Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mary Beard, historians and evil

Not often that someone provokes me to swear at Desert Island Discs, but Mary Beard, the Cambridge Professor of Classics, managed it today by repeating her views on the 9/11 terrorist attacks (In case you need reminding, she was the one who wrote: This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. ..World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price).

A couple of things have become increasingly clear to me in recent years:

First, that academia is where society puts its idiots in an attempt to minimise the harm they can do.

Second, that professional historians are not, as they usually think they are, better qualified than the rest of us to pronounce on current affairs because they see them ‘in context’. I do hate it when historians, usually Starkey or Schama, come on telly to talk about Gordon Brown and say, with a dismissive wave, that “of course we’ve been through all this before in Henry VIII’s day” (or whenever their specialism happens to be). In fact, all they are doing is what everyone else does: giving their personal opinion. They interpret both the contemporary and the selected historical narratives to fit their purpose. (In this case, Beard compares US ‘imperialism’ with the Roman Empire, her specialism.)

Beard’s original “article” – which, amongst worse offences, puts the word “terrorists” in scare quotes - was written just three days after the 9/11 attacks and published a few weeks later. Pressed on it now, it seems that Beard believes the worst that can be said of it is that her timing was a bit tactless. But the evil of her views, now so banally and gently expressed, only becomes more vivid with the years, as the excuse of a thoughtless knee-jerk reaction has passed. She did not take the opportunity to acknowledge that the targets and the victims of the 9/11 attacks were not US “imperialists” or Government policymakers, but civilians and the families they left behind. Ongoing, nearly all of the victims of Al Qaeda terrorism (or “terrorism” as Beard would have it) are Muslim civilians.

The worst commentariat reactions to 9/11 – namely conspiracy theorising and the Mary Beard/Ward Churchill school of leftist cant – continue to appal and provoke swearing at the radio nearly a decade on.

If someone consistently says evil things, is the fact that they really believe themselves morally right an excuse? Is stupidity an excuse? On balance, probably not, at least in this case. Beard’s statements are unequivocally evil – certainly as evil, in their way, as Pat Robertson’s views on Haiti. Given that she’s still professing them, I think we can reasonably say that Mary Beard is in a particular way evil, and in a more general way stupid.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Oh for God's sake...

Further to the post below, George Pitcher’s evisceration of Dickie's rant alerts me to something I didn’t notice on first reading: Richard Dawkins’s atheistic fundraiser Non-Believers Giving Aid.

The website of which states: When donating via Non-Believers Giving Aid, you are helping to counter the scandalous myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans...It goes without saying that your donations will only be passed on to aid organizations that do not have religious affiliations.

Because of course when donating to charity the main thing is to ensure that you also strike a blow against religion.

Bump and grind with Dickie Dawkins, you whited sepulchres!

This is a salutary lesson about why you should never write comment pieces for the Times while frothing in a righteous rage.

Here, Richard! Lend us your brain, I'm building an idiot.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Refugees of Relative Poverty

Yesterday a study showed that the “gap between rich and poor in the UK is wider now than 40 years ago”. Furthermore, Peter B sends me this New York Times article by Bob Herbert, which includes the following extraordinary statistic:

In 2008, a startling 91.6 million people — more than 30 percent of the entire U.S. population — fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is a meager $21,834 for a family of four.

Less than 200%! Startling indeed. Relative Poverty is devastating the western world. Think of England sent its roving reporter Neil Hacksworth to the Mexican-US border…


Mexico steps up border security as millions flee relative poverty
by Neil Hacksworth

Close to the nation's busiest highway border crossing, from San Diego County to Tijuana, a border fence cuts across a park and a beach before stretching into the surf of the Pacific Ocean. This is the westernmost edge of the demarcation line in Mexico’s war against unauthorised immigration, and we are heading into a militarised zone.

On the US side of the fence, stretching back into Californian wastelands as far as the eye can see, is a chaotic automobile township - a temporary citadel of winnebagos, motor homes, campervans, bus conversions. Even SUVs with reclining seats, which people use for makeshift beds. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. Men gather round gas barbecues and swig from cans of Bud. We pass a middle-aged woman, overweight and squeezed into a deckchair; she is reading a paperback and I see a tear roll down her left check. The heat is oppressive and the air is shrill with the cries of children throwing footballs and Nintendo DS consoles. There is no education for children here except the school of hard knocks, and no laws govern them save the harsh law of the jungle. These are the kids that the US left behind and that Mexico doesn’t want.

Every night 1,800 American men, women and children will attempt to cross the border illegally. Every night, one of them will be shot and killed. These are the Refugees of Relative Poverty.

Tipping point
For years, ordinary American citizens, concerned at the widening gulf between the income of the average US family and that of the richest 1% of the population, have been crossing the border into Mexico in search of a more egalitarian lifestyle. But what was once a trickle has become a flood, and the Mexican authorities which at one time turned a blind eye or even actively encouraged the uneconomic migrants have tightened up the borders and are now taking a very hard line. As we draw near to the fence with our cameras, a Mexican border patrol truck appears atop the hill, to our rear. A man gets out and watches us through binoculars. He carries a semi-automatic weapon.

But what caused this mass exodus, which every day threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis? What led to the emptying of the once-thriving suburbs of San Diego, San Francisco and of the towns and cities all across America? It is widely accepted that the tipping point was a seminal op-ed in the New York Times by journalist Bob Herbert, in which he revealed the shattering statistic that almost 30% of American families earned less than double the official federal poverty line. The news spread like wildfire across the online social networks of the country and the protests and riots that followed are well documented. Suddenly, America had woken up.

