Friday, February 26, 2010

It’s over for the little guy

Asdal turned up trumps for the basics, such as crumpets, Dungeness crab and eggs which contain egg, but Wild Swans by Jung Chang, foot spas and The Full Monty (VHS) were all out of stock.

Fortunately Outer Spaceman had reminded us that all of these items are readily available in any charity shop, so I immediately took myself over to Staple Hill, a borough of Bristol which contains the highest density of charitable outlets in the South West. Staple Hill’s short high street boasts, amongst others, a Red Cross, a British Heart Foundation, a PDSA, a Cancer Research, a Marie Curie, a Barnardo’s, an Age Concern, an RSPCA, a Salvation Army, a Save the Children, a Scope, a Sense, a Sue Ryder, a Mary Beard, a National Bullying Helpline, a Meerkat Rehabilitation Society, a Relative Poverty Affirmative Action Squad but strangely, no Oxfam.

Naturally I found everything I needed in the Red Cross, but imagine my surprise as, driving out of that OAP’s Mecca, I saw the cement mixers, the men in hard hats, a rubbled Ground Zero where the Woolies and Blockbuster used to be, and growing in their place the skeleton of a colossus, and plastered across screens the ominous banner: “Opening Soon – Tesco Wild Swans and Foot Spa MegaPlatz”. Where, I wondered, is Paul Kingsnorth when you need him?

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Last night as I pushed my trolley round Asda (here pronounced, with the bizarre Bristol terminal ‘L’, as ‘Asdal’), keeping one eye on the steering and the other on my shopping list...

...the following announcement sounded over the tannoy: “Passionate about service; would all till-trained staff come to the check-out please. Passionate about service; would all till-trained staff come to the check-out please.”

Fortunately I was able to face this with equanimity, since I have recently attained a high level of Zen wisdom.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Official state crustacean news

I bring glad tidings! You may recall that last October I suggested that Wikipedia’s List of Official State Crustaceans might mark the point at which there is too much internet, particularly as only Louisiana and Maryland had even bothered to nominate crustacean representatives (the crawfish and blue crab respectively).

But idly clicking on the Wiki page again, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the list has a new addition, as Oregon has finally done right by the Dungeness crab. The crab was officially ratified by the 75th Oregon Legislative Assembly last April, with this magnificent Resolution/prose-poem:

Whereas the Dungeness crab fishery is the most valuable single-species fishery in Oregon, making Dungeness crab an important part of Oregon's economy; and
Whereas the Dungeness crab is an iconic Oregon symbol; and
Whereas the Dungeness crab is the most delicious of the crab species; and
Whereas the Dungeness crab annual harvest begins each year on December 1, when Dungeness crabs are hard-shelled, full of meat and in their prime; and
Whereas the Dungeness crab harvest ends on August 14 to minimize handling, so that post-molt, soft-shelled crabs can fill out undisturbed; and
Whereas this management method has served the resource well for decades and ensures that the Dungeness crab fishery is truly sustainable; now, therefore,
Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon:

That the Dungeness crab is the official crustacean of the State of Oregon

Too much prose

It seems that some light can be shed on the Tiger Woods fiasco by an interview he gave to GQ back in 1997. An article by Charles P Pierce portrayed Woods as a vulgar and libidinous frat boy, who cusses freely and makes dubious jokes about well-endowed black men. The story goes that after this interview a Tiger Team of PR goons seized control of his image to ensure that he would henceforth be indistinguishable from the character in his Playstation game, and so he was until the whole phoney structure caved in last year.

You can read the piece by Charles P Pierce here. Or at least you can try, and if you manage to get to the end you deserve some sort of prize, because Pierce must be one of the most mannered hacks in print. The prose is, for me, literally unreadable. The hammered repetition of “Is it blasphemy? Is it?” reminded me of something which I eventually remembered to be a Steve Coogan bit on The Day Today (see below) and overall it recalls the ghastly self-consciousness of Chuck Palahniuk (‘Annoying’ isn’t the right word for his book Choke, but it’s the first word that comes to mind) or even worse, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, one of the few books I’ve been tempted to throw across the room before the end of the first chapter.

