Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My name escapes me

The startling revelation by Mike Beversluis that he has always mispronounced his own surname raises an almost, but not quite, entirely uninteresting philosophical question.

Is the pronunciation of your name a matter of complete personal freedom, or does the ancestral baggage attached to the surname give you a certain obligation to be objective? After all, the surname is an heirloom held only briefly in your hands.

On Pinter

I watched Harold Pinter’s Celebration last night, performed on More4 by a very starry cast, including Michael Gambon playing his usual foul-mouthed beefy bully.*

I tried to watch it with an open mind. Honestly I did. After all, I like some of Pinter’s stuff. (Well, I liked the film of The Go-Between and I can tolerate The Birthday Party in the same numb sort of way that I can tolerate watching endless pile-ups in a show called something like America’s Most Shocking Car Crashes 7).

I tried to wipe from my mind the knowledge that this was a man with political views so ridiculous that, as with death and the sun, it is impossible to look directly at them.

But sadly, Celebration was written in 1999, so the Nobel-winning Pinter was well on the way to the sterile senility that produced his sub-sixth form 'anti-war' 'poems'.

Oh God it was bad. A really, stinkingly bad exercise in empty misanthropy: a forty minute eternity of inadequate Beckett-imitation. There was one saving grace: a waiter played by Stephen Rea who kept ‘interjecting’ with amusing tall-tales about his grandfather. But Pinter managed to ruin even this by giving him a vacuous soliloquy to end the piece. Best avoided, really.

*see also The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; The Singing Detective etc. (I’m only surprised he didn’t announce his inauguration as Albus Dumbledore by telling the gathered pupils of Hogwarts to “Shut your mouths, you ‘orrible f***** wizard c****”).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Art Snobs

To be read aloud, with venom.

The Art Snobs

Saints save us from the Art Snobs.
Their great big gobs. Those super-
cilious, bilious blobs of snoot.
Ugly to boot. You’ve seen,
You know the ones I mean:

They peer down ridged nose bridges.
They sneer down half-mast glasses.
They’ve been to college, they think they know it.
They’ve drawn the line and you must toe it.

They tell you what you must or mustn’t rate
and have and haven’t read. They prate
away and say ‘It’s all a swizz!
It isn’t art if it don’t look like what it is!’
It can’t be art if you have to see it twice
(Though Monet’s allowed in, okay, he’s quite nice.)
And every modern monument must be
'A carbuncle' and 'a mad monstrosity'.
And music isn’t if it’s not melody, just Art
Garfunkel, Sinatra, Mozart and that TV
ad for the airline. All the rest
don’t count if they don’t pass the Whistle Test.

And other boring tests, and boring laws.
They’ve decreed a boring canon even more
strict than any canon gone before.

(Fear not, they’ve not forgotten
to exclude the trashy bottom.
Tabloid pop and mags and chav hip hop.
They’ve just lopped off the top.
Or anything that requires a stretch;
The certainty of the certifiably unsure

So saints save us from the Art Snobs.
Their great big gobs. Those super-
cilious, bilious blobs of snoot. Back to
the Age of Hooper we ought to boot
the haughty brutes. The wilful stupor
of an Age which scuttled out the old snobs -
the Cambridge Queers and Oxford Nobs -
and God we almost miss 'em,
now our Gods are King and Grisham.

But still. Every action has a reaction.
Antithesis, synthesis, repulsion, attraction.
A critical mass of half-mast glasses, Kipling verses.
The critics and the masses. The common classes versus
the literati class. My arse! Keep your Common Man,
I’ve not yet met him.

I used to think the first snobs were a curse.
The Reverse are worse.

And to the po-faced, red-faced bar-room wit,
Who rules a poem must rhyme, I say:

Monday, February 26, 2007

The British Empire rises again - in the blogosphere

Over on Diversely We Sail, Peter says that “the British press seems to be going through a period of introspective fixation on the issues of marriage, family cohesion and youthful dysfunction.”

This post isn’t about that, but it is about the British press: in particular, the British newspaper opinion column.

This in an area where Britannia still indisputably rules the world. In terms of quantity, the US dominates the political/social blogs of course, but a vastly disproportionate number of cut-and-pastings on them come from the hacks at The Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent.

The instant editorial comment on contemporary trends and zeitgeists seems to be a British speciality. This is not an unqualified Good Thing, but it is a great thing for the way that the blogosphere works. It helps that all the British broadsheets have terrific websites of course, but British newspapers do just seem to be in a different league when it comes to quality of writing.

Bryan Appleyard observes that the best US writing is to be found in magazines rather than papers. For some reason, whereas US magazine writing is top-notch and in-depth, the American newspaper hacks don’t seem so able to discover that happy middle ground between extremist shock-jock polemic on the one hand; and bland statement of the factually correct and the uncontroversial obvious on the other.

The British are in danger of completely monopolising this blog-friendly middle-ground of thoughtful but forthright daily hackery.

For proof, take a look at Daniel Finkelstein’s 'Daily Fix' round-up of all the journos.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Croke Park

A genuine moment of goosebumps yesterday.

Ireland walloped England at rugby but for once I really didn't mind. Because of redevelopment work at usual rugby venue Lansdowne Road, the game was hosted at Croke Park, scene of the 1920 massacre on Bloody Sunday and still focal point of anti-English sentiment.

Pre-match, there was controversy about whether God Save the Queen could be played in the stadium. Minutes before the anthem, I had some horrible premonitions. These turned out to be quite wrong, as the Irish fans heard it in respectful silence, then applauded. If there can be a pointed round of applause, this was it.

