Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Thank you, goodnight, and cry God for England, Harry and St George!"

In Letters to the Editor (today’s Times):

I say, chaps . . .
Sir, President Chirac can end his address to the nation with “Vive la France”; President Bush says “God bless America”. What can our leaders say to unite and inspire the nation?


London SE23

Here are my suggestions for expressions Blair and successors could use to wrap up speeches :

1) Carry on, Britain.
2) Tally-ho!
3) Confusion to Bonaparte!
4) Still, mustn’t grumble, eh?
5) Innit.
6) After all, worse things happen at sea.
7) Boyakasho!
8) Nice to see you, to see you…nice!
9) God Save the King!
10) So put that in yer pipe and smoke it.
11) End of
12) Right, anyone fancy a pint?

Monday, November 28, 2005

The boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne…

In the Times:

Video of violent 'initiation rite' for Royal Marines has revived the demands for a secret hotline for victims' complaints

SECRETLY filmed video of a brutal initiation ceremony among naked Royal Marine commandos led to calls last night for an independent system to investigate complaints of bullying within the Armed Forces.

The shots of two naked Royal Marine commandos appearing to take part in some form of gladiatorial fight before one is kicked unconscious by a non-commissioned officer provoked outrage yesterday among MPs and former military commanders.

The graphic film, which appeared to show an initiation ceremony among recently trained recruits of 42 Commando Royal Marines, is now at the heart of a full-scale criminal inquiry by the Royal Military Police Special Investigations Branch.

Oliver’s Army is here to stay...etc.

The interesting anthropological question is not "Why do the Marines have brutal initiation ceremonies?" but "Why are brutal initiation ceremonies universal in armies, gangs, tribes...?"

Best leaves another legacy

From today’s Times:

Three cheers for applause
By Matthew Syed

THE ONE-MINUTE SILENCE HAS BEEN done to death. Most of the time the objects of these desperate affairs — 9/11, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 7/7 — have nothing whatsoever to do with football. But still the authorities insist upon ordering the fans to keep schtum in an ultimately futile attempt to demonstrate the sport’s respectability.

And each time the gesture is thrown back at them by a bunch of Neanderthals who rend the air with their pitiful oratory while the rest of us struggle in vain to focus upon the supposed object of bereavement. Whatever the noble intent, these occasions have become toe-curling affairs that most of us approach with dread rather than solemnity.

Thank heavens, then, for the spontaneous ovations at football grounds across the country during the one-minute “silences” in memory of George Best. The stamping, chanting, cheering and clapping drowned out the jeerers in a way that would have brought a smile to a departed genius who knew a thing or two about outsmarting thugs.

But football should bury the one-minute silence for cultural as well as pragmatic reasons. Football stadiums are not libraries or churches. Quite the reverse. Football’s is a culture that not merely tolerates but celebrates noise. Noise as chanting, noise as booing, noise as applauding, noise as cheering. Noise as satire. Noise as censure.

We go to watch football, in part, because it provides an opportunity to ditch the mask of Anglo-Saxon reserve amid an orgy of noise-making. In every football ground in the country, the quality of the spectacle is directly proportionate to the quantity of noise. Noise communicates everything you need to now about football; it is as much a part of the liturgy of the beautiful game as the offside rule.

I’ve been present at several one minute silences at Anfield. They have all been impeccably observed, and they really are quite eerie affairs – 45,000 people all stood in utter quiet. You get that sense of the oxymoronic "deafening silence."

However, as an exercise in focusing on the ‘object of bereavement’, they are hopeless because you spend the whole time tensely hoping some idiot isn’t going to ruin it by yelling.

The 'one minute applauses' around the grounds for George Best at the weekend were moving and much more appropriate for someone who was above all a great entertainer. And if it catches on, it will be yet another way that he has changed the British game for the better.

Parris loses the plot

Matthew Parris in Saturday’s Times:

My view runs counter to a consensus emerging among many commentators. The consensus (both among those who supported and opposed the invasion of Iraq) is persuasive. It says that in terms of political “capital”, there is little left to be gained or lost from Iraq as a domestic controversy in Britain and America. It accepts that the outlook in Iraq itself is not encouraging, but questions what further impact this is likely to have on the fortunes of those who led the invasion.

A core of opinion (says this consensus) holds that the invasion was a crime and a blunder; the other core holds that it was the right thing to do; both cores are now fairly impregnable to impact from future facts. Everybody agrees that what’s done is done; and those who turned against their political leaders because of the war have done so already. Anti-war parties have already taken their profits from the investment they made in opposing the war; pro-war parties like new Labour and the Conservatives have already taken their knocks. Hostilities may or may not continue, but domestic politics has moved on. The Iraq factor can therefore be more or less removed from domestic contests still to come.

To join me in challenging this consensus you will have to accept my unspoken main premise: that nobody seriously now thinks the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a good idea or is going anywhere useful. You will not lack for evidence against my view. Take Tony Blair. Probably he thinks he thinks he was right, though I doubt anyone else in the Cabinet does. Among the commentariat, admirable figures such as David Aaronovitch, Michael Gove, Daniel Finkelstein and whoever writes the leading articles for this newspaper and others remain as gallant as they are eloquent in their support for the war and occupation.

But people have unconscious minds and a nation has a collective unconscious. It is possible to consult an unconscious mind but you must be armed not with a questionnaire and a pencil, but a tape recorder and stop-watch. Don’t ask “Are we right: yes or no?” or the conscious man will at once tick the “yes” box. Ask instead: “Imagine you were to wake up tomorrow and realise all this invasion of Iraq stuff had just been a dream. Would your waking thought be ‘Aargh! Bad news. We aren’t in Iraq after all. We must occupy that country at once — no time to lose!’ Is that what you’d think?”

Even to that question, expect the conscious man, if he’s on record as supporting the war, to work out that logic requires a “yes”. Ignore his answer. Instead, time the delay before he gives it, and listen for the hesitation in his voice. Here is the unconscious mind speaking. All the rest is a mix of pride, loyalty, self-justification and the urge to sound consistent.

Come on, chaps. It proved a mistake and in your hearts you know it. In return for your admitting as much, we who opposed the war should concede with better grace than we have, that you who supported it genuinely followed conscience and intellect in the stand you took.

Matthew Parris was generally brilliant when he was the Times’s Parliamentary sketch writer, so it pains me to see him reduced to something so weak, and so silly, as this.

Even if it is true that most people would answer his ‘unconcious mind’ question the way he claims, the whole premise is irrelevant for two reasons.

First, what we wish were the case in an ideal world has no bearing on what we ought to do in the unpleasant reality of the actual world.

For example, ask any man on the morning of a dentist appointment: “do you wish that you could wake up and all this stuff about the toothache and the dentist appointment were a dream and you could have fun all day instead?” Of course he’d say yes – but that has no bearing on the fact that he ought to go to the dentist.

Secondly, by a simple rephrasing of the question you will get a different answer. Try asking this question of your unconscious mind: “Do you wish that the genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein was still in control of the lives and future of the Iraqi people?”

Friday, November 25, 2005

Casus belli

In the Times today:

Diana tragedy turns into a French farce
From Charles Bremner in Paris

A GLAMOROUS princess catches her husband in adultery, then revenges herself, becoming a global star and charity saint. She takes her gym instructor to bed, manipulates the media against the Royal Family, gives a devastating British TV interview and is killed falling off Tower Bridge.

Although not exactly the life story of Diana, Princess of Wales, this familiar tale is the plot of an all-star comedy film that opened in France this week to high acclaim and packed cinemas.

Palais Royal, written and directed by and starring Valérie Lemercier, a leading French actress-comedian, is set in a dysfunctional French-speaking royal family somewhere in Europe. But even without its extensive London scenes, there is no doubt about its subject. Palais Royal is the first big budget satire on the life and times of Princess Diana.

It is also difficult not to see a little Franco-British one-upmanship behind the lavish launch that the French media have given the film, in which Catherine Deneuve is a diabolical Queen and Lambert Wilson plays a tiresome, polo-playing Prince.

The Princess Diana send-up is obvious from the opening scene, in which mourners pile teddy bears, flowers and notes at the palace gates and a female pastiche of Sir Elton John warbles a joke Candle in the Wind at the funeral service for “Princesse Armelle”.

At the opening night in Paris on Wednesday, the audience roared with mirth as Lemercier camped up the trouble-making Princess, who joins the Royal Family as a virginal speech therapist. She imitates Princess Diana’s gestures and magazine photo-shoots and copies her Muslim head-covering while on charity missions.

The French proudly cherish their unique ability to irritate. They’re the national equivalent of the child who pesters and prods and provokes her older brother until he finally snaps, gives her a thump, and off she goes screaming for Mummy.

Actually, this film might be quite funny, if a little like shooting fish in a barrel as far as satirical targets go.

Almost as soft a target as that of this joke:

Q: What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their arms in the air?
A: The Army.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Beefy hits another half-century

Two of the best cricket writers celebrate Ian Botham's 50th birthday in today's Times:

IAN BOTHAM is 50 today. Because he once said, with customary abandon and uncomplicated humour, that Pakistan would make as good a place as any to send your mother-in-law on a single ticket, it is a delicious irony that that is where he should be spending his birthday, commentating on the England cricket tour…writes John Woodcock...


IAN BOTHAM was to England cricket in the ten years after his first appearance in 1977 what Andrew Flintoff is to the present team and W. G. Grace was to the earliest England sides — the hub of the team, the inspiration, the big man, the one for whom no challenge seemed too big…writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins

If the natural heirs to the great British military heroes like Nelson, Wellington and Cochrane are now to be found instead in the world of sport, then Botham is up there with the best of them.

He ticked every box for national hero-worship: the never-say-die attitude, the larger-than-life personality, the ability to defy impossible odds with sheer force of will, the ability to inspire the mediocrities around him, and of course the deep flaws that generated so many tabloid headlines.

Sadly, England only managed a draw today in Faisalabad, but Happy Birthday anyway Beefy - the world would have been a measurably poorer place without your mighty mullet and miraculous victories.

Surprisingly optimistic for a hopeless quagmire

From the IRI:

An International Republican Institute (IRI) poll conducted November 1-11, 2005, found that once again an overwhelming majority of Iraqis plan to vote on December 15 to elect a permanent national assembly, which will be called the Council of Representatives. Eighty-five percent of Iraqis plan to go to the polls to choose their representatives under a new constitution adopted on October 15 in a national referendum.

As the December elections approach, and Iraqis prepare to meet the third and final deadline set in the Transitional Administrative Law to establish a new government, optimism for the future remains high. Of those polled, 53 percent feel things will be much better or better in six months, 65 percent in one year and 72 percent in five years.

Confidence in the government also remains high. A majority of Iraqis, 55 percent, strongly approve or somewhat approve of the performance of the current Iraqi National Assembly. Fifty-six percent of Iraqis feel their new constitution represents the will of the Iraqi people. This is compared to only 15 percent who feel the constitution represents the will of only certain ethnic or religious groups or 13 percent who feel it doesn't represent the will of the Iraqi people at all. Sixty-four percent of Iraqis have a very favorable or somewhat favorable impression of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

Freedom and democracy is the reason most given by Iraqis who feel the country is headed in the right direction. Iraqis also cite the existence of a nationally elected government, improved infrastructure and having a constitution as reasons why the country is moving in the right direction.

Better planning for the post-war Al-Qaeda ‘insurgency’ could have made the aftermath less bloody. There are no excuses for the behaviour of the Americans in Abu Ghraib.

Those are two legitimate criticisms of the Coalition. Once we’ve made them, let’s admire the achievements and attitude of the Iraqis. They’re more optimistic about the future of their democratic country than the race riot-ravaged French are about theirs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Vile habits

From The Sunday Times (Scotland):

Puritans are taking political correctness to another level — and they want us in their pious band, says Mary Braid

Beware the onward surge of the killjoys. Once we used to see them in little groups in the veggie cafe, muttering over their Fairtrade coffees about the iniquities of cheap diesel; or at the school gate tut-tutting as another child was dropped off from his parents’ SUV. But now, according to one Scottish researcher, they are so numerous they have become a new model army on the march. Meet the latest breed of puritans who have been dubbed the neo-Cromwellians.

The neo-Croms (the diminutive makes them seem only a little less threatening) are a group of sour-faced individuals who won’t let their children eat sweets, but will piously buy organic local produce. They eschew cheap flights and religiously travel by train. Most importantly of all, they want you to do the same.

According to the social forecaster Jim Murphy, in the neo-Crom world smoking and fizzy soft drinks are a distant memory...

Hey Skipper of the Daily Duck often observes that irony appears to be the driving force of the universe. Here’s another story to support his theory.

According to a survey for Bupa, more than a third of Britons think that smokers should pay for their own NHS treatment, while a hardline 8% think that they should actually be refused any kind of treatment at all.

The argument being, why should we non-smokers pay for the illness they’ve brought upon themselves? Smoking-related diseases cost the NHS some £1.7 billion per year.

Yet here’s the irony: smokers contribute approximately £8 billion per year to the Treasury, so that’s a profit of £6.3 billion on the face of it.

But what you also have to bear in mind is that even vegetarian, non-smoking, fairtrade, organic-eating, bicycle-riding tee-totallers eventually get old and die. What’s more, they take longer about it, so not only do we have to fund their NHS treatment when they finally succumb, we also have to pay for their state pension while they take an age getting around to it. Bloody freeloaders!

Friday, November 18, 2005

All black

Simon Barnes in The Times:

RUGBY is a game of violence. It is supposed to be. Both codes. It is a game of brutal physical confrontations: individual against individual, group against group. That is, if you like, the point. All the territorial ball games are mimic battles and rugby is the closest sport gets to the real thing. All the more reason, then, for it not to go over the edge.

Without violence, rugby is nothing. Would the streets of London have been lined for the winners of the Touch-Rugby World Cup? I think not. But violence is not the whole of the game. Rugby is not 15-man or 13-man boxing. Violence is the setting, the context. Without violence there is no courage, without mayhem there is no grace, without pain there is no exalted relief in victory.


Both codes of rugby are now professional. In the Eighties, I spoke to many rugby players on the hot issue of the time and one thing united them, at least in their public utterances. Whatever happens, no one must ever, ever be paid money for playing rugby union. To trade violence with another human in the way of pleasure was one thing; to do so in the way of business quite another.

But now both codes are played for money. That is to say, they are played to amuse those of us who watch. It is time, then, to wonder what we spectators want of such activities.

We must do so in the light of a weekend of violence in both codes of the game. Paul Deacon, playing league for Great Britain against New Zealand last Saturday, received life-threatening injuries after an illegal tackle from Nigel Vagana. And as New Zealand played Ireland at rugby union the same day, Ma’a Nonu executed a spear tackle on Gordon D’Arcy. In other words, he slammed him head first into the ground from a great height.

This reignited the case of the infamous spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll, the Lions captain, in the opening moments of the first international of the tour to New Zealand, an incident from which O’Driscoll is still recovering. Such a tackle is illegal, career-threatening, potentially disabling and potentially lethal.

The New Zealanders throw a fit of righteous indignation every time the O’Driscoll tackle is mentioned. Vagana said of his own tackle: “Unfortunately, we’re not playing netball.” In other words, there is a school that thinks violence of this nature is part of the game.

But in all these cases, the violence was illegal and therefore not part of the game. The question, then, is whether or not illegal violence is acceptable. […]

It is rum that these three violent incidents have all been perpetrated by people playing for New Zealand. Before engaging in violent sports, it is the New Zealanders’ custom to stoke themselves up with an eye-popping, vein-bulging war dance. If ever anything were designed to give its performers a feeling that they were part of a group with unique privileges in the world of violence — special people for whom the normal constraints do not apply — it is the haka.


Slice it which way you will, a war dance is no sane precursor to an afternoon of wholesome amusement […]

Let us accept, then, that rugby that involves unrestrained violence is unwatchable and therefore uncommercial. Rugby needs to maintain its violence at precisely the optimum level and last weekend this failed to happen. What does rugby do about it?

The New Zealanders have demonstrated fairly unequivocally and unrepentantly that players themselves are not to be trusted. There is too much at stake. The officials have demonstrated, equally clearly, that they are not prepared to take the matter on. Certainly that was the case with the O’Driscoll business, which was one of the most disgraceful bits of home-town decision-making sport has seen for a long time. Vagana got a one-match ban and a £500 fine.

We won’t all walk away from rugby because someone thumped somebody. But we might lose our enthusiasm for rugby if premeditated acts of violence compromise the narrative of the game.

Victory may be everything to the players. But this is not the case for even the most fanatical followers. Courage is grace under pressure. Violence is one of rugby’s key areas of pressure. But without the grace, rugby is just a punch-up. Where’s the beauty, where’s the satisfaction, where’s the poem, where’s the epic in that?

Memo to all who run both codes of the game: rugby is a mimic war. When we want real war, we turn to the front of the newspaper.

On Saturday 25 of June, the Lions’ captain Brian O’Driscoll, having consulted with Maori elders for the correct response, faced the haka alone and at its conclusion, plucked a blade of grass and tossed it high in the air - to terrific cheers.

A few minutes later he was spear-tackled out of the tour.

With hindsight we can now see the incident for what it was: a cynical, pre-planned action that ruined what should have been a high point in the history of the sport of rugby.

The All-Blacks involved showed that they had no regard or respect for their opponents, the spectators or the game, and the only thing more disgraceful than the tackle was the clumsy, half-arsed cover-up by the Kiwi rugby authorities.

It’s a brave man indeed who only builds in those life-saving ‘breaks’ every 23,000 dominoes

From Ananova:

Threats to man who shot domino-toppling sparrow

An animal worker who shot a sparrow after it almost wrecked a world record domino toppling bid has asked for police protection after receiving death threats.

Several international animal rights groups expressed outrage over the killing of the sparrow that toppled 23,000 of the four million dominos set up for record attempt in Holland.

Investigations into the legality of the shooting in Leeuwarden have also been launched.

A representative of the animal management company that employs the man said: "We have not made an official complaint as that would be no use.

"But if an idiot comes around here, we want a direct line to the police so they can come quickly to help us."

Organisers of the upcoming event have hired extra security staff following the death threats and an offer of £2,000 made on Dutch radio to anyone who topples the dominos prior to the event.

This extraordinary tale of those 'crayshee dutch' raises far more questions than it answers.

But surely any man who has seen 23,000 painstakingly erected dominoes prematurely collapse, yet still has the speed of thought, accuracy of aim and taste for cold revenge to shoot and kill a sparrow – a sparrow no less! – should be employed in some sort of James Bondish secret agent role in the War on Terror?

You can’t get too many of those in the boot of a Ford Cortina

(via Hey Skipper of The Daily Duck)

From the 'Someone Else's Life' blog:

British women have the biggest breasts in Europe. Yes, confirming something that I have personally researched in depth over a period of many, many years (all in the interests of science, of course), the boffins working on behalf of a British bra company have discovered that the British Woman has a far heftier décolletage than her European counterpart. They went on to say that over a third of British women wear a bra with a D Cup or greater.

As if that wasn't enough, respected market analysts
Mintel recently issued a statement that British women's breasts are getting bigger, too. Apparently, British girls average an extra two inches up front when compared with figures from ten years ago. What it means is that the typical bust now measures 36 inches, up from 34 inches in 1995, with cup sizes increasing from a modest B to a fuller C or D. Which is great news if you live here in England but not so good if you live in France.

The Anglo-Saxon model triumphs again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Worlds apart

From The Times:

Why new Pride & Prejudice is abridged in Britian
From Chris Ayresin Los Angeles and Jack Malvern

HOLLYWOOD has finally discovered what followers of the England football team have long suspected: the British do not like a happy ending.

The proof came when executives at Working Title, the British film production company, cringed at the ending to their adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and decided to lop it off.

As a result, the British version of the film is an estimated two minutes shorter than its American equivalent, after the producers at Working Title Films had a change of heart and left their Hollywood-style “pay off” shot on the cutting room floor.

“You got the more sugary one,” Matthew MacFadyen, who plays Mr Darcy to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet, revealed to a USA Today reporter. “The Brits hated it.”

The British version of the film instead concludes with Elizabeth’s father (Donald Sutherland) giving his consent when Mr Darcy asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage. “And if any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at my leisure,” he declares, in the film’s final line. American audiences, however, are treated to a lingering shot of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy kissing under moonlight, on a terrace. Mr Darcy asks his new wife how he should address her. Should he, he inquires, call her Mrs Darcy? She replies that he should only call her that if he is absolutely in love with her.

“Mrs Darcy . . . Mrs Darcy,” he repeats as the credits roll.

The change came about after executives watched a screening of the longer film in America. David Livingstone, vice-president of Universal marketing and distribution, said that the American audience loved it but the British executives had reservations. “There was a moment when somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it ended with Donald Sutherland?’,” he told The Times.

The extra scene was kept for the Americans, as well as some Asian territories that prefer emotion to be “laid on quite thickly”, Mr Livingstone added.

Clichés and national stereotypes are generally clichés and national stereotypes because they are true.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More against the Confederacy

Ian McEwan, along with the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, formed part of a group of talented, eloquent, progressive, left-leaning anti-Thatcherite British writers in the 1980s.

But like Hitchens, he refuses to don the Dunce’s cap when it comes to Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’.

This interview is from Der Speigel, and came soon after the London bombings, while McEwan was promoting his book based on terrorism, "Saturday”:

SPIEGEL: A lot of the themes of your book are being played out on the streets today, particularly the idea that there is no refuge from terror. Even the family refuge is not safe.

McEwan: Exactly. There is no refuge and if you want to be in a city like London, with its relatively successful racial mix, it's impossible to defend. That's the other thing I wrote at the end of my book, that these possibilities were lying just open, so easy to do.

SPIEGEL: How can cities protect themselves?

McEwan: Inevitably, we're going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner. But the problem is that their audience has already been to training camps.

SPIEGEL: But isn't the West providing the best advertisement for terrorist recruiters by being in Iraq and killing Islamic civilians, torturing Muslim prisoners a la Abu Ghraib and spreading pictures of the deeds around the world?

MCEWAN: I don't think terror needs a breeding ground. I don't buy the arguments in the Iraq war. What keeps getting forgotten here is that the people committing massacres in Iraq right now belong to al-Qaida. We're witnessing a civil war that's taking place in Islam. The most breathtaking statement was the one of al-Qaida claiming responsibility for the London bombings saying it was in return for the massacre in Iraq. But the massacres in Iraq now are being conducted by al-Qaida against Muslims. I also think it's extraordinary the way in which we get morally selective in our outrages. When there was a rumor that someone at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the lavatory, the pages in The Guardian almost caught fire with outrage, but only months before the Taliban had set fire to a mosque and destroyed 300 ancient Korans.

SPIEGEL: In your book, the Iraq war still hasn't happened yet. And the day in which the book takes place, Feb. 15, 2003, is the day in which massive peace demonstrations took place in London. Henry's daughter Daisy is among the protesters and he is full of ire and sarcasm about them. He doubts they can rightfully claim morality for themselves. Do these passages echo your own ambivalent views on the matter?

McEwan: Yes, it does. I never thought that in the run up to the war we were discussing simply the difference between war and peace. We were discussing the difference between war and continued torture and genocide and abuse of human rights by a fascist state. I missed any sense of that complexity in the peace camp. I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it.

SPIEGEL: Do you think invading Iraq was a mistake?

McEwan: I think if Bush and Blair could press a button and we could all fast forward backwards, rewind the tape, they'd probably do this differently. But I don't think they fully grasped, and even the anti-war (movement) could have never fully grasped the fantastic viciousness of the insurgency against its own people.

In the full interview McEwan also talks about Blair and the legacy of Thatcher.