Over at Ragbag Gaw links to some authorly tips. I particularly like this pair from Elmore Leonard:

- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

These are fine rules and should only be broken for purposes of irony or bathos (eg. “If you do that I’ll break every bone in your body, rip your head and limbs off, bury the body parts and dance on the grave,” he explained helpfully).

It's difficult not to write too much prose. Re-writing largely consists of deleting. God knows what Charles P Pierce’s first drafts look like but he should read more Jane Austen and Michael Wharton. Well, everyone should.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Welcome to North Korea

From The Sunday Times review of Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Children don’t celebrate their own birthdays, only those of the two Kims. At school they sing songs about the “American bastards”. “With guns that I make with my own hands, I will shoot them Bang Bang Bang.”

In the 1990s, the country was struck by famine. The government started preaching, Let’s eat only two meals a day!, and state news reported a man whose stomach had burst open from eating too much rice. When food ran short, the regime didn’t try to produce more. It simply told bigger lies.....

People began picking kernels of ­undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. By 1995, almost all the frogs in the country had been eaten. The government announced it was stockpiling food for the poor, starving South Koreans in readiness for imminent unification. Children died first, of dysentery, pneumonia or typhoid, and then the fittest and most muscular died — they have faster metabolisms and burn more calories. The country received $2.4 billion in food aid, much of it from the “American bastards”, but perhaps 2m starved to death.

Yes yes, but if we could just give Communism a proper chance…

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tiger Woods, sex, humans

To watch Tiger Woods’s excruciating, stage-managed press conference – in which he professed gratitude for having been caught at it because this would, at last, give him a proper chance to entirely change his nature and live henceforth as a sort of monk or perhaps robot (the X500 series Family Man Mk III model) – was to witness a great confluence of various streams of human hypocrisy and folly.

The Americans, as we know, are so confused about sex and morality that they almost make we Britons look like the French. Almost, but not quite. Somehow the tabloid punditocracy has become the moral authority in such matters, demanding a mythical, parent-replacing ‘role model’ status for sportsmen (though not for rock stars. The reasons for the distinction between golf ball-whacking and guitar-strumming in relation to sexual mores are unclear, but both ball-whackers and guitar-strummers seem to accept the rules). What else is going on? Women, of course. Despite everything, a sad delusion persists in the WAG world that merely winning the lottery ticket which raises you from the ranks of rivals long enough to persuade a young, virile, rich superstar to wed and impregnate you will in itself be sufficient to change his character and protect him from the hordes of gold-diggers. “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” sang Beyonce, as if that would make a difference to Tiger Woods or John Terry or their predators. Here’s another popular song: Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”

Tiger will now attempt to become a different entity: one more like the character in his computer game. Playstation pixels are our new family role models, the sponsors demand it. He will fail, of course, and therefore inflict far more misery on himself and those close to him than if he just accepted his playboy status, handed over millions of dollars to his wife and loved his kids as best he could when he saw them on weekends.

“Secrets and lies!” one might have shouted at the Woods press conference. Secrets and lies are the foundation of our societal structures, we need them. This is why we cannot tolerate Dwight Yorke. He sticks out a mile, a model of honesty and openness, laying bare the hypocrisy of the game and refusing to play it. He is uncanny and dangerous.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dark Zen

The incorrigibly combative Sean correctly observes that Zen is not necessarily antithetical to bloody violence. One need only read Frank Key’s hammer story for an example of how extreme physical horror can be deeply Zen.

