chips and steak and kidney pie (kidney content = trace) and a pint of organic Honeydew beer from The Old Fish Market we last night made our way through freezing Bristol rain to the smoky dungeon that is the Carling Academy, there to be entertained by Amy Winehouse (Amy standing on one of the very few crossroads where the musical taste-paths of Brit and Brit-ess happen to meet, to stretch a metaphor).

In the nicest possible way she’s as mad as a hatter, is Amy, filling the gaps between songs with amiable, sweary banter delivered in a caustic, almost incomprehensible cockney babble and cackling with laughter at her own tipsy jokes.

But what a singing voice! Her effortless, soaring jazzy rasp can strip the layers of grime from the walls.

At the moment she’s playing small, all-standing indie-rock venues like the Academy. With her motown-y, jazzy, R&B-ish talent the logical career progression would be to tone down the ribald lyrics, make it big in America and end up being a diva doing residencies at Las Vegas.

Yet she is in many ways the anti-diva. True divas should give the impression they come from another planet; Amy gives the impression she came along as part of a hen party and got dragged up on stage. She has an utter lack of grace which is quite endearing: she can’t walk in her stilettos and doesn’t know what to do with her hands, constantly fidgeting with her dress and breaking into strange, jerky dances. She giggles incessantly.

There’s no evidence of that invisible barrier that’s supposed to exist between her and her (mostly young, female, slightly grungey) audience – literally so at the end, when she came from backstage to join the crowd, pose for mobile phone photos and continue the raucous hen party banter with the mob. You wouldn’t catch Beyonce doing that.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Official: French and Italians are all seven stone weaklings

The Maltese and the Greeks are the heavyweights of Europe, figures from the European Commission reveal.

The Italians and French the most trim, while the average Briton - like the average European - is slightly over the ideal weight.

Obesity is measured by calculating body mass index (BMI). A BMI of between 18.5 and 25 is considered healthy, between 25 and 30 overweight and above 30 obese.

The latest figures show that the average citizen in 20 EU countries, including the UK - where the average BMI is 25.4 - is overweight. The average person in the other five, including Italy and France, is officially healthy.

I thought we were meant to be Europe’s champion fatties but it turns out we’re only 10th!

I blame all the immigrants for bringing our average down.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Rawalpindi Express goes off the rails again

Controversy has stalked Shoaib Akhtar throughout his international career, but his latest transgression could be the final straw.

The first man to be recorded bowling at 100mph might never play for Pakistan again after being hit with a two-year ban for doping.

Shoaib will be 33 by the end of his suspension following a positive test for the banned steroid nandrolone. That in itself makes it questionable whether he will again be seen charging into the crease at full steam.

Add his celebrity lifestyle and various reported offers of acting roles, and it could well be that the next time he is seen on television is in a film.

That would be a relief to countless batsmen who have suffered against him. But it would deprive cricket of a man whose combination of explosive talent and colourful personality have brightened the sport for the last decade.

So long, Shoaib. Cricket will miss you, but Sachin Tendulkar won’t. Nor will Sourav Ganguly.

And nor, especially, will Gary Kirsten:

Batten down the hatches

The Dutch cabinet has backed a proposal by the country's immigration minister to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public places.

The burqa, a full body covering that also obscures the face, would be banned by law in the street, and in trains, schools, buses and the law courts.

The cabinet said burqas disturb public order, citizens and safety.

I predict a riot.

Spam gets stranger…

…as AOG pointed out here. And even poetic. Here are my five favourites from the last few weeks:

5) sake – Thanks Placemats Turkey

4) Les Villa – Peach blister New Hampshire

3) Ayssa Lundy – ore smelter mis-mark

2) Gerald Daniels – lamb preparatory

But definitely number one is…

Norris Downing – Non-english nut-gathering

Thursday, November 16, 2006

100% Ing-er-land

In 1984 John Barnes scored this goal for England against Brazil in the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. It is fondly remembered as one of the all-time greatest individual goals by an Englishman:

What few people know now is that on the plane home, John Barnes sat in front of a group of English ‘fans’, who sang songs about how England had only won 1-0, not 2-0, because the goal by a black player didn’t count.

There can be no clearer demonstration of the power of sport to facilitate a complete change in attitudes than the extent to which this fact shocks us now. It was only two decades ago.

Sport is trivial, and also vitally important.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

100% mongrel

Andrew Graham-Dixon (I’ve always liked him, partly because he’s a good art critic but mainly because his full name differs from mine only by a consonant and a hyphen), had a programme on Channel 4 last night called “100% English”.

He writes an article about it in The Telegraph:

...Take eight people, all of them white, all born and raised in England - and all convinced, some militantly so, that they are 100 per cent English. Persuade each of them to give us a DNA sample and submit it to a series of state-of-the-art tests to uncover where they really come from. The tests would involve comparing their DNA with a global databank that divides the world into four ancient population groups - European, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African and Native American.

….What linked them all was the sincerely held belief that they were English through and through. Their definitions of what it takes to be 'English' varied widely. For one, being born here was enough. For another, it was necessary to be descended directly from the pre-1066 inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England - or, at least, to feel a profound kinship with those peoples. For another, the acid test was simply whether a person supported the England football and cricket teams.

One gentleman, in for a larger surprise than most, was convinced that he was 100 per cent English. His definition of what he meant by that? All of his relatives had been born here, for at least 12 generations. When pressed, he admitted he did not know this for sure, but was certain that it must be the case.

