Saturday, 31 October 2009

Arise from the undead!

Yesterday Christopher Lee was knighted. Most people probably think of him as Britain's Vincent Price (they were born on the same day, May 27th, now officially Ham Vampire Day, toasted by throwing a glass of tomato juice down your shirt front). I think his noble screen presence and sonorous voice really should have made him Britain's Charlton Heston.

Swords-and-sandals epics, though, were beyond the resources of the the British film industry and the American one already had its Heston (his sinister eyebrows may also have presented problems, though not ones that couldn't have been tidied up). When Lee did go to Hollywood, in the late-1970s and when he was in his late fifties, it was too late: the mould had been cast. But those Dracula roles did have their compensations: good, predictable money, something not to be sniffed at for an actor.

He'd received some recognition before now (from today's report in the Telegraph):
His prolific career has seen him earn several Guinness World Records, including Most Connected Actor Living [?]; Most Films With A Swordfight By An Actor and Tallest Actor In A Leading Role (Lee is a lofty 6ft 5in).

Hardly what Ralphy, Johnnie and Larry would have aspired to though, is it? But in any event, a leading actor who's still around to recount anecdotes featuring the giants of the silver screen in its heyday deserves a K:
The actor joked about his time in the movie industry and held up his right hand to show his crooked little finger.

He joked: "That was done in a sword fight with Errol Flynn - after lunch. It nearly came off.

Which is what worries me a bit about some of these knighthoods. How many successful and expectant thesps - "ooh I'm glad - he really deserved that" - would have got diddly-squat if they hadn't managed to hang on as long as they did? I'm not saying these superannuated actors don't deserve it - far from it. I think the danger is they die before they come into their rightful gong. What if Mr Lee had died at the respectably old age of eighty-five (he's eighty-seven)? Nada, other than a crummy OBE.

Without question, now that the taboo about giving knighthoods to screen actors is long gone, Sir Christopher is richly deserving of his handle. Over his lifetime he must be a candidate for the hardest working screen actor: by the end of next year he will have appeared in a staggering 266 films dating back to 1948.

However, it's only in recent years that he's been given the opportunity to play some properly Hestonian, noble-browed, be-gowned roles, in Star Wars and most impressively in The Lord of the Rings: confirmation that he would have made a great Moses, back in the day (see above right). He provides a towering performance in this LotR scene, also featuring Sir Ian McKellan and Bernard Hill (shamefully edited out of the cinema release like another much less worthy one):

So let us congratulate this rather wonderful gentleman who now stands tall in the front rank of national treasures. Arise Sir Christopher! thriving and, thankfully, still undead.

Friday, 30 October 2009

One thing leads to another

A banal observation concerned with what is for us, everyday and obvious. I make it as I want to remind myself, if you change perspective, how miraculous aspects of contemporary life are.

In our sitting room there is:

- a phone with which, immediately and without intermediation, I can speak to anyone I know anywhere in the world, along with an uncountable number of other people;

- a tv with dozens of tv channels, on which I can also watch almost anything broadcast in the last week as well as a stack of other stored programmes and films;

- a dvd player and a pile of dvds allowing me to watch what must be now hundreds of hours of films (a library put together imperceptibly and in an ongoing absence of mind);

- a cd player and a pile of cds allowing me to listen to hundreds of hours... (see above);

- a laptop with which I can make written communication with anyone who also has a computer and access to the web and with which I can read books, documents, newspapers, etc. sufficient to fill many times over the biggest libraries in the world. I can do my shopping and banking with it too. And get more music, tv and films. Also I can self-publish on it, just like this;

- lots of good, old fashioned books too, along with a pile of current newspapers and magazines.

All in an ordinary sitting room in an ordinary house occupied by people not particularly interested in technology. Take a step back and boggle.

Can you imagine what response you'd get if you told someone from fifty years ago, who you'd invited for a tour of that room, that you were bored? Yet occasionally we still are. Why? Is there anything we could possibly invent that would end boredom?

Our desire for adventure, change, flux seems insatiable. This is also surely why we find it difficult ever to be truly contented. We're inventive little creatures but incurably restless and with what seems to be an ineradicable urge to be strangers to ourselves.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

West is the best (cont.)

More evidence. Bristol is tops:
Residents have what they need at their fingertips - a bustling, varied city centre, a great night life and friendly people.

However, these outgoing fingertips appear to have dirt under their nails:
The survey comes in the same week that the city's residents were shamed for washing their hands less often than anyone else in the UK.

The secret of happiness or a presentiment of swine flu nemesis?

(Thanks Fradge!)


I think David Hockney's a wonder. I love the colour and immediacy of his work but I admire beyond bounds his incessant creativity. Making art seems to him to be both a compulsion and a never-ending delight.

His latest project - which is perhaps too dull a word: it feels as much a jeu d'esprit - is to paint on an iPhone (left, self portrait). Here's a talk from the New York Review of Books accompanied by a slide show of his iPhone works (you can link to an article from there too). It's interesting and some of the images are terrific.

I think the most successful of these paintings work off the luminosity inherent in a screen. All pictures are made by light, but these reverse the usual relationship: light comes from the painting rather than falling on it, rather like in a stained glass window (I wonder whether some of the techniques and approaches from this age-old medium could be applied to iPainting?) Hockney's certainly choosing subjects that capitalise on this feature: his paintings of the dawn possess an artful and satisfying match of subject and medium (see below). Quite extraordinary.

Quite new as well. These iPhone works are qualitatively different from screen-based reproductions of paintings, which have limited aesthetic equivalence with the original - they're really more like tables of contents. These paintings, on the other hand, were created to be digital, with the qualities inherent in the medium very much in mind. Of course, they're also reproducible, to an almost infinite degree and at zero marginal cost (Benjamin's Age of Mechanical Reproduction has arrived for paintings as paintings but, at least for me, with no diminution of aura).

Sounds very democratic and accessible doesn't it? However, it was interesting to hear on the talk that the images sent from Hockney's iPhone as he completed them are already taking on the status of originals. They have the highest resolutions, you see, and as they're distributed further the resolution will deteriorate. A chance for dealers to extract value from some form of residual scarcity?

Whatever, you can still imagine a market developing in digital works for digital consumption. Might we soon see artists licensing images designed to be screen-savers or desktop backgrounds? No self-respecting hedge fund manager will dream of having an iPhone or laptop without an expensive limited edition piece of digital art from a big name artist sitting on its screen...

Anyway, back to Hockney. I think we take him rather for granted. This is probably as he's so prolific, so familiar and so matter-of-fact (he doesn't talk bollocks). Far more than other, nominally more cutting-edge artists he's working at the technological limits of how new art can be made - actually made, and not conceptualised in a way that requires explication in a dull langue du bois. It's an amusing paradox that it's representational art that's being created by this new technology.

What's more, it wouldn't surprise me if the delightful, affirmatory images he throws off, seemingly in such casual fashion, end up being better regarded than the often drab slabs of paint that are so painfully dragged out of his near contemporary Lucien Freud.

H/t Clive Davis

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A professional Westerner

Brit criticises 'the futile and arbitrary business of attempting to impose large, simplistic categories onto what is, in reality, a chaotic mass of British humanity'. So I reach for my tin hat when I say that I've imposed, in futile and arbitrary fashion, a couple of new large and simplistic categories on the chaotic mass of British humanity.

We hear all the time about Scots versus English, North versus South, London versus the provinces. But what about East versus West? No, I'm not talking about Asia and The West or Islam and Christianity. I mean Eastern England versus Western England. To ensure procrustean clarity, that would be Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire versus Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall. Seems a fair fight.

