Thursday, July 30, 2009

Barbecue summer

Good news! Presumably because it’s raining so much, the Met Office has revised its original forecast of a glorious ‘barbecue summer’ and is instead predicting another washout, so now’s the time to invest in sunhats and tanning lotion.

On watching again Michael Fish’s infamous forecast the night before the 1987 Great Storm, I’m struck by the complete assurance with which Fish dismisses the warnings of the silly lady who “apparently rung the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way.” He is wholly convincing.

It’s always fun when the BBC does a feature on the meteorologists. They speak so confidently. Behold the wondrous technology, marvel at the great scientific leaps! They smile wisely. Beautiful graphics show great weather fronts gliding and splurging across the oceans. This time they’ve cracked it.

Like financial 'forecasters' or sociologists, they must maintain the delusion with an unfaltering poker-face, or their whole raison d’etre disappears and they’d have to get honest jobs. What strange games we play.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today on Radio 4: Brit's Pick

Inspired by Gaw's post on Radio 4, I thought I'd point you to my recommended listens from today's schedule:

10.00 – 10.45
Ball’s Favourite Balls
Michael Ball invites guests to share memories of the balls, shuttlecocks and pucks that have played pivotal roles in their lives.

First in the hot seat this week is Lembit Opik MP, who vividly recalls the “dog-chewed and half-bald tennis ball” that first inspired him to embark on a career in politics. Later in the programme Michael is joined by Joanna Lumley, who talks movingly of a cherished childhood squash ball – and how she and her friends would use it, along with Labradors and croquet mallets, to re-enact famous polo matches.

12.00 – 12.30
I’ve Read a Lot of Books, But Only Good Ones
Author Sebastian Faulks hosts the panel game in which contestants must demonstrate that they have read an awful lot of books, but only good ones. This week Tim Rice and David Mitchell argue that they have read both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, but not Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. Colin Sell is at the piano.

14.15 - 15.00
Woman’s Hour Drama
Death and Dundee Cakes (13/58)
Mary and Elspeth visit Beryl for coffee, while Daisy goes on a rampage and June wonders if she’ll ever find a suitable replacement for the au pair. Do the powers of Morianna Eagleclaw, ‘Princess of the Dead’, transcend mortal understanding?

18.30 - 19.30
Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns: the Radio Years (3/4)
Paul Merton shares his passion for early comedy in this four-part series on the Golden Age of silent radio. Using rare archived recordings and live reconstructions, Paul shows how pioneers such as Nobby Trumper and Stan ‘Spats’ McGinty developed ingenious and highly influential methods of making audiences laugh, without the benefit of modern special effects or any kind of sound or speech, and usually in a single take.

21.00 - 22.00
You Say Potato, I Say Starchy, Tuberous Crop from the Perennial Solanum Tuberosum of the Solanaceae Family
New discussion show in which guests must choose to either grossly simplify or wildly complicate a controversial question. For the opening programme, Prof Richard Dawkins and Dr Rowan Williams respectively simplify and complicate the question: Does God exist? Kriss Akabusi facilitates.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Elephant Stone

Three days late so far. Got to be a girl, keeping us waiting like this. Oh come on, hurry up and come and go!

For the commute I pulled the Stone Roses out of the CD collection and apologised for neglecting them for a while; been hanging around with young whippersnappers like Fleet Foxes and um, Paul Weller.

We keep accumulating culture. I wonder how long we can keep it all manageable? Our parents had the Beatles and the Stones – but so did we, their music never went away. And we also had the Stone Roses and Radiohead too, and our kids will have the Beatles and the Stones and the Stone Roses and Radiohead and Fleet Foxes and whatever else comes along.

There’s a weird foreshortening effect when you try to place things in time. Why do music videos date so much more quickly than the music itself?

Elephant Stone sings to me of Adidas Gazelles, sunlit concrete, fizzy cider, plastic footballs, Saturday nights, skinny jeans and trackie tops, girls at the Thekla, Britpop, lounging on the grass at the Ashton Court festival, four independent record shops on Park Street, tequila slammers (nasty), boomerangs on the Downs, On the Road, essay deadlines, dingy flats and Trainspotting posters...