I presented Dr Thomas with this criterion as a measure of Englishness and asked him, using it as a guide, how many 'English' people currently lived in England. The scientist thought about it. 'At a rough guess? Er, zero.' Such a thing would only have been possible if a particular social group, isolated from the rest of society, had inbred for centuries.

When all this was explained to our participant, he took the point and was ultimately rather relieved to learn that he was anything but English, according to his own, original standards. 'I guess we're all mongrels,' was his phlegmatic response to the results of his gene test - which showed, in fact, that much of his genetic make-up pointed to origins in Russia and Eurasia.

Intriguingly, new information about himself began to change his attitude to others, too. When I had met him for the first time, we had talked about immigration and his concern that it was diluting the essential pool of 'Englishness'. I remarked that the process could just as easily be seen as an enhancement and, one way or another, we had got on to the subject of football. I had mentioned Ian Wright, the former England footballer, born in England and patriotic in his passion for England's increasingly forlorn World Cup hopes - and, of course, black.

'Ah yes, but he's not English,' had come back the reply. 'You can't have black skin and call yourself English.' But when confronted with the facts about his own genes, later in the film, he simply changed his mind. 'Yeah, all right then, you can be black and English. I was wrong.'

He actually started to say: “But I still maintain that if a Jamaican couple or a German or an Italian couple come to England and have a child, then the child is not Engli-" and then he interrupted himself: “Oh but hang on, this throws all that out the window, because how far back do you go?”

This moment was a wonderful example of somebody openly and honestly changing his mind and admitting, live on camera, that he was completely wrong about something he’d believed all of his life, when presented with scientific evidence and irrefutable logic. A vanishingly rare thing, to say the least.

As Graham-Dixon says:

It was not until almost the end of the film that the full potential power of these tests was brought home to me, when one of our contributors, Damen Barks, an 18-year-old trainee soldier, made what struck me as a wonderfully precise remark. 'For racists to find out that part of them may be what they have discriminated against for years, well that would certainly throw them off their game,' he said. For Damen, his own test was a real moment of genetic catharsis - he was astonished when he discovered that he had DNA originating from at least a quarter of the globe. You could see his sense of his own global horizons visibly expanding on camera.

These tests should be made compulsory at school age: it would do far more to eliminate racism than any amount of advertising campaigns.

The programme could have done with a bit more context, but it was a fascinating one, with two conclusions to be drawn:

1) nationality is really just about geography and state of mind
2) thanks to science, we now know that race is really illusory, and can only meaningfully be talked about in percentages and tendencies, not in absolutes.

Friday, November 10, 2006

No can do

A campaign is being launched to raise awareness of the crippling impact of toilet phobia.

The National Phobics Society estimates at least four million Britons are affected - but the true number could be many more.

Toilet phobia can simply be manifest as a mild distaste for public loos. But some people develop such an intense obsession that they are left housebound, and may refuse to undergo potentially life-saving medical examinations.

The first piece of advice I would give to such people: at all costs, avoid holidaying in France.

Sibling rivalry

I always think of Australians not as Britain’s children, but as our tearaway younger brothers, always determined to get one up on the older sibling.

As England prepare to defend the Ashes in Australia (has it really come so soon?), let us remind ourselves of what Anglo-Aussie sport is all about.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A meat balti and a pint of Kingfisher, innit

Hinglish - a hybrid of English and south Asian languages, used both in Asia and the UK - now has its own dictionary. Is it really a pukka way to speak?

Are you a "badmash"? And if you had to get somewhere in a hurry, would you make an "airdash"? Maybe you should be at your desk working, instead you're reading this as a "timepass".

These are examples of Hinglish, in which English and the languages of south Asia overlap, with phrases and words borrowed and re-invented.

It's used on the Indian sub-continent, with English words blending with Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi, and also within British Asian families to enliven standard English.

A dictionary of the hybrid language has been gathered by Baljinder Mahal, a Derby-based teacher and published this week as The Queen's Hinglish.

“Much of it comes from banter - the exchanges between the British white population and the Asians," she says.

And in multi-cultural playgrounds, she now hears white pupils using Asian words, such as "kati", meaning "I'm not your friend any more". For the young are linguistic magpies, borrowing from any language, accent or dialect that seems fashionable.

And the dictionary identifies how the ubiquitous "innit" was absorbed into British Asian speech via "haina" - a Hindi tag phrase, stuck on the sentences and meaning "is no?".

This collision of languages has generated some flavoursome phrases. If you're feeling "glassy" it means you need a drink. And a "timepass" is a way of distracting yourself. A hooligan is a "badmash" and if you need to bring a meeting forward, you do the opposite of postponing - in Hinglish you can "prepone".

There are also some evocatively archaic phrases - such as "stepney", which in south Asia is used to mean a spare, as in spare wheel, spare mobile or even, "insultingly, it must be said, a mistress," says Ms Mahal.

Its origins aren't in Stepney, east London, but Stepney Street in Llanelli, Wales, where a popular brand of spare tyre was once manufactured.

But don't assume that familiar Asian words used in the UK will necessarily translate back. "Balti" will probably be taken to mean bucket in India rather than a type of cooking, as this cuisine owes more to the west Midlands than south Asia.