I've lived in both regions and I can vouch for there being some profound and intrinsic disparities, which have both historical and geographical origins. As we're dealing in categories, I'm sure the best way to illustrate these is through the use of rigid, binary tabulation (but in no particular order at all):

West   ---   East
Celtic   ---   Norse
Hilly   ---   Flat
Warm westerlies   ---   Cold easterlies
Wet   ---   Dry
Bohemian   ---   Puritan
Oxford   ---   Cambridge
Curly   ---   Straight
Beef   ---   Wheat
Cider   ---   Beer
Vaughan Williams   ---   Britten
Bath   ---   Ely
Atlantic   ---   North Sea
The Wurzels   ---   Pink Floyd
Horseradish   ---   Mustard
Cavalier   ---   Roundhead
America   ---   Low Countries
Romance   ---   Realism
Glastonbury   ---   V Festival
M4   ---   M11
Prince Charles   ---   Bernard Matthews
Brunel   ---   Coke of Norfolk
Trip-hop   ---   Line dancing
Rugby   ---   Football
St Ives School   ---   Norwich School
Winston Churchill   ---   Margaret Thatcher
Stephen Merchant   ---   Stephen Fry
Keith Floyd   ---   Jamie Oliver

Not every Western entry is clearly superior to its oriental counterpart, I admit. But I think any fair-minded person would also have to admit the comparison is overwhelmingly in favour of the hesperian. What's more, other superb and largely original products of the West don't even have an Eastern analogue: Banksy, Laurie Lee, pixies, surfing, Morse, Thomas Hardy, pasties.

The significance of this division should be obvious. Due to its monotonous landscape, harsh weather, puritanical attitude to life, boring location and generally unimaginative and conformist natives, East is bad.

On the other hand, as it has a varied landscape, mild weather, a cavalier attitude to life, an interesting location and generally stimulating and off-beat natives, West is good.

So, the West is the best. Or as Swindon Town* fans sing 'West Coun'ry, la, la, la, West Coun'ry, la, la, la'. If we can get these categories sufficiently entrenched I aspire to be a professional Westerner: relaxed, liberal, outgoing and fun where your professional Northerner is uptight, parsimonious, chippy and miserable. But that's a battle for another day.

* A football club, which like others in the region is insignificant nationally.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Stern isn't a Cnut

Further to a recent post, King Cnut demonstrated the limits of his power by ordering the waves to retreat. They didn't because, as the strategists might say, waves have their own agenda and don't care much for empty exhortation.

The first and last sentences of today's front page story in The Times, based on an interview with Lord Stern:
People will need to consider turning vegetarian if the world is to conquer climate change, according to a leading authority on global warming.
The UN has warned* that [global] meat consumption is on course to double by the middle of the century.

But never mind the rest of the world and their carnivorous appetites, I'm sure Stern would argue that we in Britain need to lead the way and set an example. Every bit counts, no?

Apparently Lord Stern is 'not a strict vegetarian himself'. That is, he eats meat.

*Warned! I bet those hungry Chinese and Indians can't wait.


The boys went conkering with their granny a couple of weekends ago. The couple of dozen they came back with looked so lovely we put them in a fruit bowl. Now the shine has come off them I've promised Thomas we'll plant some in the garden. It's a typically small London patch so, as we do with the walnut shoots that spring up from the nuts buried by the squirrels, anything that sprouts will have to be transplanted.

I'm very fond of tree-planting and must have planted over a thousand in my time. But one planting - or, more properly, transplanting - gives me particular pleasure. When at Oxford, about fifteen years ago, I had a room in a large, rambling Edwardian villa with only a small back garden, most of what was originally there having been eaten up by the College at the rear. The remainder was a rectangular patch of intensely green lawn.

One spring morning I was out there having a smoke, thinking, taking in the sun, when I noticed on the grass a little horse chestnut shoot. It must have been a seedling from one of the towering pink chestnut trees that marched along the college bounds, just popped up. In a matter of days, though, it would fall beneath the rotor blades of the year's first mowing. This couldn't be tolerated. Using some kitchen implements I dug it up and stuck it in a little plastic pot I found along the passage by the back door.

I watered it and occasionally chatted to it. It seemed happy enough and sat on my windowsill as spring turned to summer, lectures turned to revision then exams into parties and goodbyes. (It was around about this time T and I began to get serious - though serious doesn't really seem the right word when I look back at us satisfying our late night munchies by gorging on Dime Bar Crunch at George and Davis's).

When I moved to London, to a place in the Barbican, the sprout came with me. But almost immediately I was to go off to New York for a few weeks with my new job. Fortunately, people would be staying in the flat and I left no instructions at all apart from 'water my tree!' Naturally, they didn't and by the time I poked my head around the balcony door that September it was brown and stiff in its parched, shrunken soil, papery leaves hanging.

I didn't lose heart and resumed watering. It still seemed unwell, at best, but I took enormous heart from the single sticky bud that emerged from the top. As things turned out I moved flat three times that winter each time taking along what my friends began calling my 'stick'. I ignored their ridicule and kept it close.

That spring I was triumphantly justified: my ugly stick was transformed into a, well, stick with a leaf. But it lived! I nurtured it through the summer and when it went dormant again I transplanted it to the farm.

'Stick' indeed! It now stands about twenty foot high and, although it hasn't yet, I expect it will soon begin to flower and fruit. I feel very fortunate in having a living reminder of some very happy days.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The fruits of piracy

There was a terrific report on Channel 4 News last night. Apparently Somalian pirates, in scaring off factory fishing ships, have allowed a recovery in fish stocks. Populations of shark, marlin, sailfish (below), shellfish and more are booming: those interviewed could hardly recall such a bonanza. Kenyan fishermen - line-catching with some using traditional dhows - are benefitting, some earning forty times the country's average daily wage.

I would have thought a spot of selective (non-murderous) piracy in the North Sea wouldn't be altogether bad if it helped cod populations to recover. Although it might go down well in Grimsby, I don't suppose the Royal Navy would put up with it.

Silver linings, and all that. But this situation surely gives us an indication that should human society in its modern, industrial form break down - perhaps as a consequence of global warming, cooling or otherwise crappy weather - we shouldn't worry overmuch about the planet. Life will look after itself quite nicely: some species will die off, others will thrive, still others will adapt themselves to new, perhaps watery, niches. But it will go on, probably more rambunctiously than before in many places. It may even be that the odd human group might do rather well out of things, just as the Kenyan fishermen have in this instance

Holistic history

It's rare for the publication of a history book to be a news event. So the full page article in yesterday's Observer devoted to the historian David Kynaston is quite something. He's working on a monumental history of Britain, Tales of a New Jerusalem, and the second instalment in the series, Family Britain 1951-1957, has just been published.

It's heartening that at least one editor regards this as mainstream news. Judging from the first work, Austerity Britain 1945-1951, Kynaston's undertaking is going to be quite extraordinary. He's previously written another monumental multi-volume history, of the City of London, which was very well researched and constructed. However, Tales of a New Jerusalem, seems to me to mark something of a new departure in the writing of history.

The Observer piece places Kynaston's work in the 'bottom-up' category of social history, an inheritor of the French Annales school. This is understandable: the work is based largely on the diaries of a large cross-section of people and relates both the everyday and the special in their lives. I'm a bit abashed to say that this is one of the reasons I hesitated to pick up Austerity Britain (despite T's strong recommendation).

Firstly, there was the title, Austerity Britain: rather unappetising. More substantively, I find this sort of history can have its rewards but it's rarely a page-turner. The minutiae of ordinary people's lives can be fascinating but inevitably the 'story' aspect of history can be lacking. It also has to be said that ordinary people are often not as interesting as extraordinary people, who tend to figure more in 'top-down' history.

But 'bottom-up' doesn't do it justice: it's more holistic history. Kynaston's work manages to bridge existing categories. Austerity Britain has narrative drive: although you're following what's happening in everyday lives, you never lose touch with what's happening politically, on the national stage. This is because you really are reading about the experiences and thoughts of a cross-section of British society. It doesn't just feature 'ordinary' people, though you do often see great events through their eyes, an oblique view that can sometimes be amusingly deflating (the book is very funny in places). But you also drop into what the policy-makers, intellectuals, politicians and bureaucrats are doing and thinking.

And this provides one of the most fascinating features of Austerity Britain: you witness a dialogue between the intentions of policy-makers and the experiences of those who had to deal with their output. It provides a sometimes amusing, sometimes anger-making lesson in the limits of centrally-directed change, at a time when the man in Whitehall really was reckoned to know best (following the ideas and impact of the new cadre of town planners makes you alternately smile and gnash your teeth).