We talk about 'vital' matches and heroic performances, and those who dislike sport scoff at the pomposity. And rightly so, to a degree. In itself, sport is trivial, but this triviality allows it to reflect the important. TV debates and poltical forums are, in the short term anyway, platforms for argument and division. Sporting occasions afford a unique opportunity for populations to unite, to express the sentiment of the majority and the spirit of the age.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Founding Fathers: bunch of poofs

I posted this elsewhere recently, but in case you missed it, here's me the other night explaining to a chap called Neil about why we love America.

Warning to Duck: contains dissing of the moon landing

Warning to everyone else: contains some swearing

Friday, February 23, 2007

Auden, the major-major poet

Wednesday saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of WH Auden, so the BBC has been stopping the clocks, catching the Night Mail and Telling the Truth about Love all week.

On his excellent blog, Bryan Appleyard calls Auden “the last great English poet.” This bold statement raises the ghost of Larkin. Years ago, Appleyard famously dismissed Larkin as an example of “repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity”, though he now distances himself from this dismissal.

He does however still claim that Larkin is major-minor, whereas Auden is major-major. Aside from the danger of coming over all Catch-22 (Major Major Major Major), this gives us an interesting method for categorizing poets.

Larkin is major-minor because he is brilliant but in a very narrow range – albeit the most important range. Betjeman is also major-minor because he is just on the wrong side of the style-substance balance. Ted Hughes, on the other hand, is minor-major, because he is epic and wide-ranging but not universal, ie. too obscure and self-indulgent.

Auden alone, therefore, is major-major, because he has the range, the style and the universality.

I can buy that, though I still like Auden best when he is Betjemanish (funny and rhyming) or Larkinish (writing about death). But possibly none of the other major-minors and minor-majors could have written something quite as different and brilliant as Moon Landing.

On American teeth (in the style of Martin Amis)

Were we to plot on graph paper the sum dental health of humanity, we would find ourselves carving a bulbing arc, a Molar Mountain.

At the front foothills of this orthodontic Alp dwell the dental dead-losses, the odontophobes. The ones who never even made it to base camp. A rotten, head-clutching mass of groaning tramps and espresso-swigging, chain-smoking literary hacks, hacking gobs of yellow phlegm through yellow tombstones. These are the children that Denplan left behind.

Follow the little red lane up to the peak of this Canine Kilimanjaro and we find, in various degrees of agony, the moderate majority. The brushers, pickers, occasional flossers, getting by on chewing gum and the drill. Here we feel safe. This is the territory we know. The red wine stain and the antidote dose of Pearl Drops. The tepid promises of toothpaste ads, where the blue stripe does one thing and the red another.

But let us leave the safety of this hilltop and begin our descent, down the enamel Everest. The Other Side. Few have trodden these paths. This is the land of the Californian Smile. This is the Great American Beam. These are the toothy Hilarys; their Sherpas are superstar surgeons: dental deconstructionists and reconstructionists. This is the world of ‘Have a nice day’, of the breast implant and the Extreme Makeover, the automatic motel and the pneumatic blonde. Uniform rows of identical pegs gleam in robot grins that say “I belong here. You do not.” Hide your English inadequacy behind a curling lip and your mother tongue. Here every man is a movie star. Every woman is a Stepford Divorcee. It chills the sensitive soul and sears the sensitive tooth.

Gape on in despair at the artifice of perfection. Open wide and say ‘Aaaaaaaah’.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

For erp

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we brushed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose premolars and canines, so brilliant and white,
At the dentist we flashed, oh so happily beaming?
And the gums’ bright red glare, and the orthodontist’s chair,
Gave proof through the night that all our teeth were still there;
O say, does that star-spangled dental floss still glide
O’er the chops of the free and the home of fluoride?

The best poem ever written

I'm hanging up my rhyming dictionary. Nothing can compete with this.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Martin Amis’s teeth

Julia Buckley ponders the rule that all literary publicity photos must show the author in an attitude of pensive gloom.

Why can’t they ever smile? In the case of Martin Amis, we know the reason: his teeth. Amis's mouth is a notorious disaster-zone which must never see the light of day.

Amis’s dental trials and tribulations form a major strand of his finest book, Experience . This strange, looping memoir is one of the best books I have ever read about anything.

I always enjoy reading his non-fiction and his print media articles, but I have a love-hate relationship with Amis’s novels, as indeed I do with his father’s. They are both intense writers, albeit in very different ways.

Martin has a unique genius for vivid descriptive prose, but his determination to always avoid the cliché at any cost is exhausting over a whole book. Kingsley is the opposite, writing in determinedly plain everyday English, but his extreme close-up, real-time style is claustrophobic and equally exhausting.

The four essential Amis books are:

Kingsley: The King's English and The Old Devils

Martin: Experience and The War Against Cliché.

Fidget for England (via Monix)

Anglo-Aussie wit and raconteur Clive James amusingly skewers what he calls 'fidgeting' - the modern disease whereby everything has to be constantly renamed and rebranded. You can listen to it on BBC Radio 4 here.

James is a genuine polymath of intermittent brilliance, who has embraced the internet age with a premier league-quality website.

(His poems are a bit dodgy though).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More on the conspiracy nuts

The BBC programme about 9/11 nonsense and David’s link has introduced me to a horrible, horrible world of conspiracy and double-conspiracy of which I had hitherto had only an inkling.

Why do people need conspiracy theories? These are generally intelligent-seeming human beings: able to operate a computer, string sentences together, clothe and dress themselves and probably even use the toilet unassisted. And yet... such on-the-face-of-it, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face stupidity.