Much of the confusion in debates I've seen about multiculturalism in Britain stems from the fact that we use the word ‘multiculturalism’ to mean melting pot, and Americans use it to mean the opposite.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Birkenhead Drill

I recently came across a good quote from W. Somerset Maugham, which got me thinking that few things capture the best of Britishness better than the refrain “Women and children first.”

In that simple cliché lies everything you need to know about the attitude that built an Empire: calm in a crisis, stoical self-sacrifice, and above all, a deep-seated love of, and unshakeable faith in, the benefits of forming an orderly queue.

Most often associated with the Titanic, the phrase apparently originates with the HMS Birkenhead disaster in 1852, and is mentioned in the Kipling poem Soldier an' Sailor Too:

…To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill
is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies --
soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps
an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill,
soldier an' sailor too!

We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves,
an' the rest are as rank as can be,
But once in a while we can finish in style
(which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me)...

Anyway, the Somerset Maugham quote was "I much prefer travelling in non-British ships. There's none of that nonsense about women and children first."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Greens v America

A terrific (and terrifically long) thread over on Thought Mesh illustrates the scattergun approach of anti-Americanism. ('Scattergun' because the accusations are many and rapid rather than focused and thoughtful, quantity over quality – leading to frequent self-contradiction).

The reason I describe what has become the default leftist position in Europe as ‘anti-Americanism’ (implying that it involves invalid criticism) as opposed to just ‘criticism of America’ (of which some are valid) is that it has in common with many other ‘isms’ an irrational demonisation of an specific enemy.

Facts and actual consequences don’t matter with anti-Americanism: all that matters is the construction of a narrative in which ‘America’ is the villain.

This villain need not be consistent as an entity (at different times in the same argument ‘America’ can be the US as a whole over generations, or a particular US administration, or a secret cabal of ‘business’ and ‘oil companies’, or just the individual George W Bush and his religious lunacy or personal Freudian complexes about his father.)

Nor need the villain be consistent in its characteristics (one moment it is stupid and blundering, with no understanding of the complexities of international affairs; the next moment it is incredibly clever and Machiavellian, manipulating international affairs for its own gain; now it is well-meaning but foolish and naïve; now it is purely selfish).

When the villain is cast and facts have become an irrelevance, it becomes very easy to lazily accumulate a set of beliefs acknowledged as truisms, but with no basis in reality.

The myth of Kyoto
The thread on Though Mesh looks at some of the common lazy beliefs about the Iraq war, oil and imperialism.

But another, absolutely belting one, is this: “America doesn’t care about carbon emissions - Bush is destroying the planet because he refused to sign up to Kyoto.

Who doesn’t believe that?

But did you know, for example, that the USA is a signatory of the Kyoto protocol, but that it was the beloved and much-lamented Clinton administration that refused to ratify it, following a unanimous (95-0) Senate vote against ratifying a policy that could penalise the US but that gave absolutely no binding targets to developing countries?

Bush merely continued the policy. And here’s what he said: “This is a challenge that requires a 100% effort; ours, and the rest of the world's. The world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases is the People's Republic of China. Yet, China was entirely exempted from the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. India and Germany are among the top emitters. Yet, India was also exempt from Kyoto … America's unwillingness to embrace a flawed treaty should not be read by our friends and allies as any abdication of responsibility. To the contrary, my administration is committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change … Our approach must be consistent with the long-term goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.”

And amazingly, he wasn’t even lying! Instead, the USA signed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate with the countries that matter, including China and India, which has similar targets but none of the skewed penalties.

Here are some more inconvenient facts:

The USA is one of the few countries that is actually on track to meet its carbon emission targets – by reducing its carbon intensity by 18% by 2012. (The UK is also on target).

Germany the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden are not on target, but might get there via international carbon trading.

Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland have all increased emissions but can also rely on carbon trading. Japan and Norway have increased emissions by such a large degree that they are certain to miss their targets. France has reduced its emissions by just 2%, but then its target was only to maintain 1990 levels.

But of course, what matters to anti-Americanism is that ‘George Bush refused to sign Kyoto’ and stories always trump facts, and intentions trump results.

David Cohen described a certain middle-class leftist view of social policy thus: “I am a good person if I help the poor. I help the poor by arguing that the Government should tax people like me more and give the money to the poor. I am a good person.”

The anti-American green equivalent is this: “I am a good person if I do my bit for the environment. I do my bit for the environment by stating that the USA is the world’s worst polluter. I am a good person.”

Don’t miss the next exciting instalment: How the French and Germans enjoy the unique position of being able to snipe at the relative lack of American spending on national health because they can rely on the USA to do all their defence spending for them...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Perfect fit

A jilted Romanian man found a new bride by asking which of his neighbours could fit into the wedding dress.

Florin Mazilu, from Malu Mare in southeastern Romania, is now recommending buying the dress first and looking for the wife second. He claims his stand-in bride has turned out to be the love of his life after original fiancée Adelina Epure dumped him four days before their wedding.

Mazilu spread word in his hometown that he would marry any girl who fitted into the wedding dress and the wedding ring he had already bought.

Within hours he had found 21-year-old local Ana Maria who fitted perfectly into the dress and ring.

He said: "I had everything prepared for the wedding but no bride. I was determined to go ahead with a wedding though and while the conditions I set for a bride were unusual I knew that if she fitted the dress and could wear the ring on her finger it would work.