Many of the refugees I speak to at the border crossing confirm this. “It was like the scales fell from my eyes,” says Hank Schweinberger, who has brought his family all the way from Denver in an RV which he paid for by selling virtually all of his possessions, including a brand new TiVo HD DVR system. “As soon as I read that [article by Bob Herbert] I got out my calculator. I found that even if I worked until I was 500 years old, I still wouldn’t earn 80% of the income of earners in the first four percentiles in the country. I showed my wife the calculations….Yeah we wept a little, then we got angry. Then we decided to just get out.”

Global phenomenon
Hank Schweinberger is an angry, desperate man. He’s not alone. Hank’s story echoes not just across America, but throughout the developed world. The UK is second only to the US when poverty is calculated not in any normally understood sense but by taking the median income for a couple with two children and creating a ranking of those up to the age of 17 who live in households with earnings of less than 50% of that total.

Consequently, the expansion of the EU and the granting of free movement across member states in May 2004 saw a dramatic economic migration, as hundreds of thousands of Britons poured into Poland and other former Soviet states, where relative poverty is significantly lower.

Official figures indicate that 656,395 Britons were accepted into the Polish welfare system between 1 May 2004 and 30 June 2007. However, this figure is only indicative; unofficial estimates of British nationals in Poland are much higher. Before the Iron Curtain came down, western populations had lived in ignorance of the extent of their relative poverty compared to its almost total absence in the communist states. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the unprecedented access to information and to esoteric definitions of what constitutes ‘wealth’ meant that governments could no longer conceal the relative truth.

But behind the theories lie real tragedies. In 2003 the governments of Cuba and the US both blamed each other for the apparent deaths of 25 Americans believed drowned while trying to get to Cuba on a makeshift yacht.

For the children
We say our goodbyes to Hank and his young, beautiful, frightened family: just one more family amongst hundreds of thousands. Soon, perhaps, millions. We start heading back, away from the ocean and the fence, along the road in the darkness. Hank’s parting words resonate in my mind. “Ultimately, this isn’t about me or my wife. We had to think about our children, and the kind of future they’re going to have. We don’t want our kids growing up in a world where potentially they could earn less than 500% of the earnings of the sixtieth percentile of earners. We’re just in search of a more coterminous life.”

We drive on. Suddenly, there are trucks across the road with bright lights pointed at us, so bright that, for a moment, we can't see. As we approach, slowly, guards lounge on the fenders. Not a word is uttered. We pass by and are swallowed up by the night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Martin Amis, pauses, gender

Jon Hotten notes the medialand rumblings that foretell the release of a new Martin Amis novel (The Pregnant Widow - great title) and observes that Mart is “a member of the last generation capable of talking in fully-formed sentences. There are no, 'I was like, you know...'s” .

This is true, though I suspect that Amis manages this largely by leaving the spaces between clauses - which other interviewees would fill with “you know”s or “ummm”s or other tics- as silent pauses. This is a good knack to have since it gives the impression of gravitas, but then talking in fully formed sentences is very, very difficult and even pausing requires self-discipline and nerve.

I’ve never quite worked out how smart Mart is. Certainly he views himself as a Thinker but he often seems to be carried well out of his intellectual depth on the sails of his own verbosity, eg. recently on Muslims.

(While writing this I’ve just remembered that in the first incarnation of the blog I attempted a homage to the Martin Amis style with this piece on American teeth. Reading back, it’s not quite as bad as I thought it might be but three years ago does seem like another lifetime, proving once again that blogtime flies even faster than real time).

But I greatly admire Amis’s gift for getting to the nub of a thing, for expressing a viewpoint, often controversial, in a single, memorable, highly convincing phrase. There was a striking example in his Sunday Times interview this week, especially given the release of another high-profile book in which Natasha Walter u-turns in despair at the fate of feminism.

Note the Amis Pause before the (emboldened) profundity:

“I know women now full of regret at just not worrying about [having babies] until it really was too late,” he says. “Three or four friends, who would have been very good mothers, but…” He pauses. “The sex revolution wasn’t a bad thing. In fact it was a cornucopia of opportunity. But it is a massive project to rethink an entire gender, and behaving like men was the only model women had. It was never in their interests to be like that. The sex wasn’t in their nature.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are IT departments rational?

The company which owns mine recently recruited another member of IT staff, making the department five strong. They’re all male and they dwell in the darkest recess of their building – the IT dungeon – from whence they exert dark and terrible influence over the rest of the business. The directors are frightened of them. At board meetings I have occasionally made comments about “the tail wagging the dog”, which have invariably been greeted much as the Yard’s remarks about science and morals were on Dinner with Portillo.

As I see it, an ideal IT department would:

1) introduce systems to serve the needs of the business, which are sufficiently effective to have a net benefit on profitability when the cost of the system (including the IT staff) is taken into account
2) train staff and maintain, secure and troubleshoot on those systems

Whereas in reality what happens is:

1) the business decides it wants to do something, consults the IT department and then, having heard their lengthy and baffling objections, compromises on what it wants to do for the convenience of the IT department
2) the IT department regularly ‘upgrades’ systems for esoteric IT reasons, as opposed to obvious business reasons, requiring users to retrain and creating endless new troubleshooting opportunities

The frequency of (2) not only justifies the existence of the current IT department, it requires it to regularly expand. Each of its members is, I imagine, on a pretty hefty salary – significantly heftier for example than a ‘low-skilled’ admin worker of the kind that used to populate businesses that relied on less ‘efficient’ manual or paper-based systems.