For me, if the book does have a point of view, an argument, this is it (a possibly controversial claim; I'd like to hear the author's views). It'll be interesting to see how this theme develops; it's why I think the series will amount to more than the 'chronicle' of one (albeit complimentary) reviewer.

In the article, Kynaston gives us an insight into his inspiration and method:
"I particularly like 19th-century novels and something of that thickness of texture is what I'm aiming at. The idea is to have a sequence of books with a cast of thousands but with some continuity, whether it be obscure diarists or better known people, who would knit the thing together."

The result is the most beautiful historical pointillism. Each individual account is distinct and characterful, but combined they create a portrait that tells a story, and one that in tracing individual and collective journeys ultimately proves quite moving. As a critic quoted in the article claims it's 'both a history and a triumphant work of art'. I look forward to reading Family Britain 1951-1957.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The 'paradoxical response'

You may not have seen the current government advert warning about global warming and exhorting us to action. If you haven't (and don't want to), it shows a father reading a bedtime story to his blond-haired little daughter. The story, broadly speaking, relates how the world is being destroyed by man's carbon pollution and in order to save it we householders need to amend our polluting ways by turning the thermostat down a bit (Its emphasis is a bit skewed here - I don't think British householders are statistically significant versus industrial development in India, China, Brazil, etc).

I need hardly say it takes a highly emotive approach: "The children of the land would have to live with the horrible consequences" intones the father over pictures of cartoon dogs drowning, "Is there a happy ending?" asks the child in her lisping voice.

The bedtime story is directed at adults, which is just as well as it might terrify a child. But I don't need all this explained to me as if I'm a child. It's a glimpse into the mind of its sponsors: we're unruly, self-indulgent children who need their wise guidance to put us on the path of righteousness.

Taking the advert on its own terms, the message I take from it is: The problem is massive on a barely comprehensible scale and disaster is imminent. The solution, as presented, is laughably inadequate if you know anything at all about the subject. But let's commit ourselves wholeheartedly to this futility: your children's lives are on the line, never mind your cartoon dog's.

It brings to mind a couple of superb paragraphs in an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensburger, the German poet and essayist. They're concerned with the images of disaster in foreign lands that are piped into our homes nightly, but I think they're applicable here:
The theory that our sensitivity to a given stimulus can be heightened by gradually increasing our exposure to it is at best naive. On the contrary, the likely effect will be psychological and cognitive overload rendering the spectator immune to every stirring of conscience. He feels incompetent and powerless; he curls up into a ball and switches off. The message is repelled or simply denied [that word again]. This form of internal self-defence is not only understandable, it is unavoidable...
Beyond this denial lies what a pharmacologist would call the 'paradoxical response' which happens when a substance is used incorrectly or in the wrong dose and has the opposite effect on the patient to that intended. When the oral demands made on an individual are consistently out of proportion to his scope for action, he will eventually go on strike and deny all responsibility. Here lie the seeds of brutalisation, which may escalate to raging aggression.

The quotation is from 'Civil War'. Its concerns are a bit dated as it was published in 1994 but as you can see it contains some stimulating and still pertinent thinking. Hans Magnus is eighty next month. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

How to ruin a word

It turns out it was Mark Twain who said 'denial ain't just a river in Egypt' (it sounded to me like a Woody Allen line). How true, how true. It also turns out that 'denier ain't just a unit of measurement of linear mass-density of textile fibre' (awful, sorry).

The proliferation of deniers has been noted elsewhere. However, I think the phenomenon needs looking into a bit more. They're all over the place: there are deniers of Aids, global warming (or climate change, if you prefer), recession, evolution, and the grand-daddy of them all, the Holocaust.

There aren't many worse people out there than Holocaust deniers. Paedophiles are more reviled but I can't think of many others. And quite right too, for reasons that are too obvious to recount. It was this connection that flipped denial and denier into the realm of the pejorative. (At least in modern times: St Peter was briefly a Christ-denier).

But then the usage spread and not by happenstance. The Holocaust linkage had already given the words a malign latency. Busy propagandists such as George Monbiot and Richard Dawkins realised it would be a wizard idea to use this to blacken the causes of their opponents (some more and some less deserving of being on the receiving end of this tactic). So, just as 'mother' when said with sufficient vehemence is quite an insult, we now have "denier!!"

Denial has had a mixed press not just in its sense of repudiating something. In its sense of abstinence, it hasn't fared well since the advent of the consumer society; it doesn't sit well with instant gratification. It's even managed to take on connotations of a perverse, almost masochistic refusal to give yourself or others what really should be enjoyed, what is somehow deserved. It hasn't always been like this.

Denial was at the heart of the Protestant Ethic, thought once to have motivated all sort of progressive developments, such as the Industrial Revolution. It was almost the signature of the ratiocinating human being - the ability to forgo pleasure for greater future gain. It was a sign of holiness - self-sacrifice in service of the ineffable.

And now surely anyone with intelligence and sensitivity who's been exposed to the various consumerist slebby excrescences - from Heat to Premier League football to How to Spend It - would have to admit that a bit more positive denial in our culture wouldn't be a bad thing. Never mind the self-indulgences productive of obesity, drug addiction, and alcoholism.

A more self-denying approach to life and the material is going to be forced on many of us soon anyway. We're still in recession, the longest now on record. Whether we want it or not we're going to see a lot of denial in the coming years, of self and others.

But just when we need to lean on an old word like denial with its respectable history and decent references, it's no longer there. Its rather noble sense of abstaining for a higher good, embattled but still recoverable until recently, has been obliterated. Denial, denying and being a denier can no longer conceivably be good things. Those who did this, the lexical vandals who have denied the rather noble connotations of these words, deserve a label: the denial deniers.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Fascist dog bites Muslim man

It's very disappointing that the BBC's headline is currently 'Griffin attacks Islam on BBC show'. Apart from this being news on the level of 'dog bites man' it certainly doesn't appear to be what everyone's talking about: that Griffin was inept, shifty and embarrassed. Also why lend one of the main planks of his platform a headline?

Incompetent journalism and foot-shootingly daft.

UPDATE: The BBC headline is now (2pm) 'Griffin complaint over BBC 'mob''. If all one did is read headlines, you'd think the BNP had had a pretty good twenty-four hours. I still think the story is 'BNP leader 'shown up' say critics': given the huge expectations, positive and negative, that had built up over the week, surely the outcome - whether he came over well or not - has to be the story?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Wild thing, I think I love you

Hot on the heels of Nige unmasking Roald Dahl's full nastiness - a nastiness, it has to be said, very much welcomed by his fans - comes this. Maurice Sendak (below, and scary) appears to be vying with Dahl for the title of Most Misanthropic Children's Author Who Couldn't Give a Shit Anyway.

To the people complaining that the new film of Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for children:
"I would tell them to go to hell," Sendak said. And if children can't handle the story, they should "go home," he added. "Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."

He also bemoans the fact that Disney ("terrible") de-fanged the early Mickey Mouse (literally, too: he apparently used to sport a set of teeth):
"He was more dangerous...He did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened was that he became so popular – this is my own theory – they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing... I despised him after a point"

What a mensch!

Eurabia vs formatage

Well-researched piece of reportage on French Muslims by the FT's Simon Kuper (h/t Clive Davis' Confab). It provides colour and specifics to the thesis that Muslim populations are becoming more integrated into their host societies rather than less (discussed a couple of months ago in this post).

Again, the piece demonstrates that the loyalties, concerns and politics of Muslims don't differ much from those of their socio-economic peers in the rest of the population. Why should this surprise us? A good friend of mine, who's travelled a lot around the Middle East spending time with all sorts of people, has always pointed out that when you get past the front door you find the same basic worries, joys and preoccupations that you'd expect to find at home. It's easy to lose sight of this - it should actually be a truism - when the images we see of Muslims are overwhelmingly in the context of conflict, war and protest.

What's more, the birthrate of Muslims in France is also converging on the mean. It's been falling since the early-1980s and now stands at 2.5 versus 2.0 (interestingly the birthrate in the Maghreb is 1.8). In the next few decades France's Muslim population will grow to be a larger minority, but nevertheless still a small one.