"Ana Maria was the only one of dozens of girls who could fit into the dress perfectly and could wear the ring. It was love at first sight. I knew she was perfect from the moment I saw her."

It might be an interesting test of your mental health to see which fairytale you thought of first: Cinderella and the glass slipper (romantic), or Procrustes and his bed (psychopath).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Travellers’ Tales (the only thing more boring than listening to people’s dreams?)

At a recent wedding reception it was my misfortune to be cornered for a while by a fellow who insisted on telling me of his life and opinions in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail. By the end of the ‘conversation’ I knew pretty much everything about him, but I doubt he even knew my name. He certainly didn’t ask me any questions.

Now, we all know that there is nothing worse than being collared by someone who can’t tell the difference between a dialogue and a monologue. It is a particular failing of still-single men in their early 40s, I’ve noticed, to launch unbidden, at the first drink, into a long autobiography – or rather, self-mythology – of exaggerated adventure and career success; and my theory is that it stems from a deep insecurity about a rapidly disappearing youth and an unconscious need to justify their wifeless, childless existence.

All of which is bad enough, but this fellow was that most objectionable breed: a ‘traveller’ – emphatically not a ‘tourist’, note, but a ‘traveller’. He eschewed nationality, proclaiming himself a ‘world citizen’ and a ‘first generation backpacker.’

Which whingeing about a stranger I’m unlikely ever to meet again now brings me to my point. I have always been dubious about the claims of those who loudly and pompously disown the staid, cosseted associations of the label ‘tourist’ in favour of the much more glamorous ‘traveller’. This is not because I deny the adventurousness of ‘first generation backpackers’ (though the actual danger the Thailand-tramping trustafarians place themselves in is, I suspect, fairly limited), but because of the self-satisfied insistence they place on having experienced THE REAL™ [INSERT COUNTRY]. As in “You can’t get to experience the REAL Lanzarote/Greece/Goa/Thailand as a tourist, man.”

So what is “the Real™ Seville” or “the Real™ Crete” as defined by the ‘traveller’? Geographically, it generally seems to be whatever area the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books tell them to go to. Occupationally, it is an insistence on drinking coffee only in those hostelries patronised exclusively by very old men. Accommodation-wise, it is youth hostels. Transport-wise, it is hitch-hiking.

And here the cracks begin to appear in the whole ‘backpacker’ philosophy. Real™ locals don’t live by the Lonely Planet guide. Occupationally, most Real™ locals in backpacking destinations spend their days servicing the very tourist industry the travellers seek to avoid. They don’t live in YMCAs and they don’t hitch-hike either – they drive their own cars.

I love visiting European cities. I don’t go as part of a package tour, I find my own way around and I try to speak the lingo. I do not however, believe that this somehow puts me in an elite class some several rungs of the sophistication ladder above a mere ‘tourist’. Nor do I pretend that not having a rep to show me around enables me to therefore experience the Real™ Thing. Real Berliners and Barcelonians do not stay in hotels, do not go out for expensive dinners every night and do not wander open-mouthed around the famous sights all day. Nor do they take photographs of everything that doesn’t move, nor spend hours slowly revolving stands of postcards in search of the perfect one for Uncle Fred.

They do what everyone in this world does, who can afford it: they work in the day, watch the telly in the evening, and drink alcohol at the weekend – a Reality I don’t need to ‘travel’ far to experience. They also go away for their holidays. And if they can’t afford it, no amount of donning ethnic clothes, growing dreadlocks and failing to shave will replicate their existence. Tourism is about wonder and travel is about adventure: it is the very opposite of reality, which is the whole point.

(And despite lecturing me for a good 20 minutes about the difficulties of publishing in the UK (he’d written an autobiography and had it vanity-published) he never asked me what I did for a living.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I will not buy this record, it is scratched

A "Tower of Babel" device that gives the illusion of being bilingual is being developed by US scientists.

Users simply have to silently mouth a word in their own language for it to be translated and read out in another.

The researchers said the effect was like watching a television programme that had been dubbed.

The system, detailed in New Scientist, is not yet fully accurate, but experts said it showed the technology was "within reach".

The potential for comic mishap is limitless...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Life through a lens

This story about those crazy snap-happy Japanese tourists is also doing the blog rounds…

"Paris Syndrome" leaves Japanese tourists in shock

Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday.

"A third of patients get better immediately, a third suffer relapses and the rest have psychoses," Yousef Mahmoudia, a psychologist at the Hotel-Dieu hospital, next to Notre Dame cathedral, told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche...

"Fragile travellers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis," psychologist Herve Benhamou told the paper.

The phenomenon, which the newspaper dubbed "Paris Syndrome", was first detailed in the psychiatric journal Nervure in 2004.

Bernard Delage of Jeunes Japon, an association that helps Japanese families settle in France, said: "In Japanese shops, the customer is king, whereas here assistants hardly look at them ... People using public transport all look stern, and handbag snatchers increase the ill feeling."

A Japanese woman, Aimi, told the paper: "For us, Paris is a dream city. All the French are beautiful and elegant ... And then, when they arrive, the Japanese find the French character is the complete opposite of their own."

True, the streets of Paris are paved with dog turds, but since English expectations of the French are so rock-bottom low in the first place, the biggest shock for us is how bloody lovely it all is.