Some of those things seem ages ago, some very near and some blend into the present anyway. I still generally have a pair of Adidas Gazelles on the go but skinny jeans are most definitely a thing of the past. (God, all these years with that song in my head and only now, thanks to the internet, have I learnt that that line is not “Teacher Ben and Butcher go…” but “Did your bed and bookshelf go, and run run run away?” Unusually, the actual words are a poetic improvement on the kissthisguy)

Responsibility looms. Is it really all over so soon? No, music lasts forever and time is meaningless. I’ll start Junior on Sally Cinnamon; it’s a song for All Ages.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Men and guns

“Don’t try to analyse it, just kill it,” hissed the Lancastrian dwarf. I was standing in a field in deepest Wales holding a shotgun. The ‘bird’ flew away from me and – bang, bang – I missed it with both barrels.

I didn’t enjoy clay pigeon shooting much because I was no good at it. This was annoying and confusing because I tend to take naturally to sporty things and in the past had shot rifles competently. My first clay of the day was a hit but I knew it was more luck than judgement; I couldn’t get the feel of the thing. The consolation was that I wasn’t quite the worst in the group. That’s men for you. Of course we all know that beneath the veneer of bonhomie lies a brutish competitiveness, but what saves us (I hope and believe) is the deeper layer of solidarity under that.

We’d come miles in a horrible mini-bus from Port Talbot, relying for navigation first on an inadequate, scale-less print-off map and then on the boom of gunshot. The range – unsignposted, off-road – turned out to be a wide bowl of scrubland topped with a cluster of knackered portacabins.

We got out the bus to look about and a bow-legged old dwarf scuttled up the hill to greet us. He was armed. I initially took him to be some sort of halfwit club mascot; he bantered crudely from the off and was dressed in a battered parody of sportin’ gear: waxed cap and jacket, tweedy somethings and welly-boots. But he was Lancastrian not Welsh and it gradually emerged that he was the owner. “This gun bought the place,” he said later, without boastfulness.

He gave us the tour. The largest and least knackered portacabin contained a tea urn, a couple of chairs and a great number of shooting trophies. Its walls were decorated with pictures of the dwarf holding those trophies, or similar ones. A second portacabin was the Gents’ lavatory (indescribable). Such were the amenities.

The dwarf turned out to be an excellent coach. Like the best schoolteachers he instinctively knew which members of the group could be the targets for gentle piss-taking and which could not. He surreptitiously made sure that every man hit at least a couple of clays, even if it meant virtually pointing the gun for him. We grew to worship him. During a lull he entertained us with trickshots – starting with the gun hanging down by his side and blasting the clays one-handed. He never missed.

So how, I wondered, does he combat the tedium of his own excellence? What is the satisfaction in destroying clay discs, and where do you go next? I was just starting to get the hang of it by the end, when we were shooting doubles, right and left. It seemed I was thinking too much, aiming too carefully. “Don’t analyse it, just kill it,” explained the dwarf. I missed again. He grabbed the gun from me and demonstrated by jabbing it vigorously at an imaginary enemy. “Like you’re poking it with a sword.” He handed back the gun. “Kill it! Kill it!” he hissed. I killed it, and then I killed the other bird too. Bang bang. It felt deeply, weirdly good.

At the end we all trooped off to use the Gents’. The sudden queue was such that we asked about using the Ladies’ too. “Sorry lads,” said the dwarf. “It’s all locked up for now.”

I looked again at the third and most knackered portacabin. It was obviously long disused; there weren’t even any steps to its door. Ladies didn’t come here much, apparently.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Life’s too short and it goes too slowly

Today a colleague was having a slow morning.

At twenty to one she said: “Oh come on, afternoon! Hurry up and come and go.”