I appreciate there’s another element here, which is that as suppliers, customers etc upgrade their systems, so the pressure is on everyone else in the chain. But what drives this? Is it business efficiency, or marketing by IT suppliers, or IT departments themselves?

So the question is: does anyone have a view – or indeed is there any research out there – on whether the inexorable rise of IT has actually benefited the average business, or would we have been better off, from a cost/benefit point of view, had we stopped when we invented the fax machine and the photocopier?

Tea Chests

Was passing through Whitehall again on Saturday, just had to take a picture of my favourite A-board.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday, Harbourside

Sunday was the finest day of the year thus far, almost coatless weather in the sunshine though with a lip-cracking wind out of shelter. Bristol’s Harbourside, regenerated impressively in the last decade, is a schizophrenic locale: hellish binge-drinking epicentre on Saturday night; on Sunday afternoons a laid-back hangout for middle-class moochers and buggy-pushers like me. We prefer the Dr Jekyll version these days. Met up with old friends for a pint and a really excellent lunch at Bordeaux Quay. The sprogs behaved, more or less. I haven’t been so chilled in months. Brit Jnr struggled tinily in one of these trendy wooden highchairs reminiscent of the thing they use to wheel Hannibal Lecter around; our friends’ toddler looked out the window and made insightful observations about the boats.

The Matthew – a reconstruction of the ship which John Cabot took to America in 1497 – was open gratis to the public so we clambered about in that for a bit and then walked across Millennium Square and around Canon’s Marsh amidst the clattering skateboarders. How old is too old for wheel-based toys? I would say fourteen, but obviously many disagree. Skateboarders are like pigeons in that they inevitably accumulate in any large flagstoned space but I think that both pests add acceptable colour so long as they don’t reach plague proportion.

On the sunlit cobbles outside the Arnolfini Gallery the venerable wit Barry Cryer was holding court. We noted his presence but didn’t join the little semi-circle of admirers. I like Barry Cryer but am instinctively disinclined to approach celebrities because I assume, often wrongly no doubt, that they want to be left alone; and anyway I find the status issues awkward. Cryer sported a colourful scarf and waved a cigar in a flamboyant manner; in fact he looked a bit like an old queen, which as far as I know he isn’t.

We headed back to the cars as the light began to fade. Come to the Harbourside on a sunny Sunday for Bristol at its relaxed best. From here to Friday night the place gradually declines into its puking, fighting Mr Hyde form but you've got to take the rough with the smooth, haven't you?

Appleyard versus Portillo 2

Not really a successful discussion programme: too short, too many guests and too broad and therefore shallow. You can watch it on iPlayer here. I’m spoiled now by (good) blogs as far as debating goes, I think. Dinner with Portillo is probably the best that telly can do.

But it was quite rib-tickling from the point of view of a Thought Experiments reader with experience of the Way of the Yard. Bryan made about four utterances each of which fell stillborn into baffled silence. The other guests plus Portillo appeared to be suspicious of him; and rightly so since the Yard was starting from a position in which he took it as read that describing science as ‘amoral’ is meaningless because apart from a very narrow series of actions, eg. in the lab or at the computer, everything about any kind of science – from the rationale for the research and the justification for the funding through to the use of the results – is moral. Therefore all the obvious rhetorical points which you might expect to hear in a sixth-form debate about science and morality can be skipped. The rest of the guests listened to him, nodded warily and proceeded to make all the obvious rhetorical points which you might expect to hear in a sixth-form debate about science and morality. The Yard looked tired and picked the carbs out of his dinner.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Appleyard versus Portillo

The Yard is on telly tonight, which explains why he has removed himself from the country. Scoffing and Waffling with Portillo - 21.10 on BBC 4.

Should be a keenly fought meal, as it's about science and morals.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ticket to Ride

So I bought myself this little beauty – the complete remastered stereo Beatles box set – which, you may recall, I coveted here. A not inconsiderable financial outlay but what the hell, life is short, and so far it has been more than justified as the quality is a vast improvement on the old CDs in terms of depth and immediacy of sound.

I’m working my way through the albums in chronological order and having now completed Revolver which, closing as it does with the milestone freakery of Tomorrow Never Knows, I will designate as the halfway point, I thought I’d better report on my findings. It’s been interesting. The pop of the first four albums sounds less tinny and more bluesy and raw in the remastered format. There have been a few revelations (No Reply and I’m a Loser particularly. I’m Looking Through You was unexpectedly moving.). Some of the over-familiars are made strange again (I Want to Tell You with that weird atonal piano line. Eleanor Rigby is given a kick - I remembered again the profoundly disconcerting effect that the line about “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” had on my imagination as a child).

But for me the first big moment comes with Ticket to Ride (halfway through Help!). I don’t know quite why it is – there are plenty of great songs preceding it – but there’s some indefinable quality in the way that Lennon’s underdone vocal, the slightly slurred guitar and the tom-toms mesh together that makes the sound first and foremost 'Beatleness', as opposed to a pop song which happens to be by the Beatles and in their style. You might say that Ticket to Ride is the Platonic Beatle number. A very English sound, timeless; for some reason it reminds me not of Liverpool but of trains rattling through Baker Street tube station and grey-brown autumn dusks. Also the hot chestnut sellers who used to peddle their goods around Trafalgar Square, and may still. I can’t really articulate it; it just is what it is and the world is a tangibly better place for its existence. My friends, we must treasure these glimpses, snatched between the eternities of darkness and so forth. How's that for a music review, heh.

King Solomon Complex

Sometimes the truth of something appears not so much as a revelation but more as a gradual submerging into conscious realisation; then when you express it clearly it seems to have been obvious all along.