Increasingly Islamic traditions are being frenchified: weddings in mosques where the bride wears white, carries a bouquet and holds hands with the groom. One French academic calls this process formatage: the creation of a new sub-culture, both French and Islamic.

What Kuper and others are reporting contradicts the 'clash of civilisations' thesis that sees Europe turning into 'Eurabia', with dominant Muslim populations imposing their values on a demoralised ethnically European rump. The thesis is usually linked to neo-conservatism. Christopher Caldwell is currently its most high-profile proponent through his modestly-titled 'Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West'*. He argues:
When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.

But why think of things in these terms? Surely, Islam is being challenged everywhere by the temptations of modernity? I've always thought of Islamic fundamentalism as, in part, the product of an embattled faith, a misguided attempt at fight-back.

So how about this?
When a questioning, dynamic, accommodating culture meets a culture that is staid, inward-looking and unreflective, it is generally the latter that changes to suit the former.

Dynamic, France? Look at formatage. And, after all, hasn't this been the story of modernity's global impact over the last couple of hundred years?

Of course, there's one group of people that share the neo-cons' incendiary view of Islam and pessimistic view of the West (or at least Europe): the Islamists. I think we can feel increasingly confident that neither group is representative of the future.

* Not content with taking on Burke's mantle, in one interview he compared his efforts to Tocqueville's. Time will tell.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A special day

Today, by the way, is Trafalgar Day. I would nominate this as one of the most important dates in British history (and therefore world history). Perhaps it's the most important: right now, I can't think of any event that happened on a single day that was quite as significant. The Battle of Britain certainly would be up there if it hadn't sprawled across a few months. Otherwise, I'm stumped. Perhaps there are some more peaceable anniversaries that could be nominated?

[Thirty minutes later]

Since I started this post, I've had a visit from Graham, the district nurse (I'm still being periodically attended to). I knew he was into music but he told me a bit more about his career today and it emerged that he used to be a roadie for The Specials, eventually MC'ing their concerts. He worked with them around the UK and Europe and also went with them to the US, when Ghost Town was at number one in the Billboard chart. It was good to learn they were all lovely blokes - and I imagine Graham would know.

As you may remember from a previous post, I'm a huge fan. I'm into my 40s now but it seems I can still be star-struck, even vicariously.

No Trafalgar, no Specials? Could it have been that important?

Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires...

A British expatriate has his land compulsorily purchased by a foreign government without compensation.

A British subject - living abroad and of foreign extraction - is arrested by the same foreign government and tortured. He's released without charge but no compensation is paid.

Another holder of a British passport has his house ransacked and burnt down because he is a Jew. The mob is egged on by the son of the foreign government's Minister of War.

How does the British government of the day respond? They remonstrate, demanding apologies and compensation. Then, eventually, when there is no acceptable response they send a dozen or so of the Royal Navy's ships of the line to blockade the ports of the foreign country in question and seize its shipping. Apologies and compensation are forthcoming.

This is a rough and ready description of what became known as the Don Pacifico affair of the mid-nineteenth century. The foreign country in question was the newly-independent Kingdom of Greece. The driving force on the British side was the sometimes jauntily reckless Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (below) - exponent of 'gunboat diplomacy' - who stated in the Commons debate on the affair:
As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus Sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.

But the issues were a lot less black and white than I've painted them. The expropriation of the expat was conducted legally. The tortured British subject was from the Ionian islands, a British possession at the time, the inhabitants of which were shortly to rebel and be duly flogged by their British masters. Don Pacifico, the Jew, was arguably Portuguese rather than British, something of a fraudster and his claim for compensation was exaggerated. The aggressive British response was motivated as much by international political rivalries and sovereign debts unpaid as by the desire to secure justice for British subjects. It was also a rather ridiculous adventure: as Palmerston's most recent biographer puts it 'bluster has no sense of proportion'.

Certainly, a storm of controversy at home and abroad descended on Palmerston's head as a consequence of his orders. Gladstone's reply to Palmerston's claim above did what the British liberal is supremely good at - seeing things from the other side:
What then, Sir, was a Roman citizen? He was the member of a privileged caste: he belonged to a conquering race, to a nation that held all others bound down by the strong arm of power. For him there was to be an exceptional system of law; for him principles were to be asserted, and by him rights were to be enjoyed, that were denied to the rest of the world. Is this, then, the view of the noble lord, as to the relation that is to subsist between England and other countries?

Nevertheless, I can't resist admiring what Palmerston did back then - such confidence and certitude in what it meant to be a subject of the Crown. What's more, doesn't the episode cast a dispiriting light on the plight of British subjects in Zimbabwe; the torture inflicted on British subjects and residents as described in this recent post, potentially with their own government's connivance; and the kidnapping and sometimes execution of British hostages in Iraq and elsewhere over the years?

The Foreign Office's standard modus operandi when presented with an injustice (or worse) perpetrated on a British citizen appears to be to talk softly, ensure the other side doesn't lose face, steer clear of any suggestion that there might be an aggressive response and ultimately not to respond aggressively anyway, whatever the outcome. The patient negotiation and firm persuasion of soft power: a sensible strategy for much of the time, I'm sure. But, once in a while, wouldn't it be a good thing to see the modern equivalent of a gunboat deployed to protect British citizens?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A cravat convert

Exciting news. The first of a new, young breed of cravateer has made himself known (to me anyway: because of the officially classified nature of his work he wishes to remain anonymous).

He's acquired a colourful paisley number in silk and cotton from gentlemen's outfitters Scott's of Cirencester (no cravats for sale online yet, so we've a way to go). As you'd expect, he heard the call of the raffish, but also had solid practical reasons for his purchase:
Now it's getting colder and I'm behind the counter with the door open, I'm beginning to feel a chill around my neck. But I just don't like wearing ties - they're too restricting, you know? So a cravat was the obvious solution.
And the great thing about this one is that the different colours in the paisley mean I can wear it with anything.

Bravo! Today Bibury, tomorrow Ciren and beyond.

It wasn't supposed to work out like that

It's really not much fun, you know, to keep finding reminders that being conservative-minded is very often a good idea. Wouldn't we all like to march forward into a much-improved, automatic-system, washes-whiter-than-white future? Sadly, progressive ideas lead to the unpleasantly regressive rather too often to sustain such hopes.

Everyone is freaking out about the BNP: the Question Time appearance, in particular, has got the chicken coop fluttering. We even seem to be clucking our way into that favourite media state of mind, the moral panic.

However, as needs to be continually pointed out, the BNP's support in the recent Euro elections didn't go up. Their number of seats did, but only because of the collapse in Labour support. This panic, then, is based on an electoral quirk. But what is the system that produces such a quirk?

Since 1999 the UK's European elections have been conducted using a form of the impeccably progressive proportional representation. The system involves a regional list, where seats are awarded in accordance with each party's share of the vote. Before 1999 the elections were conducted under the same first-past-the-post system used for the Westminster elections.

PR is thought progressive because it is rationally 'fair': it gives everyone a voice and one that's proportionate in volume to how many others think the same way. The BNP organised itself and re-positioned itself to take advantage of this. So now the everyone who is given a voice includes Nick Griffin whose lightly-veiled, wheedling arguments of hate we can look forward to hearing a lot more.

Doesn't seem so thoroughly progressive now does it?

And the real shame of it is that appearances can become reality. The BNP has got itself elected and raised its profile without actually increasing its support that much. Now, its voice is being heard loud and clear; it has a real chance of establishing itself as a permanent and repellent fixture in our political life. So, thanks PR and onward to the future!

Monday, 19 October 2009

'...sliced with a scalpel'

I'm provoked to post on the British Government's potential complicity in torture for quite selfish reasons. I don't subscribe to the human rights agenda and I don't have very strong feelings about detention at Guantanamo: both give me pause for thought but I wouldn't feel provoked into writing about them. I do think torture should be illegal always and anywhere (in any event, it hasn't been necessary in the securing of a number of significant convictions in the UK). But what really concerns me about these stories is that it concerns my government, the British government, on the one hand, and British residents and British citizens, on the other. If this isn't enough to alarm you, I'm not sure what would.

I also have to admit the element of hypocrisy enrages me: should our human rights-touting Labour government be involved in torture in any way, it would be beyond satire.