The BBC programme did touch on this wider question about the psychology of conspiracy theorists, with one interviewee suggesting that some people find it hard to grasp that something so appalling could have been committed by a small group of fanatics, so they need something else, something bigger, to blame.

That’s part of it, I’m sure. As is the paranoia created by this age of information-overload, plus real political spin and lies (Lewinsky, Watergate, all that other stuff ending in ‘gate’) and conspiracy-based TV shows like The X-Files.

But another factor is the ‘narrow-thinking’ trap. It’s like the family tree con we were talking about a few weeks ago. We have thousands of ancestors in incredibly bushy trees, yet people can be tricked into focusing on only one of these ‘lines’ of connection, in order to link themselves with a particular famous historical figure (when in reality, nearly everybody can trace a line to him). Likewise, the conspiracy theorist focuses so intensely on a particular series of events, such as the American Air Force’s ineffective response to the hijacks, or the puffs of air that precede the collapse of the WTC towers, that he becomes obsessed with it and is unable to see the wider picture or indeed, obvious explanations.

The other common link between these conspiracy nuts is staggering hubris. Their fragile egos need the boost of seeming smarter than their fellow citizens. They alone can see The Truth, while the rest of the sheep just follow the leaders. Consequently, they are far too far down the road to accept any debunking of their theories.

Dylan Avery, the spotty youth who made the Loose Change film, was pathetically proud of his achievements. Showing the cameraman his bedroom/studio, he boasted: “This is where the magic happens. Yes, sir.” He then went on to tell the tale of how he saved up to buy the laptop that “started the whole thing”. Having created a sick myth about an act of mass murder, he was now busy building a mythology about the Great Dylan Avery.

'Drum 'n bass' taken to its logical conclusion

Mod-rockers The Jam are to reform and tour but without frontman Paul Weller.

Bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler have not toured together in 25 years but will play a 20-date tour from 2 May, beginning in Oxford.

The Jam without the vocals or the lead guitar? Man alive, that sounds like a rotten gig. Mind you, if they can do an Elvis show without Elvis, anything is possible these days.

Anyway, it’s an excuse for a bit of this.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Blatcherism's shadow

Janet Daley writes a brave but sensible Emperor’s New Clothes-type piece in the Telegraph following the recent spate of gun deaths in London.

Contra Unicef's destructive and hateful report, modern Britain is a place numerically dominated by an affluent, ever-growing, multi-ethnic middle-class whose children are living in a positive Golden Age of parental care and attention.

The problems lie beneath that gentrified, recycling, 4x4-driving majority in a small but disproportionately disruptive welfare-dependent underclass that has riches (globally-speaking) but no culture of responsibility.

Gun violence is a problem within black drugs gangs in specific, identifiable urban areas, and general low-level antisocial behaviour is a problem of dysfunctional, white, welfare-funded families. Everybody knows this, but our politicians insist on tiptoeing up to the brink of admitting it before backing away. The failure of Blatcherism is thus ultimately a failure of nerve.

Everything fails to some degree, and Blatcherism fails a lot less than anything else that’s ever been tried. But that’s no reason to condemn further generations of the minority underclass to failure, and its neighbours to misery.

Two of the best things to have happened recently are this initiative and the rise of the Dragons' Den entreprenurial culture.

Loose screws

BBC 2 had a good programme last night about 9/11 conspiracy theorists. The principal ones featured were a loudmouth Texan radio jerk called Alex Jones, an ex-Philosophy Professor called James Fetzer, and a spotty youth who made a popular internet film, Loose Change.

They are all firmly convinced that 9/11 was an incredibly elaborate, deliberate plan by the US government to justify the Afghanistan and possibly Iraq wars. Worryingly, quite a few people seem to believe them. Jones was seen preaching to a large theatre audience, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ as only Americans can.

The programme patiently debunked all the conspiracy theory ‘evidence’ piece by piece. But to my mind it failed in its duty to ask these geniuses the obvious question: if the US government is capable of contriving and covering up an intricate plot to kill 3,000 of its citizens and destroy two iconic buildings, why would it be happy to sit back and let a loudmouth Texan radio jerk, an ex-Philosophy Professor and a spotty youth expose the whole thing?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Echoes in eternity

Gladiatorial games, the bloodiest of ancient Rome's traditions, were probably held in the heart of genteel Cheshire, archaeologists say.

Experts have unearthed evidence in the remains of Chester Amphitheatre which suggests gladiators appeared there. It was previously thought the arena was only used for ceremonial activities.

But archaeologists have found a stone block with iron fastening, suggesting that victims - human or animal - were chained up for gladiatorial spectacles.

Further evidence was uncovered in the form of a pair of giant cotton buds.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Ballad Of The Woggler's Moulie

I think I'm starting to understand what this blogging business is about. It's about splurging one's brain-produce.

Tying in with several recent posts, this video explains who Kenneth Williams was, and addresses the philosophical question of whether you need to be able to understand what words mean to enjoy them.

Here is Kenneth Williams playing the yokel country singer Rambling Syd Rumpo.

I find this very funny. Do you? If not, don't worry about it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Lit Critters

Mike Beverluis links to an article by Sarah Vine about a book about how to talk about books you haven’t read.

Well, zut alors! A distinguished French literary professor has become a surprise bestselling author by writing a book explaining how to wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read.

...Obviously I haven’t read Mr Baynard’s book; but it is in the spirit of his oeuvre that I shall proceed to write about it anyway. The first thing to say about Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus ( How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read) is what a wonderfully French concept this is. The French take great pride in their intellectual patrimony, considering themselves to be pretty much the inventors of most forms of high art, something that irritates other nations, especially the Italians, a great deal.