This morning I noted the following: when two friendly parties independently bend your ear to complain about the other following some minor incident or altercation, each with a completely opposite interpretation of the circumstances; it is your role merely to sympathise, acknowledge their grievance and, with gentle nudges, attempt to bring the parties back to a friendly understanding. It is not required of you to hear both sides, consider sagely and then pronounce a judgement on the case (either for one of the parties or for a compromise).

I suspect most women grasp this instinctively, but we men tend to suffer from what I will hereby christen but probably never refer to again as the King Solomon Complex.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Intrepid Bun

Lying flat out without stirring himself,
Frollo got the French to equip him,
For that is the way of the French:
Getting their shoes on while lying down.

That’s according to Andrew de Coutances, anyway. The awkwardness of a literal translation is one of life’s little joys. I’m always pleased by an oddity on a Chinese menu, for instance. Asian cultures obviously have a concept which almost but doesn’t quite translate into either “Lucky” or “Happy”. I’ll have The Seven Lucky Golden Wish Vegetables, please. My favourite business name - and it still makes me chuckle to think of it - belonged to a Chinese café down on good old Southsea Parade in Portsmouth. It was called The Intrepid Bun.

Languages are limited; concepts can slip between the words. I suppose that poetry attempts to exploit this: to use words to convey something more than the total sum of those words. But if, for example, you were to imagine that Wallace Stevens’s Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock was a literal translation from something in Mandarin Chinese, it might take on a whole new dimension.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.
Oh lucky wish dance!

750 dollar cupcake

Talking of pretentious food descriptions, I suppose that having stumbled across the “Decadence D’Or” – containing, amongst other nonsense, a special chocolate varietal derived from the rare and fragile Porcelana Criollo bean and cultivated to its fullest state of richness exclusively at the Valrhona plantation in Venezuela, and Tahitian Gold Vanilla Caviar, the world’s most labor-intensive agricultural crop – I can’t let it go by wholly unblogged, but I’m a bit bored of cupcakes now, they’re very 2009.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Connoisseur’s Experience

Talking of choccy, back here Gadjo noted that the descriptions in selection boxes have become considerably poncier in recent years – “a fantasy of ganache enrobed in sumptuous cacao-essence and ennobled with hazelnuts” etc.

Choc-scoffing has thus become yet another area of British life where the Connoisseur’s Experience has seeped into the mainstream; it is no longer possible just to pick up a box of choccies; you have to make a lifestyle decision when purchasing, and talk about it while consuming.

Whether the cause is increasing sophistication, cynical marketing or sheer middle-class boredom I’m not sure, but the CE has long since spread from its natural habitats of wine, whisky and cheese into such everyday commodities as beer, coffee, ready-made sandwiches, pizzas, sausages, water, bread (malted wholemeal batch loaves etc), olives, olive oil, pickled onions, tonic water, cider (!), eggs, beef (matured), chutney, pies, citrus fruit, chicken (corn-fed), microwave curries, pasta, chillies, garlic, tomatoes (on the vine), pasta sauce, hot chocolate, butter, cordial, squash, hamburgers, ginger beer, fruit juice, ice cream, fruit tea, soup, yoghurt, crumpets, mousse-like puddings, breakfast cereals, crisps, nuts, tinned fish, jam, marmalade, apples, biscuits, cookies, honey (Sainsbury’s sell a jar which costs eleven quid!), mushrooms and baby food, amongst others.

How did this come about so quickly? I reckon that the only safe, statement-free grocery purchases we can now make are Marmite and Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup.

Profanity Policy

Gaw asks me to clarify TofE’s policy on swearing. The best approach is to avoid if in doubt, as though you were at a dinner party with strangers whose views on profanity are unknown to you. Personally I’m not offended by profanity – I play football, after all – but this policy has been in place since TofE’s inception, continuing a tradition from the post-Judd blogs.

This might strike you as quaint in the wilds of the internet, but there are three reasons:

1. I have a very varied readership, some of whom I know dislike swearing.

2. Unless used judiciously – ie. unless you know how to swear effectively, and many people don’t - it is a lazy shortcut to emphasis. Refraining is a good self-discipline which forces you to find more inventive ways of expressing your point, resulting in a better quality of comment thread overall, so...

3. Above all, it is a slippery slope. Once people start effing at each other in comment threads, you usually end up with little else – see Guido, Guardian message boards, YouTube threads and indeed 99% of the internet.

It's testament to the calibre of TofE's commenters that I very, very rarely have to mention this policy because you naturally get it - and if you don't think that's remarkable, go and check out some of that 99% of the internet. Thanks all!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Read Nick Cohen

It's been an unusually topical Tuesday on ToE today. Here's one more for you.

Nick Cohen has this superb piece in the Observer on the wrong-headedness and long-term irrelevance of the latest Iraq inquiry. Nick at his best, this: concise, mostly irrefutable and cutting clear through all the crap.

Will this do?

An early contender for “Most Feeble Evolutionary Psychology Claim of 2010” here…

Pretty women 'anger more easily'

...The University of California interviewed 156 female students to gauge their temperament and how they handled conflict.

...In the study, the women who believed they were good looking were more likely to respond angrily in disputes than those who rated themselves as less attractive.
Attractive women also had higher expectations of what they deserved.

...The researchers believe the findings have an evolutionary basis, ensuring that the "fittest" people mate and have offspring.

Not in my name

So, not content with ruining my football club, the imperialist bastards have now got their hands on Cadbury's. The War on Terror is one thing but every man has his limits.