Around the blogs

I think we need some new issues, as it gets harder and harder to take ‘serious blogging’ seriously. Here are two things that have caught my eye this morning:

Dunce of the Day:

Brave Scot Steven Wood finds his way to Thought Mesh and unleashes a positive torrent of anti-American leftist cant, cleverly overcoming the problem that half of his arguments contradict the other half by simply ignoring it. AOG (also known as Susan’s Husband on this site), systematically destroys each ill-thought point in turn, but with the anti-American left, it isn’t so much what you argue, more the fact that you’re arguing that counts. And AOG finds himself fighting a Hydra: every time you cut off a head, a new one grows back.

And talking of brave Scots...

Most preposterous comment of the day

Inevitably, Lou Gots on BrothersJudd wins, with his comment on the possibility of Scottish devolution.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Environmentalism: the new Puritanism

Australians have been told to stop singing in the shower in an attempt to save electricity and water.

Power supplier Energy Australia says exercising the vocal cords in the bathroom adds an extra 9.08 minutes to a shower.

Singing, daydreaming, shaving, and other "nonessential activities" in the shower are adding to the average family's power bills and also contributing to global warming, it says.

"If the average family cut their showers by two minutes, they would save just over $100 a year."

Energy Australia says that if customers insist on singing in the shower, they should choose shorter songs.

The company is distributing 500,000 shower timers in the Sydney area to remind consumers to be more energy efficient.

Think how much energy we could save if all the human beings on the planet just committed suicide right now.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Und wo sind dein Beatles, Herr Schmitz?

Boris Johnson in The Telegraph :

Of all the wounding things that foreigners have said about the English people, it is hard to think of an insult more savage than that directed at this country in 1904. They have called us perfidious. They have called us a nation of shopkeepers. They have said that we are in love with our nannies. Nowadays they tell us that we are the fattest, drunkest people in Europe, and that our children leave primary school with the vaguest understanding of reading and writing.

At all these barbs, we just take a deep breath. But when a German critic called Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz composed a dithyramb of abuse of the English cultural scene, just over 100 years ago, he included a jibe from which we have never really recovered. It stung. It made us blink like puppies suddenly kicked, and until now we have never had the nerve to fire back at Schmitz — because we have a terrible feeling that he may have been on to something. England, he said, is Das Land Ohne Musik.

Since this is nowadays — thanks to Labour's abolition of modern languages — a land without German, I will translate. England is the country without music, said Schmitz, and in his verdict on our attainments he was, for a German, quite mild. In the 1840s, the German poet Heinrich Heine had been on a tour of England, and had soaked up quite a lot of the early Victorian cultural scene: the wife crunching something out on the upright piano, the chap in whiskers yodelling over her shoulder.

Teufel! said the German. Mein Gott! "These people have no ear either for rhythm or music and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is all the more repulsive. Nothing on Earth is more terrible than English music," said the shell-shocked aesthete, "except English painting."

And how have we reacted to these teutonic assaults, my friends? I am afraid we have responded with more or less complete acquiescence. We cough. We shuffle and we hang our heads. We look at the world's top composers, the real megastars, and in the first rank we see nothing but Germans or Austrians: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. And when we get on to the second rank we find Wagner, Haydn, Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch, Mahler, Brahms, Verdi, Puccini, Mendelssohn and so on (extend the list as you like).

Where are our lads? What was going on in this country from about 1700 to 1900? There may have been plenty of Thomas Hardy-style scraping of fiddles and stamping of feet, and there may have been plenty of peasant lasses hitching up their skirts and dancing round the barn. But where is it now? How much of it has been recorded and how many original English compositions, dating from that period could you expect to find in a record store in Berlin?

It seems there was one chap called Thomas Linley, who died prematurely, in a boating accident, in 1777, and whose death was keenly lamented by Mozart. But it is stretching things to blame boating accidents for our failure to produce a first-rank composer from the entire romantic or classical period.

In our despair we turn to the deep socio-economic explanations. Perhaps it was our usual vice of snobbery; perhaps the English did not esteem the composers of music in the way they were esteemed on the Continent. Perhaps our monarchs spent too much time hunting or rogering to think it worth sponsoring the creation of great art.

Or perhaps we were simply too good at literature (where, of course, we have a series of heavyweight champs), and too blessed in our freedom of expression, so that artistic temperaments did not feel the necessity to sublimate their feelings in music or painting.

It sounds like a feeble excuse, doesn't it? Whatever the cause, we have tended to acknowledge the dreadful truth of Schmitz's insult, and in 1964 the critic Colin Wilson said that "much English music has the insipid flavour of a BBC variety orchestra playing an arrangement of a nursery rhyme". English music has been the subject of reflexive embarrassment, like Morris dancing. We associate it instinctively with corduroy-jacketed professors in sandals, their spectacles fixed with Sellotape, descanting madrigals before Sunday lunch.

For children of my generation, the idea of great English composers was about as plausible as the idea of great English tennis players or the great English Austin Allegro. And as soon as you put it like that, you start to wonder whether we are, in fact, falling prey to the characteristic English vice, and doing ourselves down.

Because at the very moment that Schmitz was composing his insult, English music was on the verge of an extraordinary inflorescence, an explosion of talent that we have tended to forget — precisely because it is English. Parry and Vaughan Williams were founding the Royal College of Music, and leading British composers away from the German tendency, and there are many who would say that, for the rest of the 20th century, we left the Germans standing. This week in Dorchester on Thames, in the ancient and beautiful abbey with its perfect acoustics, I humbly invite you listen to the works of Vaughan Williams and Elgar and Holst, Britten and WH Reed, Algernon Ashton, Gerald Finzi and many others...