Not just the French. Orrin Judd, for example, takes great pride in writing reviews of books he hasn’t read.

In fact, Orrin personifies an interesting trend. The blogospheric zeitgeist, an unprecedented democratisation of intellectual life, of commentary and punditry, has buried the phenomenon of Literary Criticism (and also what used sometimes to be called ‘Lit & Soc’) .

Lit Crit was dominant in the pre-internet cultural media of magazines and newspaper arts sections. Now it can only be spotted in academia. Literature itself hasn’t been buried of course, far from it. Instead, what we have is the overwhelming proliferation of the individual book review. The 100-word Amazon summary announcing either that this floated my boat or it didn’t, and that for people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. There’s no New Historicism, Post-Feminism or Decontructionism on Amazon. A professor could contribute an epic post-structuralist critique on The Da Vinci Code, but finally all that matters is the number of stars she awards it, and her vote is worth no more than the 12 year old whose review consists of “Well kewl”.

The 21st century has grown out of Lit Crit. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I went to study English literature at university because I thought I would get to read good books and write down what I thought they were about. Imagine my horror when it turned out I actually had to read rubbish books about what somebody thought about what somebody thought about what somebody had said about a good book. I ditched English at the first opportunity, a decision for which I am eternally grateful because it has allowed me to continue enjoying good books.

But despite the decline of Lit Crit, one poisonous influence remains. Vine spoils her piece with this old chestnut:

Bayard himself confesses to never having finished Ulysses, by James Joyce. Personally, I have a theory that there is a very good chance that Joyce himself didn’t even finish writing the book, since I have never actually met anyone who has read the thing cover to cover.

It is one of those self-perpetuating cultural myths that Ulysses is impossible to read. But objectively, Ulysses really is not a difficult book. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a difficult book to understand. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a difficult book to read.

The reason people think Ulysses is a difficult book is that the Lit Critters have put it atop such a towering pedestal of Lit Crit bullsh*t that readers come to it bowed and awed, as if it came on tablets of stone. They think they should translate each line, like with Chaucer, and then scour it for the deep, profound meaning which remains accessible only to Oxford dons and child geniuses, like with Kant.

But Ulysses is really just a funny book about ordinary people, written by a man in love with language. This love is very Irish: the crunch and the zip and the twang of words. It is quite long but not exceptionally so, with a couple of bizarre chapters (Proteus, Oxen of the Sun) through which it is perfectly legitimate to whizz, getting the gist without trying to understand every line, as you would with obscure poetry. Once you treat Ulysses as the outrageous, ribald, piss-taking comedy it is, instead of being awed by its reputation for profundity, it is a hoot.

The sanctification of Ulysses is just one of the Lit Critters’ crimes. They bash all the joy out of Shakespeare too – dredging it for ‘themes’ until all the life is drained.

But Beckett is the absolute worst one. Nothing is surer to kill comedy than po-faced over-analysis. Beckett is plain funny and that’s that. If you get comedy of the absurd, if you get Monty Python, you get Beckett. The Beckett-killing university Lit Critters are apparently worst in America, where teachers ruin Waiting for Godot by making college kids study its existential meaning. Positively evil. Everybody knows that reading books at school prevents you from enjoying them as adults. Imagine if you had to write A-level essays about the 'themes' of Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

I recently heard an Irish actress saying that whereas American audiences sit through Happy Days in hushed awe and earnest reverence, Irish and British audiences just laugh. And not that awful self-conscious aren’t-I-clever-I-understand-this Theatre Titter: proper belly-laughs.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Amy on the up

Think of England's favourite "hell-raising jazz singer" Amy Winehouse was the star of the Brits - when she was named British Female Solo Artist.

Unicef’s toil and twaddle

I fully expected that somebody who read yesterday’s ridiculous Unicef report on ‘Child Well-Being’ would expose its twaddle in today’s papers. Here’s the Times leader:

Save the Children (from Nonsense)
Unicef’s report card on child wellbeing is tosh mixed with bias

Concerned British parents are to be commended for not pulling their children peremptorily out of school and stampeding to Norway and the Netherlands. The latest Unicef “report card” on child wellbeing in rich countries certainly gave them apparent reasons to do so. It ranked Britain 18th out of 21 OECD members in terms of its children’s material wellbeing; bottom of the table in terms of the quality of their family and peer relationships; 20th out of 21 for “subjective wellbeing”; and a dismal worst overall. Children’s charities, which are becoming dangerously political, have seized on these conclusions as evidence of a long-hidden crisis. The truth is that from its key premises to its sources and methodology this report is flawed, biased and a blatant abuse of the trust that many readers misguidedly place in documents published under the Unicef banner.

There is no new research in the report. Much of its data is drawn from a seven-year-old survey by the OECD programme for international student assessment and a six-year-old World Health Organisation study of “health behaviour in school-age children”. None of it relates to pre-school-age children. And it places heavy emphasis on relative as opposed to absolute child poverty on the ground that “the cutting edge of poverty is the contrast . . . between the lives of the poor and the lives of those around them”.

What unalloyed, ideological nonsense. Let’s punish rich and successful countries whose working classes, by global standards, are unimaginably wealthy.
“Not having the right trainers”, as one of the report’s researchers put it yesterday, is apparently worse for a child’s wellbeing than having none at all. The report acknowledges that “relative poverty” means an average family income of $24,000 or less in the US (21st out of 21 in this ranking) but just $7,000 or less in Hungary (13th). Yet it takes scant account of this in its conclusions. It also ignores data showing a 50 per cent cut in the number of British children in absolute poverty since 1998, all lifted out of misery, ultimately, by the market economy that charities’ staff rely on for generosity but abhor as a matter of self-serving personal principle.