Gaw directs me to the Times obit of Leszek Kolakowski, which includes this summation of the philosopher’s views on the question of God:

Kolakowski offered a critical analysis of a wide range of arguments for religious beliefs. He sought to understand them through their historical, anthropological and cultural backgrounds. In Christianity, for example, he saw the development of God from a basis in early Greek philosophy of the One, later merged with the Jewish concept of a loving God. Thus he maintained a cultural and human conception of religion...

He also held that rational inquiry could never settle religious questions such as whether or not God exists….

His approach was, ultimately, unpalatable to both religious believers, whose faith he explained culturally, and scientists, whose knowledge he thought was ultimately based on faith.

Nobody knows nuffink. Perhaps good philosophy is the business of accepting this obvious truism but still finding stuff to say.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Clay Davis: Advanced cussing

Clay really comes into his own in Season 3 of The Wire, with the first properly elongated "sheeeeeeeeeet", but he beats his own record in Season 5.

Warning: contains strong language, and nothing else, expertly delivered.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cultural Cringe

I haven’t written much about the Ashes (although believe me I am as preoccupied with them as I can be, given the paternal circumstances), largely because The Old Batsman does it so well.

But given England’s tremendous, Flintoff-inspired victory yesterday I went to have a look at some of the Aussie papers, to see how they were taking it. Dear me. We have great fun whacking the English Space-Phillers, but some of these Australian writers make Dan Brown look like Nabakov. In The Australian, Ben Dorries opens with this corker:

Storming in on just one good leg, Flintoff (5-92) carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders….

Then tops it with:

Clarke could hardly lift his head as he wandered off the historic ground after missing the full ball which spun back into his stumps as he was left stranded down the pitch.

Peter Carey, Clive James... and now Ben Dorries.

Poms v Convicts, eh? It's usually good natured, blokey fun, but the Cultural Cringe is still a big barrier to happy relations. At its mildest the Cringe manifests itself in a slightly pathetic wish to be liked (Australians are weirdly obsessed about what US and British celebs think of their country). At its worst it can be a quite ridiculous chippiness.

Funnily enough, one of the worst examples I've encountered was a Sheila. We were eating at a friend’s house, a few years ago. A fellow guest was an Aussie making her first visit to Britain, on business. As hosts, we were all busy being self-deprecating in the English style, bemoaning our sporting inferiority and rain and traffic and overcrowdedness, and praising Aussie overacheivement, wildlife, beaches, weather etc.

Unfortunately it eventually became clear that this lady was not playing the same game. Instead of self-deprecating back, playfully bashing Aussieness and praising the praise-worthy bits of Blighty, she was taking our self-laceration at face value, wholeheartedly agreeing with it, and trumpeting Aussie superiority as the literal truth. Not only that, but she moved on from sport and landscape to literature, television and film stars.

Well I mean, the impudence! We tolerated this with increasing discomfort until finally she got on to pop music: “I’ve noticed that on Australian Pop Idol the singers are much more talented than the British ones. Yeah Australians aren’t really interested British music, it’s more our own or Americans”.

“Robbie Williams is quite popular Down Under, isn’t he?” observed someone, reasonably.

“No, he hasn't really made it in Oz. We don't know much British music.”

At which point I finally gave in. “What about the Beatles then? Have you ever heard of them in Australia? Or the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Clash, the Jam, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Oasis, The Smiths, Radiohead, Blur, Coldplay? Ever heard of any of them? Have they had any success at all in Australia? Hmmmm? Mind you, you did give us Kylie and that one about the vegemite sandwich so yes, I suppose that's another area that Aussies rule.”*

She did a goldfish impression. Score one for the Poms, maybe, but really I felt a bit rotten.

*Obviously I probably wasn’t quite that fluent or chronological, but honestly not far off, you get the idea.

On Thin Ice

The latest instalment of On Thin Ice – the programme in which Ben Fogle, James Cracknell and some Other Posh Bloke, armed with only plucky British amateurism and stiff upper lippery, attempt to walk to the South Pole less slowly than some efficient Norwegians – ended on an amusing note last night.