After defining maudlin music with Greensleeves there probably didn’t seem much point in writing anything new for a few centuries, when Elgar decided to top it with Nimrod.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pass the sellotape

A US casino mogul has pulled out of a deal to sell his Picasso painting for a record $139m (£74m) after accidentally elbowing a hole in the middle.

Las Vegas magnate Steve Wynn was showing Le Reve (The Dream) to guests at his office in Las Vegas last month. Mr Wynn, who has retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease affecting peripheral vision, tore a coin-sized hole.

He will now keep the painting, which he bought in 1997 for $48.4m, and repair it, his spokeswoman said.

…Mr Wynn, known for gesturing with hands while speaking, was showing the painting at his office at Wynn Las Vegas when he struck it with his right elbow, spokeswoman Denise Randazzo said.

Director and screenwriter Nora Ephron was at the incident and wrote about it on a blog site. She said Mr Wynn raised his hand then "at that moment, his elbow crashed backward right through the canvas. There was a terrible noise".

"Smack in the middle... was a black hole the size of a silver dollar. 'Look what I've done' he said. 'Thank goodness it was me.'"

The innate goodness of a man whose first thought after such an incident is “Thank goodness it was me” precludes any sarky comment I may have been contemplating.

As on a darkling plain

The cumulus clouds are piled high in a Delft-blue sky and a stiff breeze is blowing. A perfect Indian summer day for a bracing stride along a long, wide beach. You dump your car and, with the sound of the sea growing louder as the wind whips at your hair, you cross the dunes. Wind farm and cranes to the left. Lighthouse across the estuary. At sea, a passing container ship. And in front, 100 barnacled cast-iron figures of naked men scattered for three kilometres along the sands and gazing out towards Ireland. Some are all but submerged beneath brown waters flecked with white; some are merely paddling; others are high and dry.

This is Another Place, an installation by Antony Gormley on the beach at Crosby, just north of the docks in Liverpool. The iron men, as they are known round here, have, since they were installed in July 2005, proved as popular with the people of Merseyside as Gormley's Angel of the North has with the people of Tyneside.

In the early days, they were fitted with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, football shirts (both Liverpool and Everton) and seaweed dreadlocks. Then Christians dressed them as shepherds and wise men, brought in a live camel and staged a nativity play. A ballet group mounted a performance with the figures as a backdrop. Fathers4Justice dressed 40 in purple superhero costumes. Christian Aid and a local hospice enlisted their help in fundraising. Jet skiers used them for slalom practice and BBC Radio 4 broadcast an afternoon play inspired by them.

But nothing special is happening on this quiet weekday, just people down on the beach, wandering from man to man. The women tend to touch, the men to take pictures

...The figures are due to move to New York in November after a 16-month stay. But such is their popularity that a campaign is under way to keep them at Crosby.

Conceptual art will also be popular art if it is good. Most conceptual art is unpopular because most of it is rubbish. But that applies to all art forms.

Another Place looks like an irresistible combination of the Easter Island moai statues and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Perhaps with a dash of Morrissey chucked in.

Conceptual art is not a new invention by postmodernists: it is the most primal art form. Tate Britain is the most popular museum in the world, because people will always look for something beyond pretty.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Sorting the wheat from the chavs

Notoriously eccentric' Oxbridge interviews

Oxbridge universities are reportedly asking applicants increasingly wacky questions to see who 'cuts the mustard'.

Questions being asked in interviews at Oxford and Cambridge include: 'At what point is a person dead?', 'How does a perm work?' and 'Are you cool?'

Other questions included: 'What percentage of the world's water is contained in a cow' and 'Of all 19th-century politicians, who was most like Tony Blair?'

The findings come from a survey of 1,200 of last year's applicants by the Oxbridge Applications advice company.

Jessica Elsom, of Oxbridge Applications, said the interview process was "notoriously eccentric".

More young people than ever were getting A grades at A-level, making it more difficult for leading universities to distinguish between candidates. She added: "With the increase in the numbers of students excelling at A-level, the Oxbridge interviews are one way of finding out who really cuts the mustard."

In the perennial debate about ever-improving A-level results, and whether pupils are getting cleverer or exams are getting easier, it surprises me how often the obvious answer is overlooked: the exam questions don’t change that much from year to year, so by using past papers, teachers just get better at coaching students to tick the right exam boxes.

It’s as good or better, from an exam results point of view, to be a mediocre student at a very good school, than a very good student at a mediocre school. Eccentric questions are thus necessary to sort out which is which.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One of the many perils of too much blogging…

…that I’ve noticed recently is a kind of Tetris Effect on my reading. When I come across an interesting or funny passage in a newspaper or book (you know, retro, manual ones made of paper), I sometimes find myself mentally trying to highlight it, for copying and pasting purposes.

The Tetris Effect is so called because people who became addicted to the Nintendo game would find themselves automatically sorting everyday objects in their field of vision into shapes, and imagine rotating them and fitting them together.

I remember experiencing something like this myself as a boy. On a religious camp at Buckfast Abbey I spent so much of the week playing snooker, pool and billiards that for days afterwards I would mentally line everything up as if cueing: so during mass I would be unable to concentrate on anything other than the angle I would need to strike the priest so that he ‘potted’ the altar boy out of the chapel door.