And then there’s karate, of course. Like many a child in the 1980s I was a keen student of the martial arts, though my immersion in Shotokan karate was extreme even by the standards of the day. I dropped it in my teens and then had another stint with the Bristol Shotokan Club in my late twenties, an eventfully violent few years during which I sustained numerous injuries including a broken nose when an African gentleman who purported to be a black belt but only turned up once announced in a training routine that he was going to throw a chudan punch (stomach-height) but instead threw a jodan one (head-height), very hard – a clever trick but hardly in the spirit of the thing. Anyway, Shotokan as it is practised in Britain has all sorts of cod-Zenny things going on amidst the kicking and punching, such as post-session meditation, endless bowing, and saying the word “Oos” a lot. Most students and indeed instructors labour under the impression that Shotokan consists of authentic Japanese rituals dating back thousands of years, when in fact they were largely invented by a bunch of scousers in the 1960s – a cabal of self-awarded 7th or 8th Dans that still rules the discipline in this country.

And then again, there’s this. This might possibly be more Wabi Sabi than Zen; or perhaps it is Dark Zen...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Zen bones

Like all right-minded people and some cranks I like to hike up into the hills of a lunchtime with a cupcake and a copy of the Pelican edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, passages of which I declaim at the top of my voice into the echoing green valleys.

Occasionally the Local Character will pass by, with or without his horse, and we’ll read aloud together or chew the fat. The former Leisure Centre manager is a man of deep and profound Zen learning. He also owns a caravan near Exmouth, to which he sometimes decamps for a week when the pressure of ambling around the North Somerset countryside gets too much.

He told me that one night of a vivid full moon he returned to this caravan after a day of tenpin bowling only to find the door open and a frightened would-be burglar inside. As well as frightened, the burglar was sheepish and baffled since the caravan contained nothing worth stealing save a chip pan and a hairbrush which the Local Character used to brush his luscious mane.

“You may have come a long way to find this caravan,” the Local Character said to the chav. “You shouldn’t bugger off empty handed.” And he gave the burglar the chip pan and the hairbrush and a pair of silver buttons he happened to have in his pocket. Sheepish, frightened and baffled, the thief slunk away with the goods.

The Local Character sat on the caravan steps with an empty belly and an unbrushed mane. He looked up into the clear night sky. “That poor bugger,” he mused. “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Wild Swans

Nige tells of some extraordinary finds in an Oxfam bookshop, including a book about certified morons.

But here's one that's been bugging me for years. Have you ever been into a charity shop which didn't have on display at least one copy of Wild Swans by Jung Chang?


Bloody hell, have you seen Coraline, the animated ‘family’ film? Last night Mrs B and I sat quivering in terror behind our 3-D glasses; it must be the scariest movie since The Shining.

I think it was at the moment when Coraline is frantically attempting to slam a door on the grasping claw of the demented Spider Witch who is trying to suck her soul into the mirror world where everyone has buttons for eyes that we agreed that we would not be showing this DVD to Brit Jnr for the foreseeable.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why John Gray is not a sceptic

The Yard calls John Gray a ‘great sceptic’ and Jason Cowley in The Observer describes Gray as “Britain's most sceptical thinker”. Neither of these descriptions is accurate – the latter I can immediately disprove because in this very post I will demonstrate that there is at least one more sceptical British thinker than Gray, namely me.

Peasants and other rural folk often stop me on the lanes hereabouts, sometimes to impugn me and sometimes to ask: “Brit, what in your opinion is the most common error in general philosophical musings?” To which I reply: “Conflating the ability to doubt something with having a reason to believe that that something is false.” A common example amongst Philosophy undergrads is solipsistic idealism. The ability to doubt that the world I perceive is objectively real is not by itself a reason to believe that I am plugged into the Matrix being fed a hallucination of the objective world.

In Straw Dogs John Gray makes errors of this kind frequently. He is very sceptical about commonly accepted ideas but he only applies this scepticism to his enemy, ie. progressive liberal humanism. He makes many claims of his own, often about the distant future, to which he applies no such scepticism. In this sense he is a mystic.