The picture is getting clearer. Due to a High Court ruling last week it looks as if information will be made public - subject to one more appeal that's apparently unlikely to succeed - that confirms Binyam Mohammed, a Guantanamo detainee who'd also been subject to extraordinary rendition, was tortured in ways far worse than being waterboarded. I blanched from including the full details in the title to this post: his genitals were sliced with a scalpel. This piece of extremely 'enhanced interrogation' was conducted whilst he was in American custody either directly with the CIA or indirectly via rendition to co-operative (and unscrupulous) foreign intelligence agencies.

The British government's position is that it doesn't engage in or condone torture. However, evidence is building that MI6 and MI5 have been making indirect but distinct use of torture by others: allegedly interviewing suspects following or during their torture by foreign agencies (see here); allegedly supplying questions to foreign agencies to be asked to prisoners who they must have known were going to be tortured (see here and here). It seems likely that Binyam Mohammed's case might fall into both these categories. There are other instances, in addition to the ones enumerated here: David Davis's Commons statement provides a summary. There's also an excellent recap of the Binyam case to date here (h/t Andrew Sullivan).

The Foreign Office has been trying to suppress the High Court's revelations throughout the course of this year. Understandably so, with regard of the self-preservation of its ministers, past and present. We could well be looking at a despicable crime walking arm-in-arm with a dark hypocrisy, all cloaked in a determined cover-up. This should be enough to bring down a government, and certainly more than enough to warrant the resignation of David Miliband.

We need a judicial review. But somehow I struggle to imagine justice being done: slipperiness has trumped accountability at almost every juncture in recent years.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Cravats: swains and more

Nige, rightly, is celebrating cravat heroes in a series of posts (could a calendar be in the offing?). We've had two so far and one common feature is that they are men of mature years who are most famous for appearing on Radio 4. This would be one of the demographics least prized by advertisers. Not usually a consideration for me, but in this instance a clear indicator that the cravat hero may well be a dying breed.

The demise of this distinctive item of neckwear along with its eponymous aging heroes would be a minor tragedy. The cravat has a number of unique advantages, which, as the lawyers say, include but are not limited to the following:

1. The cravat is not as formal as a tie nor as casual as an open-necked shirt. It is surely then the epitome of smart-casual, a mode of dress that's so popular now it can only be a strange oversight that the cravat isn't as commonly worn as a pair of chinos or a sports jacket. What's more it's unisex, when worn by a lady offering a marvelous complement to a monocle.

2. It's exotic and not just any old exotic. Cravat comes from the word 'Croat', denoting a Slavic inhabitant of the Eastern Adriatic littoral. It's at one with the jewel of a city that is Dubrovnik, the string of pearls that make up the Croatian archipelago, the lacustrine pleasures of sparkling Plitvice. Along with overwhelming aftershave and waxed moustaches it also surely forms an integral part of the winning formula that has helped the Balkan playboy cut such a swathe through the bored woman-folk of the Riviera (I'm sure Gadjo will confirm this lesser known fact).

3. It provides a wonderful opportunity to wear extravagantly flowery material, but in a very sensible, understated way. You can participate in the let-it-all-hang-out spirit of hippy paisley but in practice have things safely tucked away around your neck. No kaftan required - rather, an elegant Sunday lunchtime gesture towards the alternative spirit, which will set you apart from the 'squares' down at the club.

4. There's something romantic about the cravat - and not just its links to Balkan lotharios. Brightly-coloured and spotted, it's the neckwear of choice for the bargee, that free-spirit of our inland waterways. I've also always pictured Heathcliff wearing one out on the moor. And it was surely the preferred neckwear of the off-duty Battle of Britain fighter pilot, supping from a dimpled pint pot in a hop-strewn pub whilst charming the local dolly. When you wear it yourself you're sharing in this romantic heritage - quite simply you'll be cutting a dash.

5. It removes any practical justification for the neckerbeard, or as the more sophisticated call it, the cravabarbe. Anything that contributes to the suppression of this mental* excrescence is of value.

Powerful considerations, I think you'll agree. This piece of our heritage must not be allowed to unravel. Do you dare pick up the baton from Nige's cravat heroes? I'm sure there's a classic bit of Tootal out there waiting for you - go on, express yourself.

* I've just learnt that as nasal is to nose so mental is to chin. I always thought wearing a goatee indicated mental issues.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Oh crumbs

It's just one disaster after another. And now this: Biscuitgate. People are saying the hoo-ha about Brown's inability to name his favourite biscuit just shows how we're obsessed with the trivial.

But surely the person most obsessed with the trivial is Brown himself. Why couldn't he give a quick, throwaway answer to what is a totally unimportant question? He was probably strategising his reply, and ended up in such a quandary that he succumbed to paralysis, struck dumb.

Brown seems doomed to unending enmities and repeated failures. As Talleyrand said of France's pre-revolutionary royal house he's 'learned nothing and forgotten nothing'. I therefore nominate the Bourbon as Brown's favourite biscuit.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The wide-eyed and the legless

Scared of snakes? Scared may be too strong a word for most people but I can't believe there are many who aren't uneasy when they think of the slinky, scaly, sharp-toothed creatures. Just imagine one slithering past you now - it should make your skin crawl. Why though should?

Well, a new book The Fruit, The Snake and The Tree, reviewed in the TLS, convincingly argues that serpents have been bosom enemies of primates long enough for primates - including hominids - to have evolved in various ways that help avoid the critters. This is known as the Snake Detection Theory, another of those intriguing ideas, such as the Aquatic Ape Theory, that seek to explain how we came to evolve to be what we are.

Snake Detection Theory appears to have a lot of evidence in its favour - from anthropology, neuroscience, palaeontology and psychology. There are a few specific characteristics that provide support, to be found in our primate cousins as well as in ourselves. An instinctive fear of snakes, for instance. Monkeys go nuts, so to speak, at film of other monkeys encountering snakes - even if they've never seen a snake before.

Another feature is what is technically known as declarative pointing. The emergence of this pointing in our distant ancestors - which declared 'look out, there's a snake!' (expletive deleted) - may have provided the first foundation of language.

There's one neurological characteristic we still retain that I find particularly intriguing: it seems serpent-driven evolution shaped our sight so that we’re much better at following a point in our visual periphery than our visual centre, and while looking down rather than up. That is, we've evolved to keep an eye on where the snake may be without having to directly look for it. The meaning of 'keeping an eye' on something becomes a little richer in this light.

I find this feature so interesting as it is surely what makes our team-based ball games work in the way they do. For instance, in rugby - a game I've played and watched a lot - I know that being peripherally aware of other players and the ball is crucial. Without it, the game simply wouldn't flow. If players only saw what was in front of them there would be little passing or kicking, hand-offs, avoidance of tackles - in fact, little of anything that you couldn't do without looking at it full on (some would say this game of tunnel-vision bashing already exists: it's called Rugby League). It also explains why the 'up-and-under' can be so effective - we aren't as good at looking up as we are at looking down.

In sports involving teams and a ball, the most prized players are generally those who display the ability to 'see' what's around them without really looking. In rugby, Mark Ring was the best player I've ever seen do this - passing into a space that he seemingly couldn't have known was there and which would immediately be occupied by one of his team-mates. To take a couple of examples from football, I would guess that Pele and, more recently, Thierry Henry both had this quality to burn.

So, putting to one side for a moment the regrettable Eden incident as well as the history of predation and poisoning, we have reason to be grateful to serpents. Without them we'd be stuck with bash-it-up-the-middle monotony in our ball games. And we wouldn't be able to enjoy those sublime moments provided by the rare snake-sensitive sporting visionary.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The simple joys of beetroot

Having recently spent six weeks in hospital, on and off, I'm savouring certain experiences far more intensely than I would have before. Funnily enough, it's the more everyday, Pooterish things that hit me with the most force. Forget fine wines, patés and sweetmeats.

Today, I enjoyed a dish that I haven't had for years. On the weekend my brother kindly gave me a beetroot from his vegetable garden and after poaching, cooling, slicing and sousing I've just eaten it. With sardines on toast.