The report’s conclusion states that “all families in OECD countries today are aware that childhood is being reshaped by forces whose mainspring is not necessarily in the best interests of the child”. This is a coded claim that “all families” agree on capitalism’s malign impact on childhood. In fact, as the report’s own figures on deprivation show, the world’s most advanced capitalist economies are its least deprived. Yet these figures, too, are way out of date.

The reason for using such antiquated data is that more recent, less attractive figures did not allow easy global comparisons. Yet even the comparisons drawn here range from unreliable to absurd. The Czech Republic emerges with the highest level of fighting among children and the lowest level of bullying. The UK, meanwhile, has data showing that 76 per cent of British children feel their parents “are always there” for them. But since no other country has equivalent data, it does not feature in Britain’s overall ranking.

Peter Adamson, the writer of this report, co-founded the staunchly left-wing New Internationalist in the 1970s. He has now invited ridicule by caricaturing the world’s most dynamic economies as Dickensian child-abusers. This report hides the truth about children’s wellbeing behind an outdated ideology that has condemned hundreds of millions of children to cruel poverty

I make no apologies for bashing this one again, because this Unicef report, and the way it was presented on, for example, the BBC News, really sums up everything that is worst about the self-lacerating, wilfully deluded, truth-distorting, anti-reality, intentions-over-outcomes element of the intellectual leftist ‘elite’ (and indeed, the Daily Mail hard right). It is nothing but an excuse to condemn capitalism - the very thing upon which charities rely - veiled in intelligence-insultingly transparent statistical nonsense.

The way the report is written is bizarre in itself. As Oroborous notes in the other post, the author tells you that this is nonsense, and then says it anyway.

This is from the conclusion:

It is best regarded as a work in progress, in need of improved definitions and better data. But in the process it is easy to become ensnared in the data and to lose sight of what it is that we are trying to capture. ….The measures used in this report fall short of such nuanced knowledge.

Findings that have been recorded and averaged may create an impression of precision but are in reality the equivalent of trying to reproduce a vast and complex mountain range in relatively simple geometric shapes. In addition, the process of international comparison can never be freed from questions of translation, culture, and custom

The areas they’ve chosen to analyse, the weighting they’ve applied in the rankings and the use of relative poverty are all entirely arbitrary. But even if they weren't, given that this is the first and only report of its kind, we can have no way of knowing if things are getting worse or better - but they want you to assume that things are getting worse.

So it isn’t arbitrary at all: it’s all quite deliberately set up to attack capitalism and the Anglosphere. It is designed to get blithering idiots to scream out on-the-face-of-it absurd headlines like: “Child poverty in the UK has doubled since 1979”. Thank you, BBC, for doing just that.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chambre of horrors

Guards at the Louvre in Paris are to strike for more pay because of the stress of looking after Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

The security guards have voted for industrial action in support of their claim for an extra £100 a month.

A spokesman for the guards said: "There are so many people all trying to take photos and wanting to see the picture that those who have Mona Lisa duty are under enormous stress. The 100 pounds a month (150 euros) is compensation."

For once I have sympathy with the French strikers. The big pinky-beige room which houses the Mona Lisa is seriously grisly.

An unhappy Alamo of guards fight a losing battle against invading hordes of tourists. They tell the tourists not to take photographs as the flashes can damage the painting. The tourists ignore them. They keep on coming, coming, flashing, clicking, all day, every day. Like the zombies hammering at the door in Night of the Living Dead.

I would start screaming and throwing wild, aimless punches within about two minutes of working there.

It’s a hard knock life

The UK has been accused of failing its children, as it comes bottom of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrialised countries.

[...] The Unicef study found Britain had the lowest proportion of children who found their friends kind and helpful - 40%, compared to 80% in Switzerland, he went on.

Professor Bradshaw said that this was an indication of a "dog eat dog society".

Chimney sweeps, powder-monkeys and street urchins, that’s our kids.

(My American friends might like to note that the US came second-bottom of the 24. And that those usual social paradises and teacher’s pets the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark were top. Which tells you all you need to know about this report.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Carry on cringing

A while back Quentin Tarantino had a go at the maudlin state of the British film industry and blamed its decline on the fact that all the country’s talent decamps to Hollywood at the first hint of success.

Fair comment, you might think. Trouble is, Tarantino identified the peak from which British film has plummeted as, oh dear, the Carry On movies.

“No-one ever said the Carry On movies were art but they were very funny," he said, no doubt in that inimitable way that everybody always imitates.

As Britons, we’re supposed to pretend that we like the Carry On movies in an ironic, postmodern, tongue-in-cheek way. But really, they are absolute rubbish. All we really like is spending some time with the ensemble cast of National Treasures. Sid James, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques especially, but above all Kenneth Williams: a man so inherently funny that in theory you could give him the most childish, lame, half-arsed script imaginable and he could still make you laugh. It’s just a pity that the Carry On scriptwriters insisted on subjecting this theory to such rigorous testing.

What you have with the Carry On films is everything that is best about British comic acting, clashing with everything that is worst about British comic writing.

However, the law of monkey-typewriter averages alone states that somewhere in the 29-film series there would be one good scene. Tying in nicely with the Empire and understatement themes below, it appears at the end of Carry On Up the Khyber, and this is it:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Presumed guilty

Spoilsport Tim Jeal has written a book about Henry Stanley suggesting that he probably lied about saying “Dr Livingstone, I presume” upon finding the latter in Tanzania after a long search.