There are two cornerstone arguments in Straw Dogs. The first is that western Enlightenment-based liberal progressivism equates to a utopianism as deluded and doomed to failure as other utopian projects such as Marxism and Nazism, because no matter how much technology and living standards might evolve, mankind cannot improve morally. (Indeed, Gray argues that the two twentieth century evils are the direct offspring of the Enlightenment – a somewhat cantankerous claim, simplistically expressed, which ignores the fact that western liberal systems rejected and destroyed both. In Britain Nazism was always a joke and in America communism was anathema),

Being anti-utopian and disbelieving in the perfectibility of mankind are basics of conservative thought – in this sense Gray is only saying what, for example, many of the commenters here say all the time: that Man is Fallen. I agree. Where Gray is unusual is in his insistence that perfectibilism explains all forms of liberal progressivism, ie. that any technological or social ‘improvements’ are driven by the hope of a perfect future. This looks like a sceptical claim but in fact it is merely a cynical claim. Cynicism is as much opposed to true scepticism as is wide-eyed optimism. At no point in Straw Dogs does Gray address the possibility that perfectibilism may be only one of many motives to explain the history of western ‘progressivism’, and sometimes not a motive at all. If I have a toothache I go to the dentist to get it fixed because I wish to remove the pain. I do not go with the idea of one day having a set of perfect American-style choppers. Some part of me may indeed wish to have such a perfect set and from an outside perspective the fix may look like a step on the road to it, but it was not my prime motive. You can ‘progress’ away from something as well as towards something. Gray does not acknowledge that amelioration is not the same as perfectibilism, but this is the difference between the medical researcher who aims to alleviate a particular form of human suffering, and the transhuman who wants a world of medically immortal superhumans. The same applies to ethics: the desire to correct particular behaviour which is perceived as immoral is not the same as the belief that we will one day live in a wholly moral world.

There have been plenty of reactionary thinkers with similarly cynical views of progressivism and bleak views about mankind’s future prospects. (I've just read Michael Wharton's excellent The Missing Will for one example). John Gray’s USP is an argument from Darwinism (this is the second key argument in Straw Dogs). Gray claims that virtually everybody has failed to understand Darwin’s lesson that man is just another animal. For Gray it makes no more sense to say that man can control his destiny – by which he really means achieve genuine moral progress – than it does to claim that a cow or a wolf can do likewise.

Here Gray greatly overinterprets Darwinism's predictive power. Darwinism can provide an explanation of the physical processes by which the human brain evolved. It is silent on what happens thereafter, socially and ethically. The human genome has not altered for tens of thousands of years, perhaps 100,000 years. But human social and ethical structures have changed many times, for better or worse, so Darwinism is just not a very useful tool for making vast societal claims, whether explanatory or predictive. It may be that Gray is right even in his bleakest predictions, but he is making unsceptical, highly debatable, often quasi-mystical claims. In this sense he is as much a Darwinian mystic as the daftest evolutionary psychologists.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Worrying times for John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood

These are worrying times for John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood.

Concerned readers have been emailing me to ask about the possible consequences for John should Portsmouth Football Club, his favourite team, go out of business – and rightly so, because although John is no Muggsy Spanier, Paul Kingsnorth or Jase Rooney, nonetheless he is a key character in Think of England’s motley cast. What, these readers have been asking, will become of the antiquarian bookseller with PFC engraved on his teeth if there are no more matches to attend?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that if Portsmouth Football Club as it is currently manifested ceases to be, then John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood would in fact become Portsmouth Football Club. This is the result of an ancient pact or possibly curse or at the very least something signed in blood which requires a designated Chosen One to take on the burden, or ‘essence’ as it were, of Portsmouth Football Club, should the Club, in the sense in which a ‘football club’ is normally understood, fall.

Indeed, unbeknownst to many outside the city walls of Portsmouth, the current John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood is merely the latest in an unbroken two thousand year line of antiquarian booksellers called John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood to have held the office. Of course for the vast majority of these John Portsmouth Football Club Westwoods the position has been purely ceremonial as the possibility of the official purpose of the Chosen One coming to pass has seemed laughably remote. However, given the extraordinary debts now facing the club, the present John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood faces a real danger of having to taken on the terrible burden for which he was so cruelly bred.

