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).