Jeal reveals that Stanley had always been impressed by the tight-lipped Englishness of army officers, and he particularly loved an anecdote about two English gentlemen who had passed each other in the wilds of Palestine and merely lifted their caps to each other. As a result he invented the famous phrase about his meeting with Livingstone, having asked himself the question: 'What would a gent have said?'

Jeal does however lament the fact that this prime example of understatement has come to be the only thing for which Stanley is remembered, while his prodigious achievements in exploration are forgotten.

In fact, it’s worse than that, because the apocryphal tale also overshadows Livingstone’s remarkable life.

David Livingstone is the embodiment of Victorian Man – all Christian drive, commercial idealism and humanitarian zeal. As a child, labouring in the Lanarkshire cotton mills, he taught himself Greek and Latin. As a missionary and explorer in Africa he was indomitable. He named the Victoria Falls, being the first European to see them. He travelled thousands of inhospitable, uncharted miles. He aimed to demolish the slave trade by opening up Africa to legitimate forms of commerce. He paved the way for colonial Africa. A great deal of what he did backfired. But the only thing most people remember him for is being presumed about.

It’s probably better now (and this is good), but when I was taught History at school there was a massive, Empire-shaped hole in the syllabus. It ran like this: 1066, Feudal Society, Magna Carta, Tudors and Stuarts, Guy Fawkes, Civil War, Cromwell, a bit about Nelson and Wellington….World War I, World War II, the End.

Men like Livingstone built the Empire. His motto was "Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation."

The Empire meant a lot of good things and a lot of bad things, but it was indisputably a whole great heap of things. Maybe that massive hole in the syllabus can only be explained by postmodern guilt about the bad ones. It would be impossible to imagine the modern world without the British Empire. You can’t even do the thought experiment.

This book should be top of any History reading list.

Sporting accolade of the year

Beating Australia at cricket once could be a fluke. Beating them thrice in succession to win an ODI tournament sees us enter the realms of the miraculous.

However, it seems we must turn to rugby - a wonderful game of 30 men wrestling in the mud when not kicking a leather egg into the crowd - to find sport’s true miracle-workers.

Perusing the free Times guide to the Six Nations championship, we find Dirk Greenwood waxing lyrical about the playing days of Brian Ashton, the current England coach:

“He was an absolutely cracking scrum half to play no.8 to,” Greenwood recalled. “Splendidly skilful and intelligent, a very good manipulator of time and space.”

Friday, February 09, 2007

Midlife crisis at eleven

At three-years-old, Mikhail is the youngest ever member of Mensa. He can multiply five figure numbers before most kids can count to 10. Ten-year old Aimee is the youngest person ever to be admitted to the Royal College of Music. Michael was reading Shakespeare and learning Mandarin when he was five – he's now one of Britain's youngest published authors.

Channel 4’s documentary on child geniuses last night was an eye-opener. The most interesting cases were the four boys with all-round genius: maths, language, philosophical concepts, general knowledge – you name it.

Three of them scored 170 in the IQ tests, which seems to be the maximum. The other, Adam, was off the scale. He gave perfect answers to each question, and then over-answered them. Asked “What is a limpet?”, he replied: “It’s a crustacean that clings to rocks. And it lives off food that is brought in by the high tide.” He is six years old.

These were not just chess or music savants, over-developed in one area and infantile in all others. Nor were they just very bright children. They were clever adults in small bodies. Their parents had all given up trying to find schools for them: the system isn’t geared up for kids so far outside the defined sets.

Dante was the oldest at eleven. He is plagued by the struggle for perfection. He wanted to be perfect in the IQ test, so the professor asked him whether he thought perfection in anything was attainable. Why can’t something always be improved, and how would you know when to stop? He thought for a nanosecond and said: “I can give perfect answers to this test, but this can never be the perfect IQ test. So you can only attain perfection within a frame of imperfection.”

He spends his free time in confrontational talks with a philosophy don. The sad thing is that he’s probably already gone as far as anyone can go intellectually: he knows about death, about the limits of answerable questions, about the misery-making futility of trying to achieve perfection but at the same time that the realisation of this futility would not enable him to stop wanting it. His genius has manifested itself in reaching his midlife existential crisis freakishly early. By thirteen he will have passed it and will be officially ‘wise’. The rest of his life will probably just be spent in the accumulation of knowledge and in tutoring ordinary, slow people.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Hate Mail

David Aarnovitch sounds off in The Times:

My [Daily Mail] coguest was essentially only a spoken version of her paper, in which all ministers are hopeless, taxpayers are being squeezed, public services are in simultaneous crisis, epidemics are imminent and have been badly handled and women falsely cry rape. A paper that is impervious to discussion or nuance and in which each necessary article is bent or altered towards this one conclusion, that Britain — once great — is now a toilet, and that Britons — once free — have been betrayed.

...Back on Daily Politics last week the second item was the Friday poll. Respondents had been asked to react to various statements, we were told. The first was “I feel better off today than I did a few years ago”. 53 per cent agreed, 47 per cent disagreed. Next we had: “The Government is to blame for people feeling worse off financially”, with which 61 per cent agreed.

I sat there, incredulous, as these figures were reported as being bad news for the Government. Did the results, for example, mean that the Government should take the blame for the 47 per cent, but could take credit for the 53 per cent? These results, on their own, were meaningless, but they were never questioned. It was a Mail headline in a BBC studio.

I know from the letters page of this newspaper that some readers consider any sort of suggestion that Britain isn’t in meltdown to be, as one correspondent described me, “Panglossian” (after Voltaire’s complacent character who considered that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds). But in a country where, as The Economist pointed out this week, GDP per head has overtaken France and Germany, and which has the second-lowest unemployment figures in the EU, it seems perverse and dangerous to begin the discussion on what now needs to be done from the untrue premise that most things are dysfunctional.

