Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Everything about spiders is evil. This is so obvious I’m amazed that people insist on going on about their ‘fine and fascinating ways’. Fine and fascinating ways? The writers of Saw IV couldn’t come up with a more dastardly system for despatching victims than the average spider’s modus operandi.
I’ve never bought this nonsense about Good and Evil being exclusively human traits. Of course there are good and evil animals. Here are the teams:
Good: Dogs, horses, dolphins, elephants, little Robin Redbreasts (the Christmas bird), sealions, penguins, otters, donkeys, pandas, chimps, red squirrels, whales and baby lions.
Evil: Cats, boa constrictors, rats, orang-utans, vultures, wasps, Sir Alex Ferguson, spiders, grey squirrels, great white sharks, camels, hamsters and sheep.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
In his notorious trashing of luvviedom and the accepted wisdom that theatre is something “the British do best”, the Yard wrote: “No, the British do poetry best, they merely do theatre a lot.”
He got that wrong. The British do pop music best, their poetry is almost entirely crap.
I don’t just refer to Sturgeon’s Law, whereby 90% of everything is crap, though that certainly applies; I mean that the whole game is rotten. Let’s get the handful of exceptions out the way: at the microscopic peak of the pyramid are Heaney, Hill, Ellis etc, (though even there one sometimes feels like saying “Oooh, la-dee-da, yes we’re all going to die and life is hard and we’ve lost touch with nature and history. Get over it, soft lad!”) and playing a slightly different game are the likes of Armitage and Cope who rescue the thing with humour or accessibility or satirical bite.
But between the peak of the pyramid and the vast base consisting of amateur scribblers and compulsive rhyme jockeys, are the professionals: the competition winners and collection-publishers. In other words, the British poetry ‘Scene’. And the Scene is crap.
The source of its crappiness is the stifling uniformity of tone. Prissily self-conscious, breathily earnest, knowingly wondering. Designed to be uttered in a halting semi-whisper by Juliet Stevenson to an audience of the kind of headscarf-wearers who laugh unnaturally loudly at certain Shakespeare lines to prove they get it, and then to be discussed with gesticulation-heavy intensity by the middling Newsnight Review panellists.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at it some time. Except you probably haven’t and won’t because hardly anybody does. Alex Turner and Amy Winehouse don’t count as poets because they’re far too good for the Poetry Scene. The technical side has disappeared up its own esoteric half-eye-rhyming posterior, so like modern opera it is an Unpopular Art, which makes it an impotent art, a failure. Topics are relentlessly re-peddled (language, losing touch with nature, middle-class angst).
Supply so far exceeds public demand for this stuff that the poets write not for the pleasure of the reader nor even, I imagine, for themselves but for the Scene, for the editors and judges. The consequence of this is a crippling self-awareness: look, I edited this poem until it was just obscure enough, see what I left unsaid! Observe my carefully-crafted last line: doesn’t it leave just the right amount
Thursday, September 24, 2009
I will be away for a few days, but in the meantime - and while we dangle on tenterhooks waiting for the 'North to announce his winner (though keep the suggestions coming if you have them) – I leave you with an interesting clipping from The Sunday Times Magazine, below.
It makes for a pretty long blogpost, but it is broken up into web-attention-span-friendly chunks and at any rate should keep you going for a bit. Normal service will be resumed next week, with any luck.
In a rare interview, exclusively for The Sunday Times Magazine, Neil Hacksworth tries to unmask the man behind the myth, and reveal the person behind the pixels.
THE first thing you notice about Rick Dakota is his right index finger. Unnaturally elongated and warped by ceaseless mouse-scrolling, it protrudes from his person like some ancient, weather-twisted tree on a stark clifftop. Even across the crowded lobby of a fashionable London hotel, the finger seems almost to poke me in the eye and, though I’ve never seen the face of the famed Demolition Man other than in the handful of long-lens paparazzi shots that pepper the internet, as soon as I set eyes on that tentacle-like digit I know I am in the same room as the world’s most prolific, influential and successful blog commenter.
That the physical presence of a figure whose digital presence is so dominant should be dominated by a digit, is somehow apt. Dakota is otherwise corporeally unprepossessing. White-haired and spread with middle-age, in his check shirt, black chinos and unflashy designer spectacles he could be any American businessman stopping over for a European conference. The waitress who takes his drinks order (“coffee, black, tall, plenty of Sweet’n Low or whatever you call it here”) barely bats an eyelid, presumably unaware that she is serving the man whose opinions could, and probably will, determine whether the world’s leaders enact radical, capitalism-crunching measures to combat climate change, or whether we risk our children’s future by carrying on carbonating regardless.
“I like to be low profile from a personal point of view. It suits my purposes,” he says when I mention the vast disconnect between his public face and his global influence. But hasn’t he ever been tempted by the trappings of fame: big cars, red carpets, glamorous dollybirds? A man who counts Barack Obama amongst his disciples would surely have access to some of the finer things in life? “Those are just distractions. I’m very goal-oriented. I like to have goals.” The finger wags dismissively, as if to brush worldly goods aside. “But it’s not like I’m not a complete puritan or anything,” he adds, with a slight grimace which I choose to interpret as a tight-lipped smile.
So perhaps he’s not a machine, after all, though as an interview subject Dakota is hardly effusive. He is polite but distant, conveying a vague sense of irritation, as if my questions are distracting him from a train of thought. Indeed, this may be the case. I notice that his eyes frequently wander into the middle distance, suggesting that one part of his brain is composing an exquisitely cogent 400-word argument of the kind that has made his fortune, while his hand twitches, crablike, as though missing a mouse. My smalltalk ice-breakers are barely tolerated (“Yeah, it rains a lot in Chicago too”); questions about his past and his family life are dealt with perfunctorily (“Normal, dull, happy. Sorry I can’t give you anything more, ah, exotic”) and he only really lights up when discussions move on to his current internet concerns. But more of that later. Just who is this man, and how did he end up as every blogger’s most feared opponent?