At the halfway point, Cracknell’s body is wrecked. He has rotten, infected feet, asthma, and pneumonia in his left lung. He hacks disgustingly and flops about like a drunk. A medic at the checkpoint examines him in dismay. This prompts Fogle to come out and say: “It’s not good. At the moment I would rate James’s chance of carrying on the race tomorrow as….. fifty/fifty.”

Fifty fifty! Tis a mere flesh wound!

“Why on earth are they doing this?” asked Mrs Brit.

She was being rhetorical but I answered anyway: “The human condition, emptiness, comradeship. Because they’re public schoolboys. You know how it is: men are different. Nothing we do makes practical sense. Why do we get so worked up about playing cricket against Australians?”

Also self-loathing, self-love, meaningless patriotism and a longing for the days of the Gentleman Explorer. Only the idle upper classes have ever had the time and money to waste on becoming this kind of hero; you can’t do it for a living.

Except, strangely, that this is now Ben Fogle’s living. He and Cracknell have forged careers out of pretending to be Gentleman Explorers. The danger is real but not real: they have medics at the halfway stage and all the territory is charted. The pain is self-inflicted but serves no higher purpose other than entertainment. This leaves the viewer in the curious position of being able to watch somebody going through terrible physical suffering without being obliged to feel the least bit of sympathy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Slumdog, Bruno

We watched Slumdog Millionaire last night. Yes, I thought you’d appreciate a really up-to-the-minute film review. Next week I’ll be looking at Herbie Goes Bananas and that one where the moon gets a space capsule in the eye.

Anyway, Slumdog Millionaire is rubbish, a mess. The mix of nasty ‘realism’ (child being blinded, prison torture, gangster violence), broad comedy, funky music, cartoonish characters (the evil mob boss is particularly silly) and kiddie movie wish-fulfilment fantasy doesn’t work on any level. Presumably the Oscars were given for the opening shots of the Indian slums, which are brilliantly done, but if it all had been set in northern England the movie would have been written off an inferior Brassed Off or Full Monty.

We also made a rare trip to the cinema and ended up watching Bruno. I hope Brit Jnr couldn’t hear any of it from inside the womb, as the film is absolutely filthy. It’s also pointless, tasteless, grubby, mean-spirited and unremittingly hilarious. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at a film since Zoolander. Oh dear, humanity is so screwed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mr Noseybonk

Mr Noseybonk - a poem for children

Mr Noseybonk lives 'neath the stairs,
Mr Noseybonk never says his prayers,
Naughty Mr Noseybonk,
Noseybonk Man.

Mr Noseybonk knows where to find you,
Mr Noseybonk, is he behind you?
Wicked Mr Noseybonk,
Noseybonk Man.

Mr Noseybonk never goes to sleep,
Mr Noseybonk, upstairs he creeps,
Can he see you, Noseybonk?
Noseybonk can.


See also:

Jiggery pokery

Picked up a fantastic CD the other day. The Duckworth Lewis Method is a cricket concept album (by, strangely enough, a couple of Irishmen including Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy). Well, how long have we been waiting for one of those?

Anyway, the best song is called Jiggery Pokery, and it's all about Shane Warne's infamous ball to Mike Gatting in the 1993 Ashes, as seen from the perspective of the portly English batsman:

The chorus consists of a terrific bit of Rhyme Jockeyism:

It was jiggery pokery, trickery, jokery. How did he open me up?
Robbery, muggery, Aussie skulduggery, out for a buggering duck!
What a delivery, I might as well have been holding a contra bassoon,
Jiggery pokery, who is this nobody, making me look a buffoon?
Like a blithering old buffoon?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The woman in the window

Peter’s comment about the beast behind the sea-radiator giving Brit Jnr nightmares got me thinking about the things that frighten children.

In fact, it’s quite hard to predict what will traumatise kiddies, isn’t it? Accidential exposure to horror films can leave no impression while seemingly harmless illustrations in Ladybird books might haunt you for years.