Forget Pangloss, dear reader, our real enemy is his Dacrean cousin, Dr Pandreck. Embrace him and his box of false sighs, and we will head down the road to isolation, xenophobia and protectionism.

The political consensus on Blatcherism has had a number of strange side-effects. Not least, it has rendered the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ to mean essentially just anti or pro-American.

Because of this, The Daily Mail is not really a ‘right-wing’ paper any more. It’s just a strange, cranky old uncle of a paper. It has nothing nice to say, and it says it a great deal. It has always been the paper for the frightened and the angry: people who are angry at other people’s success, angry with a changing world they don’t understand, angry at getting old. It has no more to do with reality than the average Guardian editorial.

The founding principle of the Mail is that everything is worse than it used to be. Mostly, this is nonsense. But it is true about the BBC television news. The BBC television news has been dumbed down to a level somewhat lower than John Craven’s Newsround circa 1985, and it is a bizarre mixture of the Guardian and the Mail: crude and blatant anti-Americanism, and irrational bleating about how everything is worse than it used to be.

Interweb strangenesses

If you have a sitemeter you can look at people who look at your blog. One of the bits of information you can gather is the referring URL - the site that brought the reader to your site.

Following one of these back, I came across this story on a US Pro Ice Hockey site, which talks about the new owners of Liverpool FC and links to Think of England in the word 'jittery'.

How the hell this blog came to represent "the Liverpool faithful" is a true interweb mystery.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Mad as a March Hair

Umpire Darrell Hair is taking legal action against world cricket's governing body and the Pakistan Cricket Board for racial discrimination.

Hair feels he was made a scapegoat when he was barred from officiating Test matches after the forfeited Oval Test between England and Pakistan in August.

This is a story of madness.

For my American or other non-cricket loving readers, suffice it to say that Darrell Hair was a top international cricket umpire who was always a bit mad (egotistical kind of mad) and then one day last summer went much madder – that is, over the acceptable level of madness even for cricket umpires (a profession that tolerates a pretty high degree of insanity). This particular bit of madness forced an entire cricket team to respond in an equally mad manner, all in the context of a game that is already perhaps the most eccentric humanity has contrived, so Hair was sacked. This has subsequently driven him completely nuts.

There is nothing particularly surprising about the fact that a mad person can make it to the top of his profession. Everyone who makes it to the top of anything is, by definition, mad. Those at the bottom can also afford to be shamelessly mad, and enjoy it. Both top and bottom level madness are all-consuming, every single day kinds of madness, and both sets of people have the comfort of not realising that they are, in fact, mad.

Those who bounce around in the middle must accept that they are either not quite mad enough, or else too aware of their own particular brand of madness, to get to the top.

It has long been my contention that everybody is mad except for me.* In his (somewhat queasy) novel Stanley and the Women, Kingsley Amis observed that whereas men are mad in specific, easily-defined compartments of their lives (cricket-watching, plinking, collecting birds eggs, serial killing etc), women have a more subtle kind of madness which is harder to pinpoint or predict but which covers everything they think, do or say.

Of course, this is a deliberate over-simplification. Susan McClary’s madness, for example, is very easy to spot (see below).

*I am merely eccentric.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: "the throttling murderous rage of a rapist"

Here’s a book I don’t want to get for Christmas: Feminine Endings, by Susan McClary.

From Wikipedia:

The publication of Feminine Endings (now in its second edition) is considered to have been a significant step in the acceptance and proliferation of feminist musicology within academia. Largely because of this influence, McClary was a 1995 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship.

In Feminine Endings, McClary describes, among other things, how sonata form may be interpreted as sexist or misogynistic and imperialistic, and that, "tonality itself - with its process of instilling expectations and subsequently withholding promised fulfillment until climax - is the principal musical means during the period from 1600 to 1900 for arousing and channeling desire." She analyzes the sonata procedure for its constructions of gender and sexual identity. The primary, once "masculine", key (or first subject group) represents the, always in narrative, male, self, while the secondary, "feminine" key (or second subject group), represents the other, a territory to be explored and conquered, assimilated into the self and stated in the tonic home key.

What’s more:

A sentence by McClary which has been very widely quoted is given below. Here, "the Ninth" refers to Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

"The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist, incapable of attaining release. "

Come Armageddon, come Armageddon, come...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Spam poem

Ok, the iambic pentameter is too hard, but this Spam Subject Line Poem covers international politics, madness, sex, globalisation and existential sadness. And it sort of rhymes:

Spam poem #2

Chinese missile shot down Russian satellite
Russian missile shot down Chinese aircraft
For maximilian go requisite
Special discount on medications!

Cappy catwoman. Nymph pantry.
Resize your one eyed monster,
Love remains. Lamb preparatory
Re Re Hi My name is Perry.

Than Fiction Tears. Think I got it?
Teen quick and. Groggy famed
Cippewa county was also up 7
We launch our Christmas campaign.

Sell out

American tycoons George Gillett and Tom Hicks have reached an agreement to take over Liverpool.

The club have called a news conference at 1400 GMT to announce the details of the buy-out.

Liverpool chairman David Moores, who will become an honorary life president, said: "This is a great step forward for its shareholders and its fans."

Moores added: "This club is my passion and forms a huge part of my life. After much careful consideration, I have agreed to sell my shares to assist in securing the investment needed for the new stadium and for the playing squad.

…Liverpool will become the third Premiership side to come under the control of American owners, following the takeovers of Manchester United and Aston Villa in recent years.