So the moral of the story is: don’t do anything all day everyday. It will drive you quite mad…

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Getaway

On the day that the North Koreans test nuclear weapons, the BBC also brings us this:

Singer Chris de Burgh has said he has healing hands which have "helped reduce pain" for people with injuries.

"We all have the facilities within our hands to feel other people's pain spots," the Irish star told BBC One's Heaven and Earth programme.

He said his musical work meant he was "connected very strongly" to his hands.

"A guy I met one time - he'd hurt his leg badly in a golfing accident," the 57-year-old, whose hits include Lady in Red, said.

"He was in serious pain, just below the knee, and I felt the area above had been traumatised. I started feeling and I'd say within 20 minutes, he was walking again.”

And who can blame him? I’d run over hot coals on two broken ankles to get away from Chris de Burgh’s ‘healing hands’.


We watched the movie The Squid and the Whale the other night – a low-key but vicious little tale, set in 1980s Brooklyn, about the effects on two teenage boys of the divorce of their literary parents.

Jeff Daniels is the world’s worst dad, a great big pretentious, self-obsessed jerk who has forged a reputation as an intellectual heavyweight. Disastrously, his eldest son Walt hero-worships him, and instead of ‘wasting his time’ reading English texts, he merely recites the opinions fed to him by his father.

The comedy is based on the excruciating embarrassment of adolescence. In one scene, Walt tries to impress a girl by telling her that the end of The Metamorphosis is "very Kafka-esque”. “Well it was written by Kafka”, she replies, non-plussed.

Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ as his own composition. When rumbled, he is forced to see the school shrink. His explanation for the crime is magisterial:

“I felt I could have written the song. So the fact that it had already been written didn’t seem important somehow.”

Highly recommended, if you can bear 80 minutes of squirming.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Now that's what I call news

Lions are at the top of the animal food chain, but they have never hunted elephants - until now. Our correspondent watches a BBC crew record the most shocking nature film you will ever see…

…A few years ago stories began to emerge from Botswana that were so extraordinary wildlife experts struggled to believe them. The north of the country is home to 130,000 elephants, a quarter of the world’s population. According to guides in a remote area of Chobe National Park a pride of lions had started attacking elephants. Driven by extreme hunger at the height of the dry season, when their normal prey was scarce, they had started by taking down baby elephants and then moved on to adolescents and occasionally even fully grown adults.

When you leave reality behind for a week you often come back to big news, but this? Lions eat elephants now? The world seems a different, more hostile place, somehow.

Wot I did on my holidays

...when not chasing burglars across balconies at 4am.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Brits abroad

We're off to Crete to AbZorba the Greek sunshine (sorry) for a week, brilliantly timing it just as Skipper touches down on the Mud Peanut.

So long, suckers.


Yes, I'm back. Sigh.

Easy Ryder

Now that the Americans return home following what we can now confidently describe as their traditional biennial Ryder Cup thrashing, it is interesting to consider one of the great sporting puzzles.

The immediate reasons why the millionaire Major-winning Americans keep getting pounded by their relatively poor European counterparts are not mysterious: despite having better individual players, they simply cannot adjust to playing a team game.

Golf is a game of very fine margins at the top level and is therefore played mostly in the mind. Thus, you could have staked your house on the Europeans after the first round of fourballs, just from watching the body language. The Europeans made it look like golf was actually a fun game, the Americans, especially Woods, made it look like the whole thing was a chore somewhat less pleasant than cleaning out sewers.

The deeper puzzle is why this should happen, when the USA is, after all, a proper and ferociously patriotic country, and the ‘Europe’ is an entirely artificial team of convenience, which participates under said banner in no other major sport. Surely it should be the other way about, with the US uniting under the flag, and the Euros but a Babel Tower of disconnected individuals?

But perhaps therein lies the answer. When the British Isles team was expanded to include continental Europe in the late 70s to make it a proper contest, the idea was presumably so that the Brits could be augmented by some extra decent players. But the Europe banner provides much more than just a couple of ice-cool Swedes and suave Spaniards – in a way it takes all the pressure off. The US team has to cope with the burden of representing a nation, and put up with all those oh-so-endearing and not at all infuriatingly repetitive chants of “Yoo Ess Ay”. There are no chants about ‘Europe’ because nobody supports ‘Europe’. They’re just a bunch of otherwise-underachieving men aiming to knock the private jet-flying yanks off their perch every couple of years, and we love them for it.

Much is made of the fact that the players don’t socialise on the US Tour – they play their round then go back to the hotel and order room service, whereas the European tour players all drink pints of the Black Stuff in the bar together. And that is what it comes down to: the American team consists of a set of men who don’t like each other, burdened down by the expectations of a nation. The European team is a group of mates playing just for each other.

The whole thing is thus completely unfair.

Other than reverting back to a British-only team, the only way to even it up for next time will be to change the US team to “The Americas.” You wouldn’t even need to actually have any token Mexicans or Canadians playing, just so long as nobody watching can jinx the home golfers by shouting “Yoo Ess Ay, You Ess Ay….”

(ps. The US team would also immediately benefit by dropping that waste of space Mickelson)

Friday, September 22, 2006

There’s always an Olympic swimming pool involved somewhere, experts warn

From the BBC

Half of UK children "drink" almost five litres of cooking oil every year as a result of their pack-a-day crisp habit, experts warn.