If, as seems increasingly likely, John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood does indeed become Portsmouth Football Club, then according to folklore and FA Regulation 274 Part B Subsection III, John will simply drop the “John” and “Westwood” elements of his name and be required to remain at all times within the city walls except for away matches. Fans will still be able to ‘support’ him, purchase merchandise including stickers and replica shirts, wear tattoos bearing his crest etc. Season tickets will remain valid for him but on-the-gate purchases will also be available and may even see a reduction in price. He will not, of course, be permitted to play in the Premier League but will instead be required to enter the Ryman’s League Division One South for the 2010/11 season, where he will have to take his chances with the rest.

Most unexpected Google referral of the week

A visitor from the University of Surrey* has landed on this profound post about the philosophical mystery that is Free Will, by googling the term:

“John major’s underpants”

This is thanks to a comment by Malty, about halfway down.

*Who knew such a place existed? Interesting that the prestige of a university is generally in inverse proportion to the geographical scale of its name. Thus the ‘good one’ here is merely the University of Bristol, whereas the old poly is the University of the West of England.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Indecent Left: A blast of the trumpet and some freestylin'

Dispiriting to read the apologists for Mary Beard on her blog. Her article was offensive because she had the arrogance to trot out a blasé personal theory putting 9/11 in a ‘context’ just three days after the atrocity - the vanity bred by a lifetime in the unreal world of academia meant that she thought she was qualified and worth listening to, when at that stage all that was required of anyone was acknowledgement that it was an atrocity. That she repeats her lame theory today is less morally offensive from that point of view but, given what we now know about Al Qaeda, is more intellectually insulting.

Despite the tireless haranguing from the likes of Nick Cohen, the arse of the Left has never been able to grasp that Al Qaeda is a death cult which hates everything it sees as blocking the worldwide imposition of an arcane interpretation of Islam. Appeasement, trying to understand their demands, the finer points of diplomacy, cheap-shot Nobel Peace prizes for Obama for not being Bush – these are all irrelevant to suicide bombers. Al Qaeda would just as happily see Mary Beard and her family dead as a Bush-voter and his family. Indeed, what could be more provocative to Al Qaeda than a bolshy female academic permitted by the liberal society to boast of her affairs with married men, and then mouth off about any topic she likes? Everything that permits Mary Beard to be Mary Beard is the enemy of Al Qaeda. This isn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, she has it coming...

The explanation for this blind spot is that the Indecent Left has never forgiven America for proving them wrong about communism. They have seen American capitalism as their number one enemy for so long that they can’t come to grips with the idea that they and America could share a mutual foe. For them it has always been a zero sum game – what’s bad for America is good for the world; they can't stomach the idea that jihad is bad for everyone, putting them in this case on the same side as, for example, Sarah Palin.

What is the excuse for this kind of thinking these days? Goodness knows we live in a fallen, flawed world in which nothing is black and white and the US and Britain have their fair share of mistakes and moral failures to reckon with, but when it comes down to it, since the early 20th Century there’s been a line with the Anglosphere on one side and the disastrous, murderous ideas engendered in Europe on the other, ie. the Nazis and the Commies (and not much better are the corrupted Old Europeans, collaborators and appeasers, dishing out prizes to Harold Pinter, drafting statements of condolence to the Haiti victims while America sorts out the rescue operation, inventing relative poverty, dithering over resolutions they’re unwilling to enforce, growing fat welfare states because the US gave them half a century of free defence against the Soviets et cetera et cetera); anyway, the point is that even in this fuzzy world there is a line, and if you consistently find yourself on the wrong side of that line, as a reflex, like a tic, over and over, drinking Coke and wearing jeans while you casually denounce the Hegemony of the Great Satan, then surely the time really has come to pull your head out of your backside and grow up. But what can you do? Why are there so many Mary Beards? The world is on its head and nothing makes sense and who of us so complexly entangled in our common human blah blah blah can plumb the innermost recesses of another’s and so forth and so on?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Goddammit I can't stop singing Incey-Wincey Goat-Boy, creature of two realms.