I remember finding the opening titles to Miss Marple terribly disturbing. Particularly that woman in the window.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So I made a nursery

Mrs Brit 1, Assorted male imaginary blogfriends 0

A local character

Quite often when I’m strolling contemplatively the lanes hereabouts, I happen upon a particular local character. He is, I would say, about 70 years old and he looks very like the actor David Bradley but even more weather-grizzled.

He has long grey hair and a grey beard. He usually sports a wide cowboy hat, leather chaps and boots, and he sits atop a huge, very old horse. The horse is a magnificent, muscular beast, like a cavalry charger or something. He also has a very old collie dog. The three of them plod about the fields and roads wearing a sort of war-battered dignity.

I’ve been on nodding terms with him for a while but the other day I stopped for a chat. It’s an odd business, chatting to a man on a very big horse; one feels an urge to call him 'sire'. Anyway, we talked about this and that, and his horse and the weather. I asked if he was retired.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Couldn’t go back to my old way of life now. Too hard, too many stresses. I like the peace and quiet now. I mean, I could work if I had to, but I choose not to.”

“So what did you do, exactly?” I asked, expecting farmer at the least, bounty hunter or stuntman at the most, and horsewhisperer at the most likely.

“Oh I was down in Kingswood,” he replied. “I was a leisure centre manager.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Elberry, pleading poverty, has added a Paypal feature to The Lumber Room. Asking to be paid for your bloggery is an interesting idea, and I don't blame Elberry (he has a fine blog) though personally I baulk at it.

Let’s call it ‘blegging’. Gaw suggests that blegging is objectively no different from publishing a novel and expecting to get paid. I can kind of see that but the market is very different. With so many blogs out there I think what Elberry is doing is more like busking. A blog could potentially give you a springboard for publishing, say, a novel (and being spotted busking or playing a free pub gig might conceivably get you a record deal).

You could, I suppose, demand a subscription for reading your posts, but with the newspapers publishing content for free (a disastrous situation which surely can’t continue for long, by the way), you’d have to be bloody good to justify it.

Nobody asked me to start this blog. I’m grateful to my little collection of readers. If anything, I should probably pay you for your time and comments, though, of course, I won’t.

Monday, July 13, 2009


My back went again on Sunday during five-a-side football. Ten minutes in. It’s a muscle strain which goes a couple of times a year and when it does I know immediately. I went straight off and pressed myself against a wall to wait for the medical miracle that would allow me to play the second half.

At half-time I talked about giving it a few minutes, see how it goes.

“Don’t bother mate,” said Dave, who recently spent eight weeks out with a calf injury. “You’ll wreck it.”

Ian, who was playing his first game for a month after ankle problems, rummaged around in his bag and offered me a choice of Ibruprofen tablets, Ibruprofen gel or Deep Heat. “It’s ok,” I said. “I’ve got all that at home. And diazepam.”

“Yeah, good stuff diazepam,” said Paddy, who is ten years older than most of us and has suffered his own chronic lower back problems for at least the last five. “Couple of those and a few beers, you’ll have a lovely afternoon. Watch the cricket. Just don’t for f**ks sake try to play on.”

They were right, of course. If you’ve played football with any group for any length of time you’ll know that nobody ever really changes their playing style, they just get gradually slower and craftier. Ian is a combative, elbowy dribbler, Dave is a selfish goalhanger and Paddy is a beautiful, calm playmaker. I watched through the glass as they started the second half without me. Even though I only played ten minutes it was enough to drench my kit in sweat and it would all have to be washed as after a proper game. I will be essentially crippled for a couple of days. It doesn’t matter, there are far worse kinds of pain.

Colly! Jimmy! Monty!

Ah yes, now I remember what Ashes cricket feels like: the miserable business of being both unable to watch and unable to take your eyes off it.

Here’s the first Test: one day of hope and then rude disillusionment. One morning of fun. Two and a half days of grinding tedium and black despair. One day of unbearable tension. A moment of ecstatic joy, at a draw.

