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.