Just so darn catchy...


Wobbling precariously on my crutches after a family dinner in a local restaurant, I hailed the first cab in the rank.

He drove up, glanced at my plastered leg and drove straight off again shouting: "I don't take cripples. Your crutches might damage my paintwork!"

Anyone who thinks that British – well, London - standards of service are slipping should take a look at this. We’ve a way to go yet.

Monday, February 08, 2010


Talking of head colds, which is better: paracetamol or ibruprofen?

And is one's preference determined rationally, emotionally or superstitiously?

A bug's life, John Gray, homunculus

Nasty headcold, poisons everything. This is a bugs’ planet; always has been. We are but their latest and temporary vehicles; no arts, no letters, no society… Sorry, came over a bit John Gray there. I’ve been dipping into Straw Dogs lately, perhaps the most highbrow toilet book on the market, trying to remember what I thought about it. I’ve remembered now: Gray is brilliant at gutting popular truisms, but then often makes an unjustifiably strong claim himself. This creates an unusual effect: you read through each passage, many of which contain wonderful, pithily-expressed insights, nodding and thinking "hmmm, too true, too true… ooh he’s got us there… Egad! Touché Mr Gray…" but then at the end the overwhelming feeling is one of profound suspicion.

For one example relevant to the bugs' life point above, Gray slashes at the western notion of the coherent Self, arguing that a Taoist-style flow of impressions, experiences and contingencies is a truer representation of reality. But then he asserts, boldly and unequivocally, that the Self is an illusion. Well this may be true, but then it may not. It may be that we are simply not very good at recalling and ordering things clearly, leaving the impression of an incoherent flow of impressions, experiences and contingencies, and this is the illusion. And there may be countless other explanations and interpretations, each consistent with some sort of Self. And if there is no coherent Self, how come we are able to look back on our lives with such bitterness, resentment and regret, John Gray? There are many such over-confident assertions in the book – some much more obvious than this one. Might write about it later in the week.

That said, at times like this one feels there is something in his final, final conclusion – the purpose of our lives is just to see. With a poisonous headcold one yearns for nothing so much as to be a lonely goatherd, healthy and free of the bugs in the clean wild elements, watching the sun circle and the white snow turn red as strawberries in the summertime.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Paul McCartney's brain

What must it have been like, I wondered recently, to have had Paul McCartney’s brain in the 1960s? Every few days you’d wake up, perhaps sit at a piano, waggle your head a bit, say ‘Wa-hey!’ and your brain would produce a tune for you. Sometimes it might be something like Rocky Raccoon or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, but then on other days it might be something like Yesterday or Let it Be.

Being a music lover devoid of musical talent, I have always regarded with awe and jealousy those rare people who can write memorable melodies. Not just Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson or Mozart or Handel, but anyone who can pen something everyone can whistle. Like the great atheist Bjorn from Abba. Or Noel Gallagher. Or even Pete Waterman, why not. It seems a mysterious witchcraft: the ability to arrange a limited number of notes in a particular, original sequence and rhythm so that hearers can easily and with pleasure repeat that sequence whenever they wish (or sometimes, with great irritation when they don’t wish).

Clearly it is an innate gift afforded to very few. Ringo Starr in some amusing interview told how he would try to write songs but when he presented them to the rest of the Beatles they would inform him that he had unintentionally ripped off a popular tune of the day, and he would say “Oh yeah.”

We can confidently and unhesitatingly dismiss the ‘Outliers’ theory of that audacious charlatan and peddler of the obvious or empty Malcolm Gladwell, whereby he posits that the Beatles’ genius can be explained by the 10,000 hours of practice they had in Hamburg nightclubs. This is clearly nonsense.