"Duw, duw, bloody ambrosia! Nectar of the gods..." is the praise I would have heard around the table as a child when we had something so delicious. "Duw, Taid would have given his pension for a piece of beetroot like that" more recently. However, whilst we used to have beetroot prepared in this way quite often, I don't recall it being praised in divine terms.

But even without my extra-sensitive sensory appreciation I'm sure it would taste very good - nutty, sweet and sharp. Great colour too, of course. The only difference between this and the dish of my childhood is that I used balsamic rather than malt vinegar: an Islington twist which does actually improve it, the balsamic bringing out the sweetness a bit more.

All this talk of vegetables reminds me of Veg Talk, a Radio Four programme of some genius that ended a few years ago. It gave vegetables their due: 30 minutes a week of in-depth investigation of their sources and uses. Excellent stuff which helps disprove the allegation that commissioning editors aren't willing to take a risk.

It's due to this much-missed programme, that I have a soft spot for its former presenter and Shrek-lookalike Gregg Wallace (left with friend) now of Masterchef The Professionals. This affection doesn't seem to be universally shared however: see the comments on my recent Masterchef Professionals post. 'Bald, cockney veghead' would have been fairer.

I hope this hostility isn't down to any lingering resentment of vegetables being given national air-time (I remember people like Andy Kershaw being particularly scathing about the non-hardcore Veg Talk).  As testament to the fact that vegetables are worthy of serious, even poetic consideration here is Robert Louis Stevenson's quirky but quite beautiful 'To a Gardener' (written, by the way, in Hyères):
Friend, in my mountain-side demesne
My plain-beholding, rosy, green
And linnet-haunted garden-ground,
Let still the esculents abound.
Let first the onion flourish there,
Rose among roots, the maiden-fair,
Wine-scented and poetic soul
Of the capacious salad bowl.
Let thyme the mountaineer (to dress
The tinier birds) and wading cress,
The lover of the shallow brook,
From all my plots and borders look.
Nor crisp and ruddy radish, nor
Pease-cods for the child's pinafore
Be lacking; nor of salad clan
The last and least that ever ran
About great nature's garden-beds.
Nor thence be missed the speary heads
Of artichoke; nor thence the bean
That gathered innocent and green
Outsavours the belauded pea.
These tend, I prithee; and for me,
Thy most long-suffering master, bring
In April, when the linnets sing
And the days lengthen more and more
At sundown to the garden door.
And I, being provided thus.
Shall, with superb asparagus,
A book, a taper, and a cup
Of country wine, divinely sup.

God, that sounds good.

UPDATE: Two stupendous words - totally and refreshingly new to me - as well as some typically pleasant vermicular reflections, all linked to the subject of this post, can be found here.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Unenthusiasm rules

My guess is that if the British people as a whole were asked to sit down to take the Ten Propositions of Toryism* test (from my last post) they would rack up a pretty high score. Seven out of ten at least. It shouldn't surprise us, then, that the Tories were in government for the bulk of the last century. Why, though, do they ever lose? Let's look at elections since the '50s (the post-war Labour landslide was a one-off).

Firstly, the couple of narrow Labour victories in the mid-'70s can be explained away as highly peculiar. They were the upshot of the country experiencing a sort of national Stockholm syndrome. Having been kidnapped by the trades unions, it began to feel it could only be protected by the unions' political arm, the Labour Party. This was clearly an unusual national-psychological hostage situation, and one which it is difficult to believe will be repeated.

The other two periods of Labour success since the '50s feel more characteristic and typical: the first being the victories in the mid-'60s under Wilson and the second being those under Blair in the '90s and '00s. These have a common context. As Pravda used to say, it can be no coincidence that they occurred during periods when the country was euphorically enthusiastic about itself, this enthusiasm being validated by Americans who happened to notice us briefly. We're talking, of course, about Swinging London and Cool Britannia (both labels invented by US magazines, I believe).

So it may be that the British are only capable of abandoning the Ten Propositions during spates of unusual self-confidence and self-love (though we do seem to need the US to confirm that we're great - we worry that otherwise we might simply be delusional). A sort of national euphoria leads us to believe that yes, we can start from scratch, it would be quite straightforward to reorganise the country to make it much, much better, and whilst we're at it let's sort out the rest of the world too and, yeah, forget history, look at what the kids are up to - aren't we a young country! Enthusiasm uncurbed.

This helps to explain why there's no enthusiastic anticipation of the next Tory government - this is simply the normal state of affairs. What's more, I can't imagine we're going to enjoy another period of hi-jinks for many a long sub-par year. I see unenthusiastic Tory rule stretching out long into the future...

* I use Tory and Conservative interchangeably even though some would argue they have distinct meanings. Personally, I've always preferred Tory as it was originally a label for an Irish brigand, a more romantic and edgy association than Mr Major's 'invincible suburbs'.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

You may have to admit it to yourself...

How many of these propositions do you agree with?

1. Generally speaking, people should be left to live their lives how they wish.

2. Continuities and traditions should be approached with respect and humility.

3. History is deserving of careful study for its own sake.

4. It's right to be sceptical about human nature as mankind is frail and imperfect.

5. Civil institutions are of primary importance in constraining and promoting people's interests from time to time.

6. Incremental change should be preferred over revolution.

7. Processes need more attention than outcomes: get the former right and the latter will look after themselves.

8. The national should come before the international.

9. If something works, don't worry about the theory.

10. We have a duty of care to others on the basis of our being members of the same community rather than for more abstract reasons.

What was your score out of ten? If you found yourself agreeing with quite a few - let's say 7/10 or above - the likelihood is that you are or have become a CONSERVATIVE. This may come as an unpleasant shock. After all, there are plenty of otherwise quite nice and reasonable people who, if they discovered you were a CONSERVATIVE, would instinctively label you as something of a bastard or a cow. Nevertheless, there it is.

By the way, please don't try to pick holes in these propositions by testing whether they'd all be justifiable in all sorts of different times and places. No, I wouldn't approach the longstanding Aztec tradition of human sacrifice with respect and humility either. Like conservatism itself, these propositions don't pretend to universal and axiomatic truth. They might provide useful guidance in other times and places but not necessarily so.

I've derived this quick and easy checklist from the first of Peter Oborne's Radio Four talks on the subject of conservatism, which was concerned with the conservative outlook. The second talk was on the history of the Conservative Party and the third (yet to to be broadcast) is an interview with David Cameron.

Oborne is a journalist who's always worth reading. He takes a highly ethical approach to politics and is keenly aware of historical context. Also, rather like Nick Cohen (who won't be grateful for the comparison), he has the admirable knack of picking up on issues that are important but have been disregarded. Most recently, he very bravely went to the Philippines to report on the vicious Christian-Muslim conflict that threatens to overturn the country and provide a new source of international Islamist terrorism.

He's doing us a service in producing these talks. After all, it looks almost certain that we'll be in for a few years of government by a party that calls itself the Conservative Party. Best remind ourselves of what it's all about, or at least what it's meant to be all about.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Pulped, dried and pimped

Another rant against consumerism, I'm afraid.

It's these buggers trying to sell me messed-around-with fruit whilst speaking in a childish voice that expects me to believe that if I buy from them I'll be saving both the world and myself. I'm referring, of course, to the evil geniuses at Innocent (the clue's in the word - who else but the evil would choose such a name?) and their swelling cohort. They've now been joined by another company mining out the same pulpy, eco-religious seam. They're called Bear (as in the ones who do it in the woods).

Instead of relieving you of the awful inconvenience of having to actually chew fruit (the boon to civilisation provided by Innocent, their previous employers) these likely lads are drying fruit for you. This will mean you don't have to go to the trouble of, er, eating it fresh, I suppose.

I will leave you with a flavour of what I'm sure they'd call their mission, which by the way isn't just about making money, it's about looking after yourself. Naturally, through the miraculous medium of dried fruit. Which they obviously feel passionate about.

Here it is (I find it helps if you say it in your head using the voice of Peep Show's Robert Webb):
We're a bit attitude-y, a bit grrrr. It's about nature - and that's edgy. To make an impact in this market you've got to be proactive and shout louder. We have to raise the bar. Bring it on, I say.