Pass me my placard, my whistle, my drum, my Peruvian hat, my book of Pinter poems, my lack of perspective and my sense of self-righteousness; I'm hitting the streets.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On Chesil Beach

Rattled through Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach over the weekend. Typical McEwan in that it is about the life-defining consequences of moments that seem both arbitrary and unavoidable; in this case, a row between newlyweds after their excruciatingly bodged attempt at consummation. There are some stylistic oddities. The forensic real-time descriptions of Edward and Florence’s tragicomic attempts at dinner and sex are interrupted by awkward authorial remarks along the lines of “This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine” (it’s set in 1962, ie. the year before sexual intercourse began). These interjections are justified at the close of the book by an alarmingly brusque account of the lives of the protagonists over the next four decades – bringing us up to the 'all-knowing' present – but on first read they are a bit jarring. I could also have done without the flashback half-hints at incestuous abuse suffered by the juvenile Florence, offering an unnecessary Freudian explanation for her physical horror of sex.

But I quibble – mostly it is masterly. I loved the glimpses of Edward’s mother, left “brain-damaged” by a hit-and-run railway carriage door incident. The critical row on the beach is superbly done: two people who really don’t want to hurt each other striking ever more unforgivable blows purely because each insult seems to follow, with unavoidable logic, from the last. And in fact I also liked the brevity of the what-happened-next coda. Possibly we need fewer novels and more novellas from our big guns. In a normal-sized novel we’d have had chapters in which Florence and Edward meet again in later life, but the rapidity with which McEwan wraps up his story gives a much more powerful shock.

Which brings me at last to the point of this post. The intention of On Chesil Beach is, I assume, to tap into the universal horror of regret: those moments of opportunities blown and wounds unnecessarily inflicted which, while by no means defining us, can surprise us by lurching into our consciousness at 3am. If I had only been braver or smarter at that one instant, my whole life might have turned out so much better, and I only have one life, aaargh!

But for me, the central conceit only works because neither Edward nor Florence subsequently have children in their separate lives. Being a recent father I’m either biased towards thinking this or possibly just attuned to noticing its truth. Offspring are regret-killers (at least, of everything occuring before their appearance), even the nasty little buggers. If Edward had had children in one of his later relationships the structure of this novella would collapse, since upon contemplating his sprogs his overriding sentiment would most likely be: “Thank goodness we had that row on Chesil Beach, otherwise you would never have come into existence”, thus turning the thing on its head. In this respect, the lasting sensation for most readers will be pity for the characters rather than introspective horror, and I don’t know if that was McEwan’s purpose.

"Drive them off with kicks"

David points me to this news of the translation of a 12th Century Anglo-Norman poem about the French.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

Well, so far they’ve had 800 years to prove us wrong...

Friday, January 15, 2010


Even in this crowded country you don’t have to walk for very long to feel cut off from the reach of CCTV and the great swarming human ant colony.

A steep downhill path through Baron’s Wood connects two of my lunchtime lanes. Usually this path is a mudslide so walking it is impractical in office clothes, but on Tuesday everything was so frozen that I thought I’d give it a go. On top of the hard mud was a thick layer of untouched snow and tiny flakes were still falling. The wood was silent, leafless and had that strange perspective that comes from the contrast of dark branches covered in bright white snow. About halfway through the wood I suddenly felt a spine-shiver of extreme isolation. Tree stumps glimpsed in the middle-distance morphed momentarily into human shapes. In other words, I got the willies.

The willies soon passed but like most people I rather enjoy getting them, so yesterday I decided to walk through the wood again. There was another fresh layer of snow but this time, running down the hill and more or less following the path, was a single set of tracks made by a fox or possibly a small domestic dog off for a sneaky solo walk. I followed the tracks carefully, using them to guide me through the uneven ground to help reduce the risk of twisting an ankle. My concentration on the tracks prevented me from getting the willies, but when I looked back up the hill it occurred to me that at that moment I was the only person in the entire unimaginable vastness of space and time who knew that a fox or possibly a small dog had stepped in those spots that morning. Furthermore, any person or persons making the walk after me would see my size 10 footmarks mingled in with the pawprints and would likely bet their bottom dollar that the tracks were made by a man taking his dog for a walk. But, ha ha, they would be quite, quite wrong about that, because the tracks were made by a fox or possibly a small solo dog and by me at completely different times of day, so hard lines and put that in your pipe and smoke it you bloody know-it-all presuming fools!

Myths of the noughties

David points out some of the ways in which capitalism – usually viewed as the great enemy of greenism – co-opts green ideas for its own moneymaking ends. David’s examples: Hotels now try to guilt guests into reusing their towels, relieving the hotel of the cost of doing its laundry and Supermarkets now sell reusable grocery bags, relieving them of the need to provide bags, paper or plastic, and making the shopper do the work of schlepping their bags to the store.

If you prefer, you could say that these are examples of how businesses and greens can find themselves in a win-win situation (at the expense of the consumer). That capitalism and profit are the enemies of the planet and of all good in the world is, of course, one of the sustaining myths of modern times. But myths, usually driven by idealism or marketing or both, permeate everything we do, say, buy and think. Here, in no particular order, are a few notable myths of the noughties:

1) Organic food tastes better (“organic” is such a broad church that this can’t possibly be meaningful)

2) Blueberries (or whatever) are ‘superfoods’

3) Gordon Brown is the safe and steady one (obviously that one vanished as soon as he became PM)

4) Global warming will mean that by 2010 we’ll be wearing shorts and having barbecues in January. I don’t know who said this back in the early noughties but someone will have done. However, as Peter B has pointed out, our days of sniggering at such things are probably numbered, since the gradual slippage in terminology from “global warming” to “climate change” means that literally any meteorological circumstances will be consistent with millenarian predictions.

5) Anything that is normally expressed as a chemical formula is innately bad

6) Yes we can.

Got any more?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fever-tree tonic water

After seeing Gaw’s shameless attempt to wangle some free pants, I thought I’d follow suit and try my luck with a bit of plugging.

Have you tried Fever-tree tonic water? I drank gallons of it over Christmas. Rather than copying other tonic waters, Fever-tree have taken the innovative step of not making their drink taste like hell. It is sufficiently delicious that you could consume it neat as a soft drink if you were so inclined, but for me it has elevated the G&T into one of Christmas’s great second-tier pleasures, ie. just below company, afternoon naps, In the Bleak Midwinter and brandy butter; and just above smoked salmon breakfasts, the bumper Radio Times and mulled wine. So on a par with pigs-in-blankets, eye-watering pickled onions and A Chistmas Gift For You from Phil Spector.

So, Fever-tree Viral Marketing Department, if you’re reading, my email address is on the sidebar and I want whatever’s coming to me.

(Will this work, do you think?)

Non-endings 2

Over here, Jon Hotten responds to the Non-endings post about his book The Years of the Locust. It is reasonable to say that Tim Anderson got life without parole because the Judge insisted on keeping his narrative within narrow limits for the purposes of the trial. When you're aware of the wider story, this seems terribly harsh. But who is to say that the Judge was wrong? Stretching the narrative would have been arbitrary too - you could, after all, start the story with Rick Parker's great-great-grandparents if you wanted.

But Anderson is in a real prison. Jon and I agreed that the arbitrary nature of narratives is a diverting philosophical game... unless the length of your prison term depends on it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


As a boy I was very taken with the cliff-hanger ending of The Italian Job. The lack of a resolution seemed dangerous and radical, breaking the most basic conventions of story-telling. I remember quizzing my father about it at what must have been pretty irritating length. Since then I’ve often found ‘unsatisfactory’ endings (eg. most Cohen Brothers movies) more satisfying than ‘satisfactory’ ones. This might be an unusual proclivity but then again plenty of children who end their horror stories with “And it was all a dream” then like to add the undermining coda “Or was it?”

The Years of the Locust is a punchy true account of murder and corruption in heavyweight boxing’s sordid under- and indeed over-belly. It is by writer, multi-talented blogger and fellow Steve Bruce fan Jon Hotten. I heartily recommend that you purchase it forthwith – it has many fine qualities (there’s an extraordinary chapter called Noir Boxers which rips through a great tapestry of corruption and might well put you off boxing for life) and it has stayed with me even though I read it before Christmas, ie. in another lifetime. But for me it was especially striking for its perfectly inconclusive conclusion.

Journeyman boxer Tim Anderson shoots the odious promoter Rick Parker to death, confesses immediately, is found guilty by a jury and is sentenced to life without parole. By the end of the story it is possible to say, confidently and justifiably, that Tim did commit premeditated murder, and also that he didn’t; and that he deserved to be given life without parole and also that he didn’t. We are sympathetic to the killer but, bravely and rightly, Hotten refuses to turn the book into a “Free Tim Anderson” soapbox lecture. The key passage comes after Anderson is found guilty by a jury which subsequently objected to the harshness of his sentence. The trial of Tim Anderson had been a simple one. It came down to this: two men walked into a room. One man walked out. All of it was true. None of it was true.

Endings and narratives are constructions. It’s not that all narratives are equally valid (or invalid) and therefore useless. It’s not even that history is just one damn thing after another. The problem lies with the causal chains upon which narratives depend. Virtually everything that happens has multiple causes, the various degrees of importance of which are impossible for humans to determine with any objective certainty, particularly when considering decisions and states of mind. How do you explain the moment before an action? (Anderson shot Parker on the spur of the moment, and he also shot Parker because he had built up years of justifiable resentment. Somebody had to shoot Parker and Anderson just happened to be the man unfortunate enough to be in the position to do it. He didn't have to do it, but then again he had no choice. Part of Anderson planned to shoot Parker, but Anderson was the kind of person who could never plan to murder someone. But the law can't allow people to be murdered just because they seem to really deserve it, so the guilty verdict was the right one.)

Because of the multiple causes, the causal chain is incomprehensibly complex - a web, in fact, not a chain. Futhermore, the beginnings and ends of the chains are arbitrarily selected by the narrator and, as with climate change graphs, contracting or expanding the scope radically alters the appearance of the trend. Further furthermore, a range of quite different descriptions of the same thing can all be objectively true at the same time (for example, a piece of music could be described as a series of transcribed notes, or wave frequencies, or cultural influences, or aesthetic qualities) and people often slip between different kinds of description of things in their causal chain. But then again, narratives are useful, important and morally necessary, except when they are counterproductive, trivial and morally abhorrent.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So, Tuesday

So, Tuesday, we meet again. Tuesday and I have met often and no good has ever come of it. We go way back, to school. Term always began on a Tuesday and it bore all the worst lessons such as Double Latin or Craft with Muggsy* and all the worst dinners like the chicken supreme with the precise texture of snot. Tuesday is much crueller than Monday. Monday is still in too much of a daze to really hurt you but Tuesday knows exactly what it’s doing and tells you what it’s going to do before it does it. Were you aware that virtually a seventh of your life consists of Tuesday? Or that 98% of dental appointments are on a Tuesday, or that the Royal Mail is required by law to deliver nothing on Tuesdays except hefty bills and car tax reminders? Nobody ever saves a treat for Tuesday; you get your dullest meal of the week out of the way on it which is why all the takeaways are closed. Saturday bursts into the room with a tray of bacon sarnies, a football and a crate of beers and Friday is a very decent bloke but Tuesday is a flinty-eyed former Inspector of Taxes with a thin moustache and grey skin bent at a plain desk in a windowless office under a single electric bulb frowning at a loud clock which ticks at half-speed. It is well known that time moves twice as slowly on a Tuesday. Yet still we persist with it. Who knows why? But then, who knows why anything? This is how the world ends, fizzling out on a Tuesday afternoon.

In the office car park yesterday’s slush has re-hardened into a rippled slab of ice. Treacherous. I slip-slid my way cautiously across it and with relief pushed through the door onto solid ground. “Good mor-” I began, and instantly stumbled hard into a bookshelf, thwacking my elbow. I looked down. Bloody shoelaces undone.

*Muggsy was a very fat man with a keen hatred of children who nonetheless decided to become a teacher.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Shoelace Shocker!

The recent Arctic conditions have forced me to wear my hiking shoes for all expeditions, however trivial. They’re fine shoes, with the one problem that the laces come undone with annoying frequency. This is also a problem with a pair of formal black shoes I own, and has been a minor irritant over the years with various items of footwear. But because it has not been with all items of footwear but only some, I always blamed the individual shoes.

On Friday, exasperated by a walk punctuated with lace-tying stops, I googled the problem of shoelace slippage and found Ian, who appears to to be the world’s leading exert on shoelace-related matters. To my utter amazement, it became clear that everything on this page directly applied to me and therefore that for the whole of my life I have been tying my shoelaces incorrectly!

Since childhood I have been folding the second bow over rather than under the first. I changed my method there and then, and the problem has been solved at a stroke.

The revelation was astounding, humiliating, liberating. I march into the new decade a changed man, confident in the security of my shoelaces, freed from the necessity of constantly stooping to retie, but also obliquely unnerved. An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never - oh, what bitter truth in Larkin's words! If shoelaces, then what other deeply ingrained habits, what other fundamental routines of my daily life have been wrong, half-cocked, misconceived all along? Perhaps it is better to remain in ignorance.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Freedom and surveillance

The Yard has a review of the noughties in the Sunday Times. This line struck me:

The British, watched by a greater density of CCTV cameras than any other nation, have been keen to swap freedom for security.

The direct association between an increase in CCTV cameras and a decrease in freedom is pretty much a given in the perennial freedom vs security debates. Those of us with conservative leanings instinctively baulk at the idea of surveillance. Orwell obviously looms over this issue, but so does a long British tradition of mistrusting officialdom and espionage.

But does the assumption that a tolerance of CCTV cameras equals a willingness to ‘swap freedom for security’ really stand up to scrutiny? A few things spring to mind:

First, although it might be theoretically possible for Big Brother to watch you every step of your journey from, say, Bristol Temple Meads to Piccadilly Circus, practically speaking Big Brother lacks the competence, the budget and the will to do so. In reality, most CCTV footage is not monitored in real time for sinister purposes, but reviewed after an incident when it might (or might not) assist in a conviction.

In other words, there are a lot of people in the world and you are much less interesting and important than you think you are. Big Brother could be watching you, but he can’t really be bothered.

Second, the existence of a camera does not by itself affect your freedom to do something in public - such as walk your dog, protest against the Iraq invasion or start a business - merely your ability to do it unobserved. So the freedom that is directly affected by CCTV is the freedom to do something in a public space without being seen. This is quite a specific freedom. Did it ever exist? Is it a fundamental human right? When you come to think about it, is ‘freedom’ the right word or is security verses privacy a better description for the debate?

It could be that CCTV is a trivial issue which, because it feels icky and Orwellian, is given far too much weight in freedom/security musings. What about the surveillance technologies that move beyond shopping centres and railway stations to enter our homes? Amazon and Tesco know what you like because they spy on you through your computer or your Loyalty card. But that’s not so much 'security versus freedom' as 'privacy versus convenience'. And we can, after all, turn cookies off or refuse a Loyalty card.

But the idea that CCTV proves a decline of freedom seems overly simplistic – the world changes and we have different but not necessarily fewer freedoms. You can’t lurk unrecorded in a dark alley or smoke in a pub but you can marry someone of your own sex or go to that pub or to the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. None of which is to deny the feeling of ickiness when we confront the extent to which our privacy can be easily invaded. As ever, I have no answer except to say that most things that are assumed to be true turn out to be wrong.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Abnormality Tolerance Index

This is the second day in succession that we’ve been snowed out of the office. I appreciate the bonus holiday of course but I’ve discovered that my Abnormality Tolerance Rating for snow is 1.5 days. This is the measure of the time it takes until the disruption to everyday routine ceases to be fun and a desire for things to return to normal commences. Today I have no great wish to throw snowballs, build sinister snowmen in the back garden or comment on how different everything looks.

This puts snow surprisingly low on my Abnormality Tolerance Index. Selected other entries rank as follows:

Lazy beach holiday – 16 days
Olympic Games – 5.5 days
Blistering heatwave – 5.0 days
Skiing holiday – 4.5 days
City break – 4.3 days
Walking holiday – 4.2 days
Being a guest – 3.8 days
General Election Campaign Coverage – 3.6 days
Being a host – 3.2 days
Christmas – 2.5 days
Snow – 1.5 days
Coach tour - 1.2 days
Stag do - 0.8 days
Camping – 0.6 days
Spectacular thunderstorms – 0.5 days
Fireworks – 0.2 days

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

"Amazon belongs to a heartless godless world"

Mrs Brit was browsing Amazon for a suitable satnav USB cable - an innocuous enough object, you'd think - when she stumbled across this amusingly vitriolic customer review.

There but for the Grace. In this world of pain and tears - narrow as a knife-edge, fragile as an eggshell - one never knows what trivial event might prove to be the Tipping Point, what seemingly negligible happenstance might have Your proverbial Name On It. For this man, it was the email from Amazon requesting him to review his recent purchase of a satnav USB cable. My favourite bit: "I am not angry, just getting even."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Did you hear about the Morgans?

I note that Hugh Grant’s latest romcom is called Did you hear about the Morgans? A vexing title, how does one enunciate it? I was reminded of James Lileks’s amusing struggles with the even more terribly-named 70s Jane Fonda flick, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

My first instinct would be a sort of jaunty "Did you hear about the Morgans?", as if preceded by an imaginary “I say!” when uttered by a cheery cove in tennis whites as he comes bounding into the drawing room with news about the second cousins. But then immediately overlapping that pronunciation in my brain is a much sneerier Alan Rickman-ish version, “Did you hear about the Morgans? Well, did you, Potter? Or are you as ignorant of the Morgans as you appear to be about everything else?”

One could stress the “you”, suggesting: everyone else is talking about these Morgans, why wasn’t I informed? Did YOU hear about the Morgans too, then? Are you all in this together? Why does nobody tell me anything? Am I just being paranoid? I think I might be having a nervous breakdown.

Heavy emphasis on “The Morgans” gives them a bit of a fanfare appearance, as in: “Ladies and gentlemen, drum roll please…did you hear about….THE MORGANS! The amazing family of juggling dwarfs, all the way from Texas!”

But since Sarah Jessica Parker is in the movie I can’t help but hear a breathless Sex in the City-style "Did you HEAR about the Morgans? Oh My God!" Or perhaps the sing-song tone that the impossibly-deep voiced movie trailer guy used to do for 80s comedies to indicate light-heartedness, as in “…starring Bill Murray…. Dan Ackroyd… and John Candy”, where “Bill Murray” is stated with confidence, the “Ack” of “Ackroyd” is said in a sort of surprised falsetto suggesting “Who is this crazy guy?”, and “and John Candy” is peppered with little chuckles: “a-ha-nd Jo-hu-hon Ca-ha-ndy”. Thus: "Did you [rising] hear … a-ha-bout the Morgans? [falling amid chuckles]"

I would like to see this movie packaged up in a double-bill with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? There are potentially infinite nuances of meaning available to the ticket-buyer.

“Two adults please, for Did YOU hear about THE Morgans?/ THEY shoot HORSES… DON’T they?”

Monday, January 04, 2010

What I saw on the telly this Christmas

Didn’t watch as much Christmas telly as usual this year but I did catch The Royle Family, which the BBC managed to squeeze into one of the rare respites from David Tennant. Oh dear, I’m afraid Jim and the family well and truly jumped it. Leapt the leopardshark. Hurdled the hammerhead. Gaily galloped and gambolled giddily over the Great White. Pity, as The Royle Family used to be a treat. At its best it employed a dash of crude humour without relying on it, poked fun at the (non) working class without sneering at it, exaggerated reality but still rang true. This instalment blew all that. In particular, by making all the family as dim and selfish as Denise – who was always the only totally absurd one ­– the characterisation, so painstakingly constructed over many great episodes, was swiftly wrecked. Shocker. What else was there? The Gruffalo was a bit of a let-down. They dragged the wee story out to half an hour simply by reciting the dialogue very slowly. A gruuuuufalo?...





o? This meant that the bouncy rhythm of the book was lost, which is the best thing about it. And what the hell was Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End about? I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Lots of unpleasant characters standing about haggling over a bewildering array of MacGuffins, quadruple-crossing each other and then having a swordfight. Repeat for three very long hours. Doctor Who was alright but I hope they go back to normal-sized peril wherein a few people are endangered, rather than having to save THE UNIVERSE and TIME ITSELF amid shouts and explosions every week. Gavin and Stacey was ok.

Cold thighs

In Bristol, 1 January 2010 broke cloudless but with a lingering frost on the windscreens and grassy patches. Mine eyes haven’t seen the dark side of 9am for many a New Year’s Day, but having a five month-old baby wreaks havoc in all areas of life. Brit Jnr saw the decade in at midnight as part of her normal sleeplessness pattern. In theory, that should be the last New Year she sees in until the 2020s, which is an alarming thought.

2010 has thus far been cold, but countryside cold is of a different quality to town cold. This morning, as part of my post-Christmas exercise regimen, I arrived at the office early so as to take a brisk stroll around the surrounding lanes. Ice-stiffened and clogged with mist, the whole valley looks like the ghost of itself. After a while my thighs became cold beneath my trousers in a sharp stinging way which suddenly took me back to my primary schooldays in Portsmouth; a Roman Catholic job where we boys were required to wear shorts in all weathers. Mulleted footballers, cold thighs and the fizzy drink Quatro, that’s the early 1980s for me.

On the way back I spotted the Local Character’s poor old horse grumbling around in its field. Its back appeared to be covered in frost. Is this possible? Can horses frost up, like motorcars? I will have to ask the Local Character when I see him, which surely I will if he made it to the other side of Christmas. I hope you did too, and that you had a good one. Having begun 2010 with a bang I will almost certainly continue it with a few hundred whimpers. This was merely the first.

Friday, January 01, 2010

A bang