First, there are countless thousands of jobbing musicians who put in the hours but never write a Penny Lane or indeed a tune a tenth as good as the most innocuous Beatles album track.

Second, the gift nearly always declines with years rather than Paul McCartney’s brain in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking most bands’ debut albums contain their best tunes, and those artists with longevity (Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Cave etc) rely on other qualities in their later years, ie. songcraft. Noel Gallagher had never even been in a band when his Muse provided him with all the melodies for the first two Oasis albums. It deserted him immediately afterwards, well before he had put in the 10,000 hours.

Third, Malcolm Gladwell has very silly hair.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Marian Beer - A Life

It is common knowledge that obituaries are written in advance, in case the worthy in question pops his or her clogs unexpectedly. Apropos of nothing, Think of England’s Chief Correspondent Neil Hacksworth emails me this obit he has been preparing - with an eye on the Telegraph though he'd settle for the Observer, worst case scenario - for the well-known academic Marian Beer.

The life of...Marian Beer

Marian Beer, who died this week aged 90, was Professor of Classical Greek Studies at Cambridge University and one of Britain’s best known academics. Noted for her outspoken, ‘wickedly subversive’ views on everything from Spartan culture to mass murder, she invariably delivered her unorthodox opinions with a roguish smile and a twinkle in the eye.

Esmeralda Marian Beer, an only child, was born in Shrewsbury on 2 January 1956. Her parents, both teachers, encouraged her academically but Beer’s early ambitions were thespian in nature. She often took the ‘male’ lead in productions at her all-female school and even penned her own plays, which she later described as “wild romances, lots of singing, very bloody.” It was while playing the title role in Aeschylus' Agamemnon that Beer discovered the interest in Ancient Greek culture that was to determine the course of her life.

She read Classics at Newnham College, receiving an MA, and remained at Cambridge for her PHD. While an undergraduate, Beer retained an extra-curricular interest in drama; writing and producing several experimental plays including Groper Train, Hooray for The Cornet Player! and Cnut’s End. Some of these productions attracted wider attention in the theatre world, with one in particular – a dystopian piece imagining a future in which the working classes are ‘harvested’ for fertility clinics – being adapted for the West End by Trevor Nunn. Sadly, Sperm, Egg and Chips was a critical and commercial failure, and a disillusioned Beer threw herself full-time into the academic life.

From 1980 to 1984 Beer lectured in Classics at Durham. She returned to Cambridge in 1985 as only the second female lecturer in the Classics faculty and her seminal work, The Decline, Fall, Slight Recovery and Fall Again, This Time Decisive, of Sparta was published the same year. Beer made her mark on Cambridge life with a radical, iconoclastic approach to the Classics but increasingly it was her political activism that was putting her in the public eye. A natural protester by temperament and with a rigid moral sense, she was involved in various social and political campaigns throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Beer particularly loathed the injustice of relative poverty and was believed to be one of the instigators of the ‘mercy kidnappings’ that took place between 2004 and 2006, in which a group of masked individuals calling themselves the Relativistas assisted the relative poor of the USA by seizing wealthy Americans from their homes and smuggling them over the Mexican border, thus slightly reducing the financial gap between the top 30% of earners and the median income group.

Beer’s theory of the ‘guilty victim’ had actually been developed in the early 1980s (and was a major influence on Martin Amis’s idea of a ‘murderee’ in his 1989 novel London Fields). Initially controversial, the theory had gained widespread acceptance by the time of Beer’s death. Just three days after the 9/11 attacks Beer penned What Goes Around, a controversial article for the New Statesman which argued that the mass murders were more than justified by the history of US foreign policy. The article met with a hostile reaction, but Beer set out on an exhaustive campaign to convince dissenters of her interpretation and before long nearly everybody she knew pretty much agreed with her.

Beer was on the 7/7 Memorial Committee which commissioned a statue of the four 2005 London bombers in Tavistock Square, after it was proven that all 56 of the people killed that day had it coming to them. Her 2008 investigation into the Harold Shipman murders, meanwhile, showed that most of the 218 elderly deceased had voted Tory and that one or two were possibly even a bit racist. Tragically, Shipman’s exoneration came too late, since he had hanged himself in his cell in 2004.