It’s a sad sporting fact that prolonged tension and pain are the norms, but prolonged joy is impossible (because a comprehensive thrashing quickly becomes ennui). Test cricket takes this truism to its limit in a way that no other sport can. Ashes cricket is the worst because of the weight of a warped history.

I hate the bloody Ashes, and I hate the fact that I have to wait three whole days for the next Test to start.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nature notes

Having resolved to turn my back on materialism and reconnect with the soil, I have been strolling contemplatively the lanes hereabouts, spotting birds’n’shi’.

I work in a nice place. Here’s a picture I took on my phone:

If you turn right out of my office and follow Lansdown Lane up its steep course, it turns eventually from a reasonable road into a very narrow road, and then from a very narrow road into an undrivable dirt track before finally spending itself in a field. There is a pleasing symbolism about this steady ascent into rusticity (and conversely, the homeward decline into civilisation). The field at the Lane’s peak is stuck to the side of a valley spread with hedgerows and very noisy sheep. The multiplex cinema on the Bristol ring road is only 10 minutes away. Bath’s Roman remains are 15 minutes in the other direction. But here, nothing but greenery and sheep. Ah, England. England, eh?

Anyway, having already wowed Nige with my accelerating expertise in British wildlife – just the other day I spotted and catalogued a veritable menagerie including: a pair of small dark randy butterflies, a hovering kestrelly-kite sort of bird and a small black tweety bird – I have been continuing to record for posterity the local flora and fauna.

Yesterday’s walk yielded successful identifications of:
- a very small brown bird, shrieking intolerably
- a magpie!
- a robin!
- three largish cows
- two white, very flappy butterflies
- a dog

And, most thrillingly, this:

This, I can only assume, must be the famous ‘shitbird’, of which they speak so often on The Wire.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tragic life stories

WH Smiths now appears to have a policy of hawking sweets at the counter. The assistant points to an array of untempting chocs and tries to force an impulse-buy out of you. What next, pushing fishing magazines door-to-door? Hustling for Panini football sticker trade on street corners? Smiths used to be respectable. Now, like Woolies, it has lost its identity and become a place that sells a bunch of things which, when you want them, you buy somewhere else. It will soon die.

It also has a book section called ‘Tragic Life Stories’. I was dimly aware of the existence of the ‘misery memoir’ genre – I understand that Irish nuns and fakery are heavily involved – but I had no idea it was so crowded. They all have similar cover art so that you won’t mistake them for real books.

It is, as Worm suggests, time for grunge. Come on, lads, we’re taking to the hills. Start all over again. Burn Brown and Balls on a bonfire of tragic life stories. The Malls are over, the cities are all up. It’s finished. Time for the countryside, time for the soil.

Carbolic smoke balls 2

Monday, July 06, 2009

Buying stuff isn’t fun anymore

They’ve built a great big new shopping whatsebob in the middle of Bristol called Cabot Circus. It’s really quite beautiful though empty because everyone is at the Banksy exhibition.

Before Cabot Circus stole its crown the pride of Bristol shopping was a three-level indoor job called The Galleries. In a misguided attempt to fight back The Galleries has recently rebranded itself 'The Mall.' I went into 'The Mall' on Saturday morning and it was a bleak experience. Something called Head has taken over what used to be Zavvi (and before that Virgin Megastore) to sell off all the stock at bargain basement prices.

In Head I had a moment of crisis. I was stacking up the CDs and DVDs in a kind of buying frenzy (£4 for Tom Waits, £3 for Van Morrison) when I had a sudden flashback to my student days. Back then buying a CD was a big deal. I worked through the summer holidays and allowed myself just one weekly luxury: on my day off I would cycle to Barnstaple and buy a CD from Our Price. It would cost between £14 and £16 and I would agonise over the choice, then take the prize home in triumph and excitement. I would absorb every note, study the lyrics and place the case carefully in my small collection. That was only fifteen years ago but it was a different world. No mobile, no Ipod, never used the internet. Grabbing handfuls of CDs in Head stands in the same relation to those Our Price purchases as an All-You-Can-Eat-for-a-Fiver buffet does to fine dining: gluttonous, desperate, cheaply decadent.