Richard Hubert Jefferson Dakota Jnr was born in 1951, the first of four siblings, in Kingsnorth, a one-horse town in rural Illinois. School was a short bike ride to a converted cowshed, Chicago an annual three hour drive in his father’s pick-up. Richard Snr was a self-made builder and handyman of adequate means, his wife Mary-Lou a traditional home-maker. (Handmade apple pies cooling on the windowsill perhaps? “Metaphorically maybe. Maybe literally too, sure, why not? I don’t really recall.”) The young Rick achieved sufficient grades to gain a place at Eagar Cow College, where he majored in Economics, and after graduation he took an accounts job in Burnet-Cohen plc, a plastics manufacturing company. There he met his future wife and the mother of his two children, coincidentally called Mary-Lou (“It’s a common name in the States, don’t even think about trying anything Freudian with that”), and there he worked for three diligent, unobtrusive decades, until the day in 2001 that was to change his fortune, and ultimately the fate of the world: the day his employers installed an internet-enabled computer in his office.
So far, little in Dakota’s history seems to provide a clue about the direction his life was to take. One childhood anecdote is perhaps significant. When he was about eleven years old, he recalls overhearing a discussion between his father and the local preacher, who had stopped by for coffee on the Dakota front porch. “They were arguing about evolution, or trying to. The preacher was kinda against it, and Pop was kinda for it, but they were just tiptoeing around the thing. They weren’t really confronting each other’s viewpoints, there was no defined goal there. I guess they didn’t want to offend each other, maybe, or they just didn’t know what they were talking about.” You sensed something unusual in this? “Somehow I knew they weren’t arguing effectively. Of course I didn’t have the information I have now, I didn’t have the answers.” So you do have the answers now? “Nobody has all the answers. But I have the information and the tools, and I know how to use those tools to argue with you and to beat you. Every time.” As he says this Rick Dakota fixes me with the coldest, steeliest stare I have ever received. That weirdly long finger stabs at each syllable and suddenly I glimpse how this unremarkable-looking American came to be known as The Demolition Man.
We have covered the first half-century of Rick Dakota’s life and coffee is only just arriving. But this is indicative of the meteoric nature of his rise from provincial obscurity to global ubiquity. Fifty years of nothing, then a sudden mushrooming of fame. As the caffeine hits home (“Not bad coffee, for England… I call it my brain-juice”) and the subject matter turns to his new career, our conversation changes up at least three gears. “They put the internet in my office and then 9/11 happened. That changed a lot of lives directly. Indirectly it changed mine.”
Dakota had barely sent an email before 11 September 2001. After it he began searching for questions, answers, discussions. “There was a lot of crazy stuff, stupid stuff being said, in the street, on talk radio. I felt a strong urge to do something about it.” The web provided the outlet. He discovered message boards, forums and, critically, web logs. Dakota began commenting on popular 'blogs' at both ends of the political spectrum under the pseudonym “Crawler” and his impact was instantaneous. ‘Crawler’ supported the invasion of Afghanistan via a series of thorough, irrefutable arguments with liberal commenters which hardened public opinion in favour of the war. Of even greater significance, at least to Britain, was his initial support for the invasion of Iraq. New Labour insiders have revealed that, more than any ‘dodgy dossier’ or cosy relationship with George W Bush, it was an 800-word Crawler comment on a Guardian messageboard, complete with hyperlinks and bullet points, that ultimately persuaded Tony Blair to throw his full weight behind the planned removal of Saddam.
But Dakota is no gung-ho neocon. Resolutely independent, he became increasingly critical of the handling of the Iraq insurgency, and of the Bush administration generally (“They just made a goddamn mess of it. I warned them but back then nobody in the White House was really listening to Crawler. I guess they probably regret that now”). In 2006 a well-known right-wing website carried a post with a 300-strong comment thread, to which Dakota, now going by the name ‘VoiceOfReason61’, contributed no less than 148 comments while taking on the cream of US conservative blogging. So persuasive and well-argued was Dakota’s effort that it proved a turning point for the Republican Party. Bush’s domestic popularity immediately plummeted to record depths.
Yet Rick Dakota’s influence extends far beyond politics. Notoriously, a rigorous defence of Richard Dawkins’s River out of Eden on The Tablet’s website prompted a personal apology to Dawkins from the Pope and forced the Catholic Church to radically revise its stance on evolution. The episode inspired Sunday Times writer Bryan Appleyard to describe Dakota as “Dawkins’s Bulldog”, but a lengthy retort on Appleyard’s own blog about why this was a glib and inaccurate moniker earned the American another full apology. Has he forgiven the English journalist? “It’s not a case of forgiving. I don’t bear grudges or take things personally. I just like to put the facts straight.”
Perhaps Dakota’s most celebrated instance of ‘putting the facts straight’ was his overturning of forty years of conventional wisdom about the influence of the Beatles on popular music. In a set of comments on Rolling Stone magazine’s online forum, he proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Sergeant Pepper was a virtual copy of an obscure Roy Orbison album featuring pygmy tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, and that Johnny Cash’s 1950s output was the source of all pop musical styles from heavy metal to trip hop (“I just said it like I heard it”). This ‘comprehensive demolition of prevailing opinion’ – as pop mogul Simon Cowell described it - proved devastating for the record industry, as sales of the Beatles’ back catalogue halved overnight. Many believe that the decline in value of the Lennon-McCartney legacy contributed directly to owner Michael Jackson’s mental breakdown; and ultimately to his untimely death. It undeniably earned Dakota worldwide respect and infamy in equal measure, as well as the Demolition Man tag. Is he proud of the nickname?
“Well let’s just say I’ve been called a lot worse,” he says, sipping his coffee and, for the first time since our interview began, unambiguously smiling. I can’t say it’s a nice smile, exactly, but it’s a start.