Figures from Mintel reveal that we eat a tonne of crisps every three minutes in the UK.

This would be enough to fill a telephone box every 43 seconds and an Olympic size swimming pool every 14 hours.

Researcher 1: How about this, Steve? I’ve worked out that every Thursday all the left-handed people in Britain eat enough sugar to fill 52 Fiat Pandas per hour, which is the equivalent of filling eight Olympic swimming pools with hamsters every forty minutes, and if converted into energy would equal the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes!

Researcher 2: Oh nice stat, Jim.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Whither Canada?

How’s this for a piece of writing?

Rupert Brooke’s thoughts on the New World, from his Letters from America:

A godless place. And the dead do not return. That is why there is nothing lurking in the heart of the shadows, and no human mystery in the colours, and neither the same joy nor the kind of peace in dawn and sunset that older lands know. It is, indeed, a new world. How far away seem those grassy, moonlit places in England that have been Roman camps or roads, where there is always serenity, and the spirit of a purpose at rest, and the sunlight flashes upon more than flint! Here one is perpetually a first- comer. The land is virginal, the wind cleaner than elsewhere, and every lake new-born, and each day is the first day. The flowers are less conscious than English flowers, the breezes have nothing to remember, and everything to promise.

There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes. This is the essence of the grey freshness and brisk melancholy of this land. And for all the charm of those qualities, it is also the secret of a European's discontent. For it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead.


I managed to break my beak in a bizarre martial arts accident last night. It’s only a small, insignificant fracture, but what is surprising is the extent to which the whole of my bonce, not just the old conk, hurt, as if in my confusion after the initial blow I wandered off and placed my noggin in a vice for a bit, and this action has been wiped from my memory. It also appears to have sent the archaic body-part slang area of my brain into overdrive.

This inspires me to consider the most painful sports injuries I’ve sustained, and the snozz-snapping doesn’t come close.

In reverse order, my top three are:

3) fractured ribs – from somebody’s elbow a couple of years ago. Didn’t even notice this at the time, but was subsequently unable to sneeze, cough or laugh for weeks, which was inconvenient as I indulge in all three frequently.

2) torn ligaments in the foot – when I was 11, requiring me to be on crutches over an entire Christmas holiday (I secretly enjoyed this until the novelty wore off)

1) an ingrown toenail, following a broken toe – about 4 years ago. Man, that really hurt, and for ages and ages.

Since all of the above were sustained in competitive football matches, I’m starting to think that maybe there is something in the claim that soccer is the root of all evil, after all.

Please feel free to share your most painful and/or funniest injuries here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Nice try, Herr Wendel, but you're no Banksy

A German art student briefly fooled police by posing as one of China's terracotta warriors at the heritage site in the ancient capital, Xian.

Pablo Wendel, made up like an ancient warrior, jumped into a pit showcasing the 2,200-year-old pottery soldiers and stood motionless for several minutes.

The 26-year-old was eventually spotted by police and removed from the scene.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Regular's Sonnet

A Regular’s Sonnet
(He’s on it again)

by Brit

I go up the Co-Op and on my way down,
If there’s not much special on the telly,
I might just pop into the Rose and Crown
And get a coupla jars in my belly.
It’s not for the ale (though they got some nice brews)
That the Crown gets all the time on my hands.
The corner shop next door’s called the News n Booze
But all they got is newspapers and cans.
If I wanted to get soused I could do it in the house
But that don’t give the same satisfaction,
Cos here you can sit just as quiet as a mouse,
And still be at the heart of the action.
So the liver and the missus can both kiss it,
Cos if it happens here I int goin' to miss it!

For gluttons who want more punishment along these lines, I have added a Poet’s Corner, which includes some even sillier things, like my ode to cold sales calling, and some wilfully excruciating limericks.

Banksy goes to America

Hype and secrecy surrounds graffiti artist Banksy's Barely Legal exhibition in California, which opens later this week.

In typical Banksy fashion, it was not until two hours before the media preview, that I was given the address of the venue for his exhibition.

A 37-year old Indian elephant has been painted, from head to tail, in a floral pattern reminiscent of an old fashioned living room or a British pub.

The animal is made to stand in a makeshift living room, complete with sofa, chandelier and decorated with wallpaper in the same pattern.

"I've still got to get my head around that one," said Jason Bentley, a commentator on US public radio.

About eight years ago or so I was walking to work down Cheltenham Road in Bristol, when I was stopped in my tracks by this enormous and technically astonishing piece of graffiti, plastered, presumably overnight, on the side of the council housing offices.

It depicts a bright yellow teddy bear tossing a Molotov cocktail at some riot police, beneath the slogan “The Mild, Mild West”.

I was so impressed, both with the skill and weirdness of the work, and with the fact that somebody had managed to do it at all, that the next day I took a photo of it, expecting it to be removed sharpish.

But it’s still there now, a well-known feature of the city, and the mysterious Banksy has become Bristol's most famous ‘artist’.

At least, some people call him an artist (mainly because when there is an obvious message, it’s predictably trendy-left). I’d call him a prankster.

His targets have evolved from the streets of Bristol to the British Museum, New York, Disneyland, Paris Hilton and even the West Bank barricade.

And now that he’s gone global, his works in his home town have become as protected as Grade II listed buildings.

I’m not sure what that says about anything.