In 'The Mall' Woollies has still not been replaced so the prime location sits empty. I don’t know what they’ve done to WH Smiths lately but it’s nasty; in fact, it’s turning into Woollies. The High Street clothing retailers are trying to be as cheap as the supermarkets but also pretend that their stuff is superior. Waterstones is hanging on there somehow but on Amazon you can buy nearly any book for a penny plus postage, which also takes the fun out of bookhunting.

It’s not just recession, it’s fin de siècle. Sous les pavés, la plage. Buying stuff isn’t fun anymore. I think I might try to work out how to do gardening and what have you. Something tells me we all need to reconnect with the soil.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Bright Lights, the Desolate Shores

Without thinking too much about it at the time, when I wrote the lyrics for Abba's songs the message I wished to convey tallies well with campaigns launched recently by humanist organisations in the UK, US and Australia: “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Thus spake Bjorn from Abba in the Guardian. Suddenly the devastating anti-ecclesiastical implications of Dancing Queen become clear. He also reckons the teaching of agnosticism should be compulsory in schools, in order to guard against the dangers of indoctrination. He’s battling God-bothering headmasters over this:

The headmasters also put it to me that there were plenty of famous free-thinking, prominent figures who had gone to Christian schools. But really this just annihilates their own argument. These people learned to be free thinkers despite, not because of, their Christian schooling.

One of them is particularly topical this year, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Charles Darwin may have gone to a very Christian school but it didn't prevent him from coming up with the "best idea in the world". Nor did it prevent him from abandoning his faith.

I don’t really follow Bjorn’s logic in the first paragraph there, but his vision of a post-religious world is intriguing. A world where everyone feels like Darwin did after he abandoned his faith. What a lark, eh?

Middle distance-gazing professionals gather in conference centres to discuss painless suicide techniques. Reclining in First Class on the Eurostar we eat Asian Fusion food from recyclable boxes and tap secret, bleak poems into our Apple notebooks. A thin couple consummates an illicit affair in a wintry Norfolk beach hut; they make cold love by the Bright light of a low-energy bulb then read each other Radiohead lyrics. A botox-bloated former lapdancer stabs a fork into her poached free-range egg and hums Does your mother know? The yolk dribbles over her perfectly pink organic smoked salmon. Geoffrey Hill stops worrying and enjoys his life. A defrocked priest hangs a framed print above his Ikea bed; it depicts the London Tube map. Fluorescent tubes buzz in the clinic. A headmaster explains that existence precedes essence. The pupils respect each other’s individuality then sing the new national anthem:

Sensitive, Seldom and Sad are we,
As we wend our way to the sneezing sea,
With our hampers full of thistles and fronds
To plant round the edge of the dab-fish ponds;
Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad
Oh, so Seldom and Sad.

In the shambling shades of the shelving shore,
We will sing us a song of the Long Before,
And light a red fire and warm our paws
For it's chilly, it is, on the Desolate shores,
For those who are Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,
For those who are Seldom and Sad.

Sensitive, Seldom and Sad we are,
As we wander along through Lands Afar,
To the sneezing sea, where the sea-weeds be,
And the dab-fish ponds that are waiting for we
Who are, Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,
Oh, so Seldom and Sad.

That’s one of Mervyn Peake’s Rhymes without Reason. It is, I think, slightly better than Matthew Arnold.

Rhymes without reason

Over here Patrick Kurp plays a listy, desert island discy game. “Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.”

His list is quite worthy. I thought about having a go but these things are hard to do unselfconsciously. Strangely, the first one that popped into my head was ‘Rhymes without Reason’ by Mervyn Peake, which is now out of print, I think.

This surprised me, I must go and dig it out of the attic.