…A joint statement from Gillett and Hicks said: "Liverpool is a fantastic club with a remarkable history and a passionate fanbase. We fully acknowledge and appreciate the unique heritage and rich history of Liverpool and intend to respect this heritage in the future. The Hicks family and the Gillett family are extremely excited about continuing the club's legacy and tradition. We are particularly pleased that David Moores and Rick Parry will have a continuing involvement in the club. For us continuity and stability are keys to the future."

I am discombobulated. I’ve seen the future of top-flight English football, and it is a European Super League owned by Americans.

Even a few years ago I would have been unreservedly welcoming of the prospect of Liverpool getting all that spondoolicks to spend on shiny new players. I might even have half-believed that stuff about "we fully acknowledge and appreciate the unique heritage and rich history of Liverpool and intend to respect this heritage in the future."

But instead I find myself jittery with fear of the future, and swamped in nostalgia. How did we start caring about exploiting the lucrative Asian market and maximising revenue streams? It crept up on us. But it crept up on us really quickly. I feel ill. Stop! Turn back the tide! I want FA Cup Saturdays, cups of Bovril, hand-knitted scarfs, small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts…

Soggy support group

Bryan Appleyard pays homage to a sign in Wells-next-the-sea which includes a fine example of ‘found poetry’. Wikipedia gives another example from William Whewell’s "Elementary Treatise on Mechanics":

And hence no force, however great,
can stretch a cord, however fine,
into a horizontal line
that shall be absolutely straight.

Apparently the miserable sod changed the wording when this was pointed out to him.

The absolute apotheosis of the found poetry phenomenon is BBC Radio 4’s strangely haunting Shipping Forecast, (all too familiar to cricket lovers, as it interrupts Test Match Special). Read in a clear, calm, rhythmic voice, a typical poem might be:

Humber, Thames. Southeast veering southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 later. Thundery showers. Moderate or good, occasionally poor.
Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.
Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.

The most productive source of found poetry these days is email spam. Here's one made from a couple of days’ worth of subject lines, which I think summarises the Think of England philosophy nicely:

Non-english nut-gathering

Peach blister. New Hampshire
went into remission.

Lamb preparatory,
ore smelter mis-mark.
Thanks! Placemats Turkey

Soggy support group
And wall.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Compulsive viewing

Coinciding nicely with the Government’s licensing of a new super-casino in Manchester, Louis Theroux had a programme about gamblers in Las Vegas on BBC2 last night.

One old woman feeds the Hilton's fruit machines $500 a day, and readily admitted to having lost over $4 million on the same slot machines in 7 years. Her (non-gambling) son was philosophical to a superhuman degree about this obscene pissing away of his inheritance.

A Canadian who makes a fortune selling mattresses is flown in and treated like royalty by the Hilton. Free of charge, they give him a luxurious suite approximately the size of Belgium, a few grand free credit to go shopping with and a full time flunkie whose job it is to boost his ego and keep him at the roulette table. He didn’t admit how much he lost in a weekend, but we knew it was substantially more than $250,000.

When we think of gambling addicts, we think of people who are self-deluded: they don’t know when to stop; they think the odds are not hopelessly stacked against them; they haven’t twigged that the casinos can build these great towers because they always win; they believe in lucky streaks.

None of this applied to these blighted souls. They understood all these things. “Real gamblers don’t know when to stop. Look!” they said, not stopping.

The only point of genuine delusion was about it being 'fun'. “The main things is to have a good time” they said, as they unhappily fed another $100 bill to the machine.

There was real human despair in this programme.

Big-Endians and Little-Endians

Every day Gerry Adams argues for steps towards a united Ireland, and every day Ian Paisley argues for the maintenance of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Those are the clear dominant themes of their lives and one day they will die and turn to dust and that will be that.

Do they never get up of a morning and wonder, “But what’s it all for?” You know, like Fungus the Bogeyman.

The Irish question that dare not speak its name is: how on earth can anyone be bothered?

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Apparently they've found some really old houses near Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is indeed a noteworthy place. I've been there, though not at the solstice, and I will now present the sum total of my thoughts on visiting the place...

...It's not nearly as disappointing as you might think.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Don't it always seem to go...

..that you don't know what you’ve got til it’s gone, warbled Joni Mitchell, and how right she was.

Thanks to the Heath Robinson-style eccentricities of Victorian plumbing, the builders next door managed to cut our water off the other night merely by turning a tap.

Man, it was tough. After two hours I could understand how Jean de Florette felt.

What a thin veneer of convenience separates civilisation from barbarism! You can’t even flush the loo.

...stop press...

As I write, England are in serious danger of winning a cricket match against Australia.

It will take a miracle to lose it from here. But if anyone can do it, our boys...

UPDATE: England completed their first victory over Australia since the 2005 Ashes after Ed Joyce's century in Sydney.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Just a tiny amount

Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations and US studio Dreamworks have ended a five-film deal early after two movies reportedly underperformed.

Losses were reported for their last two films, Flushed Away and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The companies have released three films together, also including Chicken Run. Dreamworks said the firms now had "different business goals", while Bristol-based Aardman Animations said their "ambitions have moved apart".

Aardman spokesman Arthur Sheriff said the separation was a result of Dreamworks' move to focus on computer animation.

The UK animators wanted to continue making their distinctive "claymations", he said.

"We always knew that America would be a hard task for us - we're a very English company," he added. "We embrace the international market but we think part of our strength is our English sense of humour and we want to continue with that."

I thought the Were-Rabbit one was a bit uncompromisingly English, which was presumably the problem. But Nick Park and co just aren’t Hollywood types.

(As Brian Appleyard also notes, and as explained in the Fast Show…)