Marian Beer’s frequent media appearances kept her in the public consciousness well after her retirement from academic life. She regularly took the Complication Chair on the Radio 4 discussion show You Say Potato, I Say Starchy, Tuberous Crop from the Perennial Solanum Tuberosum of the Solanaceae Family, and her musical selections in a memorable appearance on Desert Island Discs consisted of F**k tha Police by NWA and seven different live versions of the Muggsy Spanier standard Pamela’s Theme. She said of Spanier: “Muggsy was a kindred spirit, I see myself in him: a fighter, a creator, a one-off. In many ways he was the cornet player’s cornet player, and perhaps I’ll be remembered as the Cambridge academic’s Cambridge academic.”

Esmeralda Marian Beer, academic and activist, died on 3 February 2046. She leaves behind her husband Sebastian Hoare, three children, a trail of destruction and four grandchildren.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A motto for our times

Via the New Psalmanazar I find a devastating apothegm from Peter De Vries. I have never read De Vries before so I immediately sent off for Slouching towards Kalamazoo.

Who of us so complexly entangled in our common human blah blah blah can plumb the innermost recesses of another’s and so forth and so on?

Henceforth will my life be guided by this maxim.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A can of worms

...would it be opening one of the aforementioned, I wonder, if I were to ask about the possible relationship between 'natural law' and, ahem, 'evolutionary psychology'?

It did occur to me...

...that if we really wanted to increase the diversity of the Catholic Church, we should be forcing them to take on a few non-gays in senior positions…

Monday, February 01, 2010

Mary Beard 2: Wicked subversion and the donnish mind

Mary Beard has, I believe, visited the post below. My statistics machine – a Blötzmannometer attached to the computer via a pneumatic funnel and borrowed from Frank Key – shows that someone at Cambridge University has landed there by googling “Mary Beard desert island discs” and Beard’s own blog suggests an impatient, insecure desire for internet validation:

People have sent such great emails…Of course I recognise that only people who liked what you are said are likely to email or post directly. So far not a single email from a colleague (oh dear). And there have been a couple of blogs about 9/11 and about my crap choice of music, But all in all I reckon I've come out just about ahead.

In return I’ve left an abridged version of the post on her A Don’s Life blog. As a critique of her 9/11 views it will of course be nothing she hasn’t heard a thousand times before – usually in more violent tones - so I’m not expecting a reply. The fact that Beard still feels happy to profess these views despite an awareness of the offence she causes is worth pondering. Possibly it is the result of too many years in the unreality of academia, or maybe it is just that people like this are drawn to academia. Anyway, the Don’s life is one of constant argument and opinion in a protected environment. You say something to make a splash and expect disagreement. Beard’s self-image includes being “wickedly subversive”. Presumably she feels that her statements about 9/11 are just a continuation of the wicked subversion she brings to the received wisdom about Ancient Rome.

But there is ‘wickedly subversive’ as in “wink wink ooh isn’t she just wicked” and then there is “wickedly subversive’ as in “evil and perverse”. Perhaps Beard is simply too densely donnish to tell the difference. On Desert Island Discs she used as jutification the claim that ‘most people she talked to’ felt similarly. Given that she hangs out with dons and students, this might even be all too true.

Her notorious article used the standard 'roosting chickens' device of expressing unconvincing sympathy for the 9/11 victims and then introducing her theory about how they deserved it with the word ‘but’…

The horror of the tragedy was enormously intensified by the ringside seats we were offered through telephone answering machines and text-messages. But…

The ‘But’ is the bit I don’t understand. Surely, to a human in the real world, everything said before the ‘But’ suffices. When considering an atrocity such as 9/11 it is not required of you to add a ‘But’ and a theory. I cannot fathom Beard’s way of thinking: the density and the sheer gall.