Wow. (And interesting echoes of George W Bush at the end). Naturally, they don't deign to have a proper address, claiming they work at Bear, The Big Cave, Deepest Darkest Hazel Wood. Perhaps only the very worst nightmares of Marx, Engels, Morris, Owen, Herzen, Kropotkin, etc. could have prepared them for this. That the leading edge of consumer capitalist innovation should consist of twee infantilism allied to claims that aren't much different from those used to sell medieval indulgences is rather shaming for we fans of the market.

It was probably Malcolm McLaren* who advised 'never trust a hippy' (originally coined with respect to Branson, the original beardy block that these chips have flaked from). For me, this is one of the greatest and most reliable dictums of modern times. But as a rule ignored. Why can't we just eat normal food like proper grown-ups? Why do you need your chin tickled when you reach into the fridge? What the feck's wrong with an apple?

* And he should know being something of an expert on trust and its abuse. The quote has also been attributed to both John Lydon and Sid Vicious. Typically of the Pistols, the successful bits have many fathers (the death of Sid being something of an orphan).

"Local Dumb Guy is Innocent!"

As I mentioned, I was back in the Cotswold countryside this weekend. I'm a great fan of local newspapers and the Wilts and Glos Standard is no exception. Where else would you get a story like this?

This was either a particularly original cry for help or the act of someone too stupid to be prosecuted. I feel like hanging a banner from one of the bridges on the by-pass: "Local Dumb Guy is Innocent!"

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A sign

Spent the last couple of days in the country and both today and yesterday I saw the same rather eery sight. There's a dead larch at the bottom of the valley, next to the mill-stream. This morning and yesterday morning perched atop the grey, skeletal tree was a pitch-black cormorant, neck arched, hooked beak tucked into its chest. Occupying the feathered branches below were three herons, floating in the mist like ghostly pale question marks. Finally, the middle branches were crowded with a group of restless rooks that each time took flight as soon as they saw me. The cormorant and herons however remained, patient and aloof, disdainful of my presence.

A strange sight to see once, let alone twice. What could it mean? Only this evening has the awful message become apparent: Kandy Rain to be ejected. Strange and portentous days, people.

X-Factor: weeping schmeeping

One of the pleasures of blogging is that you're introduced to the new and unfamiliar. So I was pleasurably intrigued to read on Think of England about TV's The X-Factor. I'd never seen the programme and thought I should expand my horizons this Saturday by indulging myself in a full two hours (plus another couple on ITV8, or so) of peak-time light entertainment.

Of course, one of the other pleasures of blogging is taking up vehement positions on issues which you never previously felt strongly about (or, indeed, even knew about). So I'm glad to say that I strongly disapprove Brit's unjustifiable soft-heartedness towards the contestants. He's concerned about the amount of weeping that ensues and the effect this has on their 'fragile' mental state. Well, being pretty much an expert on the show now, I can assure him he needn't worry.

Firstly, these young would-be entertainers make no distinction between the public and the private: it's all performance. Weeping allows them to display just one more aspect of their emotional repertoire (pant-wetting excitement seems to be a major component too). Their lives are lived for drama: there is nothing private - or even revelatory - about tears. After all, this is show business - everything is exposed, everything is on show.

Secondly, the contestants wear their weeping as a badge of pride. It indicates 'authenticity' (a word I heard bandied around a quite a bit last night, particularly by Cheryl Cole - I give up on this point, I don't know where to begin). A good teary gush also shows they're 'passionate' about what they're doing: they're giving '110%', you know. Weeping isn't so much an excess of private feeling as a willingness to sing the company song.

(Like Suralan's nasty little chiselers, I wonder how many of these desperately nice individuals would willingly throw everything beneath the juggernaut of their ambition: self-respect, integrity, loyalty, friendship. I'm not sure we want to know).

But let's admit for a moment that an element of this weeping really is expressive of misery. I'm just not sure that it's really enough to express the awful reality of show business failure. This handful of contestants are the snowball sitting atop the tip of an iceberg of thousands of wannabes: graduates of drama schools named after dated drama queens, holders of degrees in theatre and television studies, pub singers, bedroom hairbrush crooners, part-time strippers, moonlighting rent-boys, buskers, laptop tune programmers and mummy's little princes and princesses, all wanting a shot at the big time. The X-Factor failures are the lucky ones.

The rejects may tearfully drain the bitter cup of failure. But it's one that's been sweetened by the odd saccarhine judge's comment and is still infused by the glow of the spotlights. Their talent, unsuccessful for the moment, has nevertheless been publicly justified. They've performed - sang a song, had a good cry, wet their pants with excitement - all on national TV. A season at Butlins may well beckon, 'as seen on TV' featuring prominently on the posters.

But for the others, the ones that don't get this far, failure will arrive in the less glamorous location of some draughty little hall or Mum's cramped front room. Lonely and disregarded. So, for instructive reasons, rather than weep I'd have the failed contestants rend their garments, smear their faces with ash and pull their hair out. This will give a fair reflection of how failure will taste for nearly every single one of the hordes of dreamers dying to get onto the telly and who are doomed not even to achieve X-Factor rejection.

Don't worry about the weeping, then.

Just one more observation, though. I couldn't quite believe that after around about six hours of programming over the weekend all that happens is that one of the contestants is dropped. What's more, this happens repeatedly over what must be a dozen weekends or so until the winner emerges. Forget worries about today's short attention spans. X-Factor, at least, is Wagnerian in the time it demands from its audience and Proustian in the pace of its narrative progression. I, for one, don't have the stamina to last the course.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai

My father-in-law is a photographer, and one of the great things about 'have camera, will travel' is that he occasionally gets to go on some fantastic trips. A while ago he was invited to visit the Eastern Orthodox St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai Desert of Egypt by a friend who's a scholar and restorer of old bookbindings (he works on incunabula, or books printed before 1501 - a lovely word, if a bit difficult to pronounce).

St Catherine's - or 'The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai', to give it its full Orthodox title - is a fascinating place and staggeringly old and precious. It was constructed in the 6th century making it the oldest working monastery in the world. It also houses one of the greatest collections of ancient documents in the world, second in size only to the Vatican. It's a quite remarkable survivor: a priceless repository, a miraculously intact relic, but also a living institution.

It managed to attain its great age in such pristine condition as it's never been sacked. This is down to its remoteness, its great defensive wall, and the political cunning of its monks. It's probably also due to it sitting on ground that's holy to all the religions of the book.

It's reckoned to have the descendant of the original Burning Bush growing in its bounds. The Ten Commandments emanated from the neighbouring mountain, a revelation recognised by Muslims, as well as, of course, by Christians and Jews. A sign of this inclusivity is the presence of a mosque within the grounds of the monastery. (By the way, William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain is an excellent if depressing source for further information on Eastern Christianity's remaining sites).

The colony of monks has enjoyed plenty of patronage over the centuries. They were great favourites of the Tsar. But the most charming example of generosity is that of two English spinsters who, feeling the monks needed a bit of pampering, fitted out for them a little retreat-cum-library, the Sisters' House. After masses on saint's days and holy days the monks can gather here to indulge themselves with sweet coffee and honeyed cakes. They have also been known to take a nip of illicit brandy. One of those small pleasures that helps life roll along pleasantly enough, I'm sure.

Norbert's photo of this ritual treat is at the head of the post (spot the sticky buns). I've also included below a shot of local mounted Bedouin, who provide most of the labour to support the monastic foundation. These are two examples taken from what is a stunning portfolio collected during his stay at the monastery. Others can be viewed at Norbert's site (click on 'Calendars' and 'Corporate') - it includes a great shot of an ossuary too.

I think they'd make terrific, interestingly alternative Christmas cards: the bright light, crisp blue skies and stony landscapes are more reflective of the first Christmases than our snow and robins. If anyone is interested in pursuing this please feel free to contact Norbert via his site.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Masters

Whilst I've been away, T managed to get addicted to Masterchef Professional. I too have now succumbed. One of the reasons is that I find Michel Roux Jr. mesmerising*. He looks like an officer in the French Foreign Legion: gaunt, tanned, stubbled, a slight accent and with dark eyes that are uncompromising but hint at generosity - but only if you cut it. What reinforces the impression is that contestants only get the right to cook for him once his NCO chefs have weeded out the unworthy. He also looks intense to the point of being a bit obsessively nuts, like all great chefs.