Now that we’re getting along so well, I suggest to Dakota that it is a testament to Barack Obama’s political savvy that he enlisted The Demolition Man for his online Presidential campaign before the Republicans or indeed Hilary Clinton could claim him. He visibly bridles at this. “Obama doesn’t own me. I say it how I see it and if I think Obama’s wrong about something, that’s what I say.” But what about the reports of six-figure salaries? “Category error!” he snaps. “I have been paid consultancy fees for advice about winning blog arguments. My own blog arguing is unaffected.”
I choose not to push the point, but few would deny that Obama’s decision to make nice to Rick Dakota was a wise one. But just what is it that makes The Demolition Man such an effective internet protagonist? Before meeting Dakota I contacted web expert Dave Lull – the only man to have read every single page of the internet – who told me that the Illinoisan has an irresistible two-pronged approach to comment thread arguments: ‘First, he’s watertight and consistent,’ says Lull. ‘That’s a given. You just don’t find holes in a Dakota argument, and if you think you do, you’re wrong and he’ll tell you exactly why you’re wrong. In detail. Second, he’ll put in the hard yards. That’s what marks him out from the rest: he’ll just keep coming at you, weekends, evenings, holidays. You contradict him at length, he’ll contradict you back even longer. The thread can be fifty, a hundred, five hundred comments long – it doesn’t matter, Rick Dakota will just keep on going, repeating points again and again as necessary, until he’s utterly demolished you. There’s no last word with Dakota.”
Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish agrees. “Rick Dakota is a phenomenon. He gives veteran bloggers nightmares. Often they’ll just quit blogging rather than face him. Rick Dakota is the sole reason I don’t allow comments on my blog – I simply can’t risk it.”
When I mention these accolades to Dakota he feigns modesty: “It’s got a lot easier these days. Google Alerts, Google Readers, emailed comments…It allows you to keep tabs on threads so you can always get over there and fix it if someone is being wrong.”
Then comes a startling revelation. A soft enough question, it would seem, but when I ask whether his wife is proud of his blogging achievements, his reply shocks me. “Mary-Lou? She doesn’t know anything about it. Not a clue. All she knows is that I spend a lot of time on the computer.” But the money, the fame? “She’s fine with the money obviously but the fame isn’t real to her.” But what about your staggering achievements – the Iraq War, the Obama victory, the universal acceptance of Darwinian evolution in America? “To her, it’s just a load of guys wasting time on the computer. Hey, maybe she’s right. It’s a point of view; I don’t like to argue with her.”
This time, his smile seems genuinely warm.
With our time nearly up, I attempt to press Dakota on the big and so far unspoken issue; the elephant in the room. After years of deafening silence on the subject, he is rumoured to be ready to enter the Climate Change debate. The UN has already begun pencilling in venues for emergency summits, in order to be ready to convene and take appropriate action at a moment’s notice when his comments finally appear. At this stage, nobody even knows on which blog his climate change conclusions will be posted, though the likelihood is that it will be one of the contemporary internet giants, such as Nigeness.
Despite my best efforts, however, Dakota is revealing nothing. “It’s a heck of a big issue, a mess. There’s a lot in there and I wanted to get all my facts one hundred percent watertight before I started putting the thing right.” Is there any chance he could be wrong, though, any possibility that someone, somewhere could beat him in a Climate Change debate? “Sure, there’s always a chance.” But he’s not worried about it? “At this moment? Honestly, no.”
And with that he gives me his third – or if we’re generous, fourth – smile of the morning, rises from his seat, shakes my hand and walks out of the lobby. I watch him blend back into general mass of London life, unremarkable save for that strange, dangerous index finger, which right now is hailing a taxi. Without a backward glance Rick ‘The Demolition Man’ Dakota climbs in and the Cockney cabbie, completely unaware of the weight of his burden, carries into the capital the fate of the planet, and of his children’s children’s children.
Following publication of this article Neil Hacksworth received a lengthy email from Mr Dakota correcting several points. As a result The Sunday Times Magazine would like to apologise for the following errors:
- Mr Dakota is the second of four siblings, not the first, but is the eldest son
- He worked for a plastics import company, not manufacturing company
- The chinos he was wearing were very dark blue, not black
- Mr Dakota contributed 146, not 148 comments to the famous anti-Bush thread
- Simon Cowell’s exact quote was ‘a comprehensive demolition of the prevailing opinion’
- Mr Dakota’s right index is not 'unnaturally elongated'. While it is in the 80th percentile for index finger length, it falls within standard medical parameters
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
No, hang on. It was with a Hey! Ho! A foddle-diddle-doe! Yes, that was it.
Ed, Will and Ginger would have been proud of me. Tonight a free crumble courtesy of Mother Nature. (Apart from the cooking apples, butter, caster sugar etc - those were courtesy of Asda.)
Mmm, nostalgic business, blackberry-picking. Isn’t it? Summer’s on the wane? Strolling down the lanes? Eating all the best ones instead of popping them in the punnet? Pack away the cricket bat, dig out the footy boots? Small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts? Marvellous.
There’s always a better blackberry further on though. Or just out of reach. Or dangerously low, in dog-weeing territory . These are fat flies in the blackberry-picking ointment. It becomes obsessive; after a while one gets into a sort of picking frenzy, like when you lose the plot at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Competitive too, if other pickers are abroad. Alas, human nature always gets in the way of one’s ideals.
Which brings me at last to the matter at hand. Literary figure Paul Kingsnorth pops by to check on his status as Think of England’s "bête noire ", and, God bless him, reveals a sense of humour. Of course, there are no bête noires on Think of England. All are welcome in this broadest of all possible churches*, even, perhaps especially, eschatological crunchy conservatives like Paul and heretical Beatles-deniers like Vern.
Anyway, Paul, it seems, is suffering from Eschatologist’s Block. He writes: I don't have any plans to do anything especially reactionary or romantic over the next few weeks though. At least not in public. I imagine this means my hit rate here will go down. I wouldn't want that to happen, so I'll put my mind to it and see what I can come up with (taps pipe thoughtfully on chesterfield and leans back pensively).
So the question for you, readers and commenters: In order to keep his hit rate riding high, can you suggest a suitable reactionary and/or romantic move for Paul to make, in public, and preferably in the next few days?
*Except, of course, 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists and Manchester United fans. Got to have some standards.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge.
Ian McEwan - Atonement
On Friday Derren Brown failed to stick me to my sofa through televisual hypnosis. He succeeded with Martpol, whose sofa may be comfier than mine.
The idea was that by watching a film and absorbing various suggestive techniques, some viewers would be hypnotically coaxed into a state of mind where they would be unable to lift themselves from the couch and escape, no matter how they tried (The Antiques Roadshow has been doing that for years, you might say, ho ho ho).
So I tried it, watched the video, then… lifted myself up, in mild, unsurprised disappointment. But I did want it to work. Or did I? I was conscious that I wanted it to work, which perhaps nullifies the effect. It seemed to me that Brown was trying to mess about with that mysterious instant between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. Or at least, he forced me to think about it, as I focused on that inexplicable series of signals and mechanisms… I want to move my legs, I will move my legs…now? Now? Now my legs are moving!
Or again, you could say that Brown did force me to move against my will, only in the wrong direction. I wouldn’t otherwise have stood up at that moment (I was quite comfy after all), without Brown trying to get me not to stand up. I got up even though I didn’t want to get up. And the series of signals and mechanisms was buggered: I don’t want my legs to move, I’m telling them to move but I don’t mean it, (or I’m telling them not to move and I don’t mean it?), I won’t move them now…Now? I am moving them now! Damn. The wave breaks in reverse.
So was this an assertion of my free will or the opposite? The awful, nauseous freedom of the moment between the conception and the creation, between the desire and the spasm, between the almost infinite range of things you could do, and what you do do. Crazy things can happen in that shadow. They usually don’t, of course, but they can….
Monday, September 21, 2009
This information increases the risk of my investing in the game a few hundred quid of what Theo Paphitis would leeringly call “my chill-a-deren’s in-a-heritance”. That said, a small voice from my past does whisper: “But why do you need a computer game for this? You and a university flatmate once played side two of Abbey Road four times in succession at maximum volume, howling, gurning, playing invisible drums, guitars, violins and bassoons throughout, after which you had a protracted and unprecedentedly pointless debate about which is the best ‘moment’ (he putting the case for the instrumental freak-out that joins Carry That Weight to The End; you arguing for the line “And so I quit the police department” , an unexpected third verse which hits you just when you’re geared up for the chorus in She Came In Through The Bathroom Window). Rock Band, surely, is just a game for people for whom air guitar is too great an imaginative leap?”
That’s one way of looking at it, sure, but then again I have played Guitar Hero and it was a blast. Round at a friend’s house for dinner, and in a reverse of the traditional way of things, the WAGs remained at table to discuss affairs of state while the gents (HABs?) went next door to do needlework or, much the same thing, muck about on the Playstation. Talk about a duck to water, I was rockin’ that thing from the off, and the fun was greatly enhanced by the fact that the only chap who couldn’t get the hang of the rhythmical button-bashing was a banker from Wales and self-proclaimed ‘pretty darn good’ amateur rock guitarist. “But I can play this in real life!” he protested, as the electronic crowd booed his hopeless stabbings at Smoke on the Water. Meanwhile the host and I were pulling Hendrix shapes and doing Quo-style synchronised axe-swinging. By the time the Welsh banker had murdered Ziggy Stardust, and then insisted that the Manic Street Preachers has asked him to join them but that he’d rejected them, the rest of us were on the carpet literally weeping with mirth.
The tipping point for the fate of my chil-a-deren’s in-a-heritance, I think, will come if they ever bring out Pixies: Rock Band. You and your musically-frustrated mates thrashing through the middle part of Trompe Le Monde would probably be something like heaven. It’s important for tone-deaf bankers and middle-managers to have these little glimpses of glory. And the six tracks from Sad Punk through to Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons is a sequence of songs which remains, to this day, the vertiginous peak of popular music.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Indeed, this is by far the most common Google referrer to the blog (others include “incident in public shower” (perverts presumably), “noseybonk” and, amusingly, “james cracknell wanker”).
The consequence is that a steady stream of angry Jocks, seeking justification for their anti-sassenachism, find their way to this page. Occasionally one will leave a comment. Most of these I delete because they are eye-wateringly foul-mouthed rants or threats of physical violence or both. It will give you some idea of the general quality when you see the ones I’ve let stand. It’s well worth popping over there if you have a few moments to kill on a Friday, but meanwhile here’s a comment left yesterday by one 'Jacobite':
I am proud to have been born in Highlands of Scotland and have always had highland anscestors, I havent ever had any interest in Wallace after all he was a lowlander that spent most of his life in Europe.I hate the english for what their Royalty ordered in 1746.they werent just happy to have a battle against Jacobites and beat them 4 to 1, but they created genocide all the way back to other side of River Forth.They killed,raped and tortured men women and children many who hadnt anything to do with Jacobite Causeand all in name of King George and his son Duke of Cumberland(Stinking Billy)English Royalty.The aftermath of the battle was biggest shame the so called British army ever had and werent allowed any battle honors for Culloden.I will always hate them for that,then in 1800s we had Highland Clearances again get rid of the Scots of the North to make way for sheep,and the landowners sell their honour for English Royalty gold and a knighthood.and right up untill the 20th century Scottish Culture wasnt allowed to be learnt by our children.Scottish History was banned in Scottish schools , even I myself can remember being told we need to learn about Battle of Hastings and Magna Carta and nothing else.even today Scots Gaelic isnt recognised on British government forms but various asian and welsh, Polish,etc languages are all catered for.Many of the Royalists of England would rather have Scotland staying quiet
This remarkable essay throws up so many interesting questions. What, for example, does it mean to “have always had” Highland ancestors? One imagines a fantastically inbred descendant of some sort of McAdam and Eve. Who does he mean when he says he will “always hate” the English – does his net of loathing catch, for example, offspin bowler Monty Panesar, or is it just the white ones who have “always had” English ancestors? And so on - I can’t possibly cover them all here.
But in more general terms, the following question occurs to me: is there anywhere in this world a more striking example of wilful self-delusion than the Scottish nationalist idea that the English are oppressing them?
The underlying narrative is the notion that the English are somehow imprisoning them, and that if we’d just cut the chains of bondage the Scots would at last have their rightful FREEEEEEEEEDOMMMMMM to go forth and sing and dance and play bagpipes in the heather.
So powerful is this Mel Gibson-induced trance that it can survive even in the following circumstances:
- The Scots can make their own laws but the English can’t
- The British Prime Minister was elected to Parliament by a Scottish constituency, and not given any electoral mandate at all to be PM
- For the last billion years, the Chancellor has been a Scot
- Scotland regularly sends down a bunch of socialist MPs to Parliament, by whose policies their welfare-bloated country is funded by the taxpayers of, mainly, south-east England
I expect Scottish nationalism was fun when independence was a long way off, and when the Scots felt that the English were opposed to it. In fact, the above circumstances plus incessant SNP whining means that the English no longer really give two hoots about keeping the Jocks in the Union, and, by and large, we’d be quite happy to let them go off on their own. At least we’d have no more Gordon Brown, and no more Jacobite guilt trips about what our Royalty ordered in 1746.
And the final irony of independence would be that without the English to fund them, the Scots could no longer afford to be socialist: they’d have to become radically, tigerishly Thatcherite to compete on the global stage. Yes, I think that, on the whole, rabid Scottish nationalists who spend their time googling why they hate us, are amongst the most braindead, unlikeable jerks one could hope to find. Let them have their way, I’d vote for them.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Despite actively discouraging contrarian theories, I have enjoyed Vern’s determined sallies on the pop-influentialitiness of the Beatles – especially his concluding assessment that, on balance, he had “comprehensively demolished [my] literalist, book of Genesis theory on the Beatles”.
The appeal of this judgement lies in the fact that I was completely unaware that I held such strident Creationist views on pop music, and my take on the thing was that Vern had slipped gently from Position A (a cantankerous suggestion that the Fab Four influenced few developments bar the pretentious noodlings of Yes), to a much weaker but more plausible Position B: the claim that the Beatles were themselves influenced by previous musicians, and that there have existed other influential musicians besides the Beatles, such as Bob Dylan.
Since I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with Position B, which is perfectly obvious and compatible with my huge but conventional Beatle-respeck, I assumed that Vern and I had moved to a state of sweet convergence and harmony. But no, of course the Battle was the point, and so Brit had to be Comprehensively Demolished.
One significant aspect of commenting I neglected to mention here, is the potential for protracted argument. It’s almost exclusively a male pastime, and Vern’s effort on Beatledom is the very best kind of internet combativeness: indefatigable, gloriously pointless and impeccably, teethgrittedly well-mannered. Furthermore, it required dedicated research, rising manfully from his sickbed to google out the dates of arcane prototype concept albums featuring Red Indians.
The episode brings back a nostalgia for my old days of blogging, which consisted almost entirely of exactly that sort of trivial combat. But it’s time-consuming, inevitably repetitive and even if, like Vern, you announce confidently that you’ve Won, there’s never really a Last Word. 'Ardest game in the world, blog arguing is. I was in that game fifty years, man and boy. I’m well out of it, mate.
But it’s good to know it’s there, if I ever need it. Get well soon, Vern.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The discussions below (and if you pop in you can find Vern still heroically arguing that
the Stones Kraftwerk Led Zep Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison are the true equal contributory innovators in pop) have reignited my latent Beatlephilia, after several long years principally devoted to this lot. The particular catalyst was my observation to Gaw that a mere six years separated the catchy (and as it turned out, indisposable) disposable pop of Please Please Me from the creation of Revolution 9, the latter a track which four decades and innumerable chin-stroking bands later is still as avant garde as popular music gets. And of course those six years were absolutely rammed with ceaseless invention, smash hits, touring, daft movies – the lads weren’t holed away, as modern bands are, working browfurrowedly on tapeloops and sampling. It is nigh impossible to imagine pop artists being able to make such a quantum leap forward again. I mean, where is there to go?
So, Beatlephilia reignited, I dug out the White Album and played it in the car. Now, it doesn’t need me to expound on its musical worth – there must be acres of analysis, much of it nuttily intense, out there on the web – but, my goodness, there’s a little run of songs on what was Side 3: Everybody’s got something to hide…/Sexy Sadie/Helter Skelter/Long, Long, Long (that’s two Lennons, a McCartney and a Harrison). Now, I mean, come on! Wowee, the range of the thing...How many bands, what whole pop genres, have gurgled forth just from that little lot? And how many records since have successfully strung together so many disparate styles? (I ask rhetorically - as below, keep crankarian theory to self). Again, it’s not a question of taste. I should have made it clearer in the Beatlemania post, perhaps: whether one likes listening to the Beatles or not is another question, of interest really only to you, and of equal but not greater value to a declaration of “I don’t like the colour of Napoleon’s hat” when discussing the causes of his defeat at Waterloo. And of the question about the actual role of Fabbery in the development of pop music, yes, you can have a heretical theory if you want, as you can have a heretical theory about anything settled, but what of it? Mew says the cat, Quack-quack says the duck, Bow-wow-wow says the dog!
(The other notable thing about the White Album (and also Abbey Road) is the timelessness of its sound. The earlier records, as inventive as they were, have an unmistakeable sixties tang, whereas the White Album could have been made at any time since.)
Well anyway, so Bradman-esquely vast was the scale of the Beatles’ inventive achievement in those years that - like the Sun, Death and the stupidity of the late Harold Pinter's political views - it’s impossible to look directly at it. So shifting instead to the other question, that of taste, it occurred to me that despite all the above, the Beatles never made a song I like as much as I like Gimme Shelter. Which got me thinking about other areas where the Stones (whose Sergeant Pepper rip-off is perhaps their most humiliating moment, much worse than those 80s videos or Brian Jones nicking Harrisons’s sitar because at least they made Paint it, Black with that) might have triumphed over their Scouse rivals.
And the answer, it seemed to me, is in the field of appallingly dated misogynistic lyrics.
The Beatles’ best effort here is Run for your Life, which closes Rubber Soul:
Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
...You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end, little girl
Unsurprisingly, Lennon later disowned this shocking stalker’s ditty, but the Stones broadened his psychotic jealousy into a much wider contempt for all womankind.
Examples aren’t hard to come by (gin-soaked bar-room queens etc) but the prime ones are Under My Thumb (The squirmin' dog who's just had her day, Under my thumb…The way she does just what she's told etc) and especially Yesterday’s Papers:
Seems very hard to have just one girl
when there's a million in the world
...Who wants yesterday's papers, who wants yesterday's girl?
Who wants yesterday's papers? Nobody in the world
Hard to imagine Take That chirping that one. And yet, the girls kept on buying Stones records and squabbling for backstage passes. A different world, then. Or not? You can answer that one if you want, or not, up to you.
Each to their own, I suppose, but for my money commenters are the essence of blogging. A blog without a merrie band of regular commenters is a sad, emasculated thing.
Most blogreaders don’t comment – I reckon from unscientific but long-term stat monitoring that overall about 1 in 8 TofE readers comments at least occasionally, which is, I think, a relatively high percentage as far as blogs go. Of course I’m grateful for readers – including the voyeurs – but I’m much more grateful to the commenters (even, perhaps especially, the cranks and contrarians) and admire those who cross the Great Divide, who bust the Third Wall to explain why race isn’t an issue in America, or why Hank Williams invented the Beatles.
There are caveats. A blog with too many commenters, all of whom are nasty and cretinous, is unreadable. I’m also not keen on Anonymouses. A moniker is the starting point, because without an entity to hang the comment on, comments are just words in space, and there is no development. Blogs are pubs – you make friends in them, occasionally enemies, often enemies who eventually turn into real friends that you go on to meet in real pubs. And as with real pubs, too big and crowded and no-one can hear anyone else; too quiet and they’re dead.
Of course, the number of comments generated is no great guide to the quality of the post. The best thing ever posted on Think of England (and, by logical extension, on any blog on the internet) garnered but 7 comments, two of which were me and one of which was a misfire. Whereas this pointless inanity yielded 26 stridently argued missives, merely because it hinted at controversy.
It occurs to me that the best way to get lots of comments, therefore, is simply to blog three blank posts entitled: “God”; “Darwin” and “Anthropogenic Global Warming” and watch ‘em roll in.
(Although Darwin is now so 2005. "US Healthcare" would do the trick...)
Monday, September 14, 2009
Beatlemania abounds with the release of some computer game and more importantly a full set of remastered albums which is, by all accounts, a significant sonic improvement on the Beatleage currently available on CD.
I covet this set of remastered albums, even though I already have all the music.
I covet it with vigour and a vengeance.
As well I might. Because, after all, when the Intergalactic Cultural Police descend on Planet Earth to judge humanity’s creative worth – as surely they must – and when they erect their colossal Judging Scales, and onto the ledger marked “Damned” they pour all the non-artistic filth and waste, all the X-Factor spin-off albums and the formulaic action movies and computer-generated romantic comedies and the Dan Brown novels and Dan Brown rip-off novels and all the Fabulously Bad Poets and the witless modern art and the screaming Nickelodeon cartoons and the joke-free sitcoms and the tedious plays that go on and on and on about how awful capitalism is and all the other inevitable consequences of Sturgeon’s Law; and as all this rubbish is heaped higher and higher, a gargantuan shitpile towering into the stratosphere, then we – homo sapiens, the defendants – we will neither cringe nor wilt in shame, we shall know no fear because when the Alien Judges have built their impossible mountain of junk, an Everest on an Everest on an Everest of cynical commercial brainrotters and misconceived innovations and heroic failures, then at last the moment will come and our elected spokesman, Barack Mandela-Churchill III, President of Earth, will step serenely forward to the ledger marked “Saved”, and into it he will drop but two items: a Complete Works of Shakespeare and a remastered Beatles box set; and the combined weight of these two items will reverse the balance of the scales with such shattering force that the Damned ledger will rocket skywards, blasting the whole Mega-Everest of Boy Bands and gross-out comedies and unlistenable modern operas and TV spiritualists and Ben Elton musicals and antiques programmes and lads’ mags into Outer Space; and the Intergalactic Cultural Police will be sent spinning, awestruck and shellshocked, into the heavens with it.
Of course, we’ll then have to rebuild a whole human culture using just Shakespeare and the Beatles.
It will be enough, it will be enough.
By the way, if you’re a crank or a contrarian or you just have no understanding of The Way of Things and you’ve got some kind of theory you like to trot out about how the Beatles are overrated or were no good or about how Herman’s Hermits or someone were the real innovators in pop music… just keep it to yourself, eh? I’m really not remotely interested.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Following the Kingsnorth fiasco, I am momentarily discombobulated by the ease with which I appear to be accidentally making blog-enemies. So at lunchtime, it being sunny, I took my discombobulation up the usual ascent into rusticity and sat myself on a handy rock, the better to contemplate glorious nature and restore some equilibrium.
Near the rock, however, was a manky old brown blanket, discarded and buzzing with flies. Vaguely sinister and corpse-like, it kept creeping into my thoughts. The blanket unsettled me. Later, I realised that it reminded me of the cloak left behind by Obi Wan Kenobe after Darth Vadar has sabred him down – a scene that caused me no little distress as a child.
Thanks to that blanket, the blogpost that was forming never quite did, or hasn't yet. So instead, let me point you to two excellent tragicomedies.
The first is Frank Key’s terrifying tale of a man who is impugned by a peasant.
The second is Ghanshyam Nair’s viscerally pathetic story of his sketchbook.
Read these posts, absorb them, ponder them at length. Then go moan for man and his hatful of hollow. Have a great weekend!
Thursday, September 10, 2009
All the pretty visitors came and waved their arms
And cast the shadow of a snake pit on the wall.
Which is a pretty effective expression of the blackest sort of misanthropy that sometimes occurs when one feels that everyone at a party is having a great time except you (also known as Designated Driver Syndrome).
One can imagine Morrissey* warbling it (A-ha-hah-all the pretty, oh so prrretty visitors, oh-hoh they ca-ha-hame and wa-ha-hey-hey-ved their arms, Oh they wa-hey-heyved them, And they cast, they cast, the shadow the shadow the shadow the shadow, The shadow of a snakepit on the wall, Oh absolutely vile!)
Back in my university days, a friend and I went to a big house party which, we were assured, was of the fancy dress variety, with a specific theme of At the Movies. In true sitcom/anxiety dream style, we turned up in full Clockwork Orange regalia and of course no other bugger was in costume (save for one chap who’d put on a hat). This was especially galling as we’d gone to great lengths to create an authentic droog look on a shoestring budget, even including the codpieces (grey Y-fronts stuffed with rolled-up socks).
Bravely, we didn’t run away, but faced the trauma head-on by drinking a bottle of vodka each and falling asleep on the stairs (which is perfectly acceptable behaviour amongst students). Below, the snakepit writhed without us, in the living-room, hallway and, to a lesser extent, the kitchen.
*although in fact Morrissey put the thing rather more prosaically: There's a club if you'd like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you. So you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home, and you cry and you want to die. All together now!
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
I was once involved in a conversation with a middle-aged accountant, in a room full of middle-aged accountants. I have met a lot of middle-aged accountants and generally they fall into one of two categories: the nice, sensible ones; and the ones who constantly want to prove that they are ‘more than’ an accountant. This chap was a prime example of the latter type, and was attempting to prove his street-credentials by explaining that he was the bass guitarist in a band.
“Oh really, what kind of thing do you play?” I asked, dutifully.
“Rock, indie,” he said, with a forced-casual Mockney twang. “Coldplay, James Morrison, Snow Patrol…All that kind of shit.”
My reaction, once I had finished shuddering, cringing and swallowing a brief surge of vomit, was merely to smile politely and make small noises of enthusiasm.
Compare, then, my craven response to the response of Johnson in a similar situation, and you’ll see the true scale of my shortcomings:
Johnson and his friend, Beauclerk, were once together in company with several clergymen, who thought that they should appear to advantage, by assuming the lax jollity of men of the world; which, as it may be observed in similar cases, they carried to noisy excess. Johnson, who they expected would be ENTERTAINED, sat grave and silent for some time; at last, turning to Beauclerk, he said, by no means in a whisper, 'This merriment of parsons is mighty offensive.'
Monday, September 07, 2009
I cried aloud in horror. It's all coming true, just 25 years later than Orwell predicted!
To my great relief, it turned out that I had simply failed to hear a space between the words. The lesson is, in fact, double Thinking.
This still sounds sinister, but in a 2009 kind of way, rather than a 1984 kind of way.
I don’t like this creeping prevalence of ‘denier’, not one bit. The explicit reason for it is to suggest that the sceptic, being so deluded in the face of the facts, is the (anti) intellectual equivalent of the Holocaust-denier. The implicit, but equally obvious, reason is to suggest that the sceptic is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust-denier. Nasty.
Update - the ever-vigilant Dave Lull points me to these professional Denier-Finder Generals.
Friday, September 04, 2009
And, as an extra bonus feature, the video below shows Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s defeat of the Duchess of Yarmouth in the ‘All-In Fighting’ round of the 1997 Commonwealth Games – a victory which secured her position on the throne for over a decade.
I will also be tackling some of the other penetrating puzzlers supplied by the Rifftrax gang. But in the meantime, here’s one that gets straight to the point:
Which is your favorite Music Hall comedy team of all time; Bangers and Mash or Bubble and Squeak? demands Dan Noutko-Kennedy, urgently.
The answer, Dan (as I’m sure you knew all along, you rascal) is ‘neither of the above’. I defy any true Music Hall fan to look beyond that deathless duo, Scroggit and Grapenuts. Their unusual – some used to say physically impossible – act needs no introduction from me. Once seen, never forgotten!
(I refer, of course, only to their Golden Period which, if we're generous, ran all the way from 1892 to 1946. The disastrous move into a trio – Scroggit, Grapenuts and Sally – in 1947 was a huge blow to national morale, especially when one takes into account the tremendous work done by the pair in keeping the country’s pecker up during two World Wars). As many have observed before: the sad decline of Scroggit and Grapenuts from their glorious peak serves as a remarkably apt metaphor for the decline of the British Empire in general.
Perhaps you have some of your own questions, TofE readers? I can provide full, though not necessarily swift, answers on literally any topic, and am of course much more reliable than Wikipedia.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
'People like to put labels on us’, explains Ginger. ‘Troubadour, minstrel...’
…Busker? Tramp? Now it would be very easy to poke snarky fun at Ed, Will and Ginger. Which, in itself, is no reason not to do so: the juxtaposition of their anti-modern values and the Web 2.0 technologies they use to promote them is inherently amusing, or at least worthy of a middling Mitchell & Webb sketch. They regale passers-by with songs of the “riddle-me-fal-de-roddle-o” variety and then hand out cards promoting their website, which includes MP3 downloads. The incongruity is perfectly captured in this picture, in which one of the minstrels, ensconced in a suitably rustic pub, taps away at a spanking laptop which, presumably, he had to do a bit more than sing for.
But – as with poets, or British surfers who embrace the bleach-blonde Zen-lite lifestyle to its full extent – Ed, Will and Ginger are only laughable to the degree that they take the thing seriously. If the project is seen as a bit of adventure, as fun, as source material for a book and a website – even as a way of promoting folk music – then it is rather admirable, in the same way that anything involving a bit of pluck and determination is admirable.
They only become ridiculous if they are described in terms of a political movement. As Vern points out below, it is telling that Kingsnorth’s article appears in the Telegraph, when the Grauniad would seem his natural home. In fact, a major part of Kingsnorth’s worldview is a sort of British crunchy conservatism (although, to certain temperaments, the very act of protesting against the mainstream is in itself more important than any worldview the protester hopes to realise).
The central conceit of this brand of crunchiness is the idea that the modern world, and its cultural, economic and political structures, is erected on a bedrock of national folk traditions. The modern structures depend on greed and shallow individualism and are less ‘real’ than the rootsy, earthy things that underpin them. And, hope the more eschatological crunchies, they can be peeled away or might one day collapse under their own gluttonous weight, to reveal the Leveller’s idyl that always lay beneath.
The crunchies, of course, have it all the wrong way round. The idyl is mythical, the crafts (here Ginger carves a wooden spoon and blogs about it!) are Dressing-Up Box imitations of grim rural poverty. Alternative lifestyles can only spring up and flourish because supporting them is the thing they are an alternative to: a complex web of tax credits, tax payers, economic freedoms and restrictions, healthcare services, pension provisions and so on. Without the context of the liberal democracy they profess to despise, the crunchies are entirely meaningless. Nothing wrong with having folksy types about the place – they add to the richness and variety of life, and nobody loves a traditional English pub more than I do – but as emblems of a political vision they’re hopeless.
Ed, Will and Ginger illustrate the problem neatly. They can sleep rough and walk all day because they are young, fit and healthy, have no family responsibilities or dependents and are free to live entirely self-gratifying lives. They are impeccably well-spoken middle-class beneficiaries of a good education, acting out Lord of the Rings and Robin Hood fantasies. Tattooed men in tracksuits tap their feet to the rhythm, writes Kingsnorth revealingly, but it’s hard to imagine ‘Ed, Will and Ginger’ being replaced by ‘Lee, Jase and Scott’.
Above all, their method of supporting themselves is not in any sense scalable. They can exist as troubadours only because troubadours are scarce. “We want to show that it’s still possible to do things like this, and the only way to show that is by example. We’re sowing seeds, I suppose…” insists Ed. But if everyone takes to the lanes and dines on wild garlic, the lanes will soon lose their appeal and the wild garlic will have to be farmed to meet demand. They can only get a free supper from the friendly pub landlord because the landlord’s other customers are prepared to pay him. And the landlord is only willing to give them supper in exchange for a song because they are a novely act: if thirty or forty Ginger-inspired troubadours come tramping in every night offering a rustic ballad as payment for pie and chips, he’d soon be booting them out on their bottoms.
Fortunately, Will, Ed and Ginger don’t really seem to take themselves all that seriously. Their blog is rather enjoyable, they seem like decent coves and their singing is nice. The appeal of their 'endless' Walk, however, can’t last, because eventually they won’t be young enough and they’ll either meet women and stop, or carry on and grow mad, ill and unattractively trampish. And in fact it turns out that Ginger has already left the band, citing artistic differences. So, as they like to say, it goes.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Well fear not, because I am - at a new blog called A Charlotte's Progress.
This is a separate, invitation-only blog for the following reasons:
1) there are lots of nutters and slightly horrible people on the internet. I positively welcome them on Think of England, but don't really want them hanging out with my daughter.
2) Baby pics, videos and my nonsensical musings on Transformer-like prams are only of interest to a certain type of person.
3) I think it best to keep Think of England clear of babytalk, otherwise it might end up being little else.
If you are a person of type 2 and not of type 1, are a glutton for punishment or a sucker for a darling little chubbyfaced bairn, and would like to see the new blog, drop me an email at the usual address if you have it, or the one on the sidebar if you don't. Assuming you pass a rigorous vetting process and promise not to fill the blog with snarky comments or arguments about Darwinism, I'll then send you an invitation.
Meanwhile, TofE will carry on regardless...
Oooooh, iconic, isn’t it?
Feebly, the current Penguin edition depicts a glass of milk (or, presumably, the droogs' fave tipple Milk-Plus), but I’d be surprised if Pelham’s cover doesn’t get another airing at some point.
All of which quite naturally puts me in mind of a meal that Mrs Brit and I shared in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We were settled on the balcony of a decent enough restaurant, enjoying the wine, the stars, the gentle lapping of the Caribbean and the rich scent of ‘erb’ drifting across the hills, when our peace was interrupted by the unmistakeable yelp of a wild American tourist complaining about something.
It soon became clear, from his increasingly loud and indignant remonstrations, that he was complaining about the waiters' tardiness in bringing him.... a glass of milk. “I’ve asked like three times already. Now where’s my goddamn milk?”
So tickled were Mrs Brit and I by the idea of a fully-grown adult ordering a glass of milk in a restaurant, and then getting angry about it, that we spent the next several hours in fits of giggles (admittedly the drifting erb fumes might also have had something to do with it). Well I mean to say. Milk! Pythonish sketches suggest themselves:
“So that’s two smoked salmon to start, then one sea bass and one woodpigeon. And what will sir and madam be drinking this evening?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any Panda Pops, by any chance?”
“Oh I’m terribly sorry, sir, would you believe we’ve just sold the last two bottles.”
“In that case let me have a look at the list…. Ah yes, a tumbler of Ribena for me please, and…. the usual, dear? Yes?…And a large Um Bongo for my wife, thank you.”