His comments are straight down the line and obviously drenched in vast experience. To be taught by him really would be a privilege. This helps explain why the Roux clan (his father Albert and uncle Michel Sr. complete the trio) appear as such éminences grises in the autobiographies of our star chefs.

The Roux have something of a mythical status in these memoirs. Almost all of these prima donnas, egomaniacs, hell-raisers, slave-drivers, and geniuses seem to have passed through their kitchens at some point. And what's more, despite the notorious bitchiness of the business, whilst it wouldn't be correct to say they don't have a bad word to say about them, they're obviously universally respected.

T and I have experienced Albert's hospitality - we were married, had lunch and stayed overnight at the Waterside Inn at Bray. I can't speak highly enough of the place. Whilst costing a few bob, I can say with conviction it was superb value for money. The lunch was simply the best I've ever had and you can't ask for more on a day like that. They were also incredibly tolerant of our little boy, nine months old and full of beans as he was. If you want an experience on a budget the three course set lunch used to cost about £24. As this is three-star Michelin cooking il vaut le detour - particularly on a sunny day when the riverside setting is a delight in itself.

* Having seen this post T has confessed that one of the attractions of Masterchef Professional is the 'pointy, cutie French looks' of M. Roux. Readers of this blog may know that this sort of thing has already made her a loyal fan of the French rugby team. "Ah, the little cuties have got an H!" Allez les Bleus indeed.

A nation of liees

Yesterday, I met a friend of mine who's spent much of the last few years sitting at a desk in Central Asia being lied to (he has in his gift something a lot of people want: US$). He thinks there's a gap in the English language. We have a word for liar but not one for the person being lied to. So how about the counterpart of liar being 'liee'?

So, liee. But just as in the case of 'liar', I think the word describes someone who partakes in the activity more than just the once. The liee is probably someone who has a penchant to be lied to, even a need. The habitual liee has to hear happy talk and doesn't really care if it's true or not. I think we've all come across people like this.

Rather remarkably, our new word comes in useful immediately. And - guess what? - it's politics that provides an application. Nige is concerned that Osborne's truth telling about the misery to be unleashed by the Tories will land them in hot water: 'Nobody ever won an election by promising hard times, and surely they never will'.

Well, that will make the next election an interesting test. Are we a nation of liees? Do we have some sort of need to have sunshine permanently blown up our collective bottom? If the Tories don't win for this reason, there will be no point in railing against Beelzebub Brown and his host of bullshitting bluebottles. We'll have shown we deserve them. We'll be a nation of liees.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Fag ends

I can't think of a recent time when there seem to be so many endings about and so few beginnings. Economically, politically, culturally, intellectually, we seem to be at the fag-end.

Here in the UK, we're sitting in the ruins of a crashed economic cycle, witnessing the twitches and jabbering of a dying government. Globally, there is nothing world-altering happening: globalism continues as does the well-established rise of the Asian economies.

Culturally, we seem becalmed. The Turner Prize (if we're to take it at all seriously anyway) could be taken for a stale, unfunny parody of itself. The Booker, whilst having some excellent short-listed books, features well-established authors working within one of the most traditional of genres, the historical novel. I'm not as cognisant with what the kids are up to as I used to be, but there doesn't appear to be any mass youth enthusiasm bubbling under, wanting to tear things up.

In the world of ideas there doesn't seem to be any great ferment. Environmentalism as a body of thought seems quite mature, its acolytes seem intent on converting rather than theorising. The economic crash has provided an opportunity to revive Keynes, but I don't see the rise of any new theories seeking to explain what happened and where we might go from here.

But is this rather depressing and exhausted vista unusual? Doesn't this happen at the end of every cycle, a necessary fallow period before a new crop starts breaking the surface? Well, no, it does seem different this time.

The last time we experienced a downturn and its drawn-out aftermath, in the early 1990s, we also had the birth of New Labour; the break-up of the Soviet Union; the end of apartheid; the eruption of grunge; the mainstreaming of rave culture, clubbing and recreational drugs; postmodernism and deconstruction were shaking up the academy; the Young British Artists were establishing themselves; the new British restaurant culture was emerging; Docklands was being revived and other disregarded corners of London were being rediscovered and refurbished. That's quite a lot to be occurring, I would say. I feel pretty sure I could produce a similar list for the early 1980s recession and that of the early 1970s.

I suppose there could be a lot going on which isn't visible right now. Or we may be about to be inundated with exciting new developments. But if these things don't come to pass then I'm afraid things look even grimmer than they already appear. Welcome to the Age of Stagnation.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Grave mistake

It's taken some courage to write this post. I'll be broaching a subject that is freighted with embarrassment, even shame for a man of my age. T and I talk about just about everything, but this is one area she will not address. If I try to broach it she'll refuse to engage - it's beyond the pale.

But when I started this blog, I decided I would write about anything and everything I was interested in. So - with severe misgivings - here goes.

I've just completed watching the extended play version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whilst there are a number of small irritating alterations made in the film version versus the book, presumably for the sake of making things clearer for a cinema audience (e.g. pointy ears for Elves and Hobbits), as well as some necessary abridgements (the episode on the Barrows) there is one misconceived additional scene that I just find totally unacceptable. It's bugging the hell out of me.

You're spared this solecism in the cinematic version - my enjoyment that Christmas of 2003 was unalloyed. But in the extended play DVD version of Return of the King, there's a scene where the Witch-King of Angmar (aka the Lord of the Nazgul), lands his flying beast on the battlements of Minas Tirith at the height of the siege and has a confrontation with Gandalf. The Witch-King totally overwhelms the Wizard, breaking his staff, and insulting him by calling him a defeated old man. The Witch-King is only distracted from going in for the kill by the charge of the Rohirrim down on the plains below, the opening engagement of the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

This scene doesn't appear in the book and must have been created to add drama and an additional sense of incredible achievement to the final fall of the Witch-King at the hands of the woman Eowyn and the hobbit Merry. This is unnecessary in my view - their achievement is remarkable enough without their victim being made more formidable in this way.

I object so strongly to this scene - it seriously detracts from my enjoyment of the whole latter part of the film - as it's not credible in the context of the book or even that of the film. It's inconsistent with the internal logic of the world of Middle-Earth and this is critical for maintaining suspension of disbelief. At this point of the film my own disbelief just comes crashing down, shattering the carefully constructed fantasy.

Why? Well, the Witch-King is a man whose powers have been enhanced by possession of one of the Nine Rings given by Sauron to the race of Men. It's turned him into a near-immortal Wraith and he appears to have great powers of inspiring fear. However, he is not necessarily a great warrior or a possessor of great and destructive magical powers. For instance, Aragorn drives him and, I think, another four Wraiths away from Weathertop without too much trouble earlier in the book and film (there are other instances in both book and film where the Ringwraiths are shown not to be formidable fighters or wielders of powerful magic).

Gandalf, on the other hand, is much more than a man enhanced by possession of a Ring. Far from it: as is revealed in The Silmarillion, he is from the class of being called the Maiar. These are like lesser gods or angels and can have enormous powers. Sauron is a corrupt Maia, as are the Balrogs (an indication of Gandalf's fighting prowess is that he defeated a Balrog in the previous film). What's more, Gandalf is the head of his order of Wizards at this point of the trilogy and also wears the Elven Ring of Fire, Narya (however, you'll only know the latter from reading some of Tolkien's other writings).

When set out like this, I think you'll agree it's ridiculous to think that the Witch-King could fell Gandalf, breaking his staff in the process. Setting to one side the incommensurable prestige of their respective Rings of Power, we're looking at a Wraith-man versus a semi-divine being. Gandalf is a worthy foe for Sauron, whose status as a Maia he shares, not a plausible victim for one of his Wraith servants. I will be campaigning to have this scene deleted from future editions of the extended play DVD of Return of the King - I think we owe it to future generations.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The tyranny of pink

Insidious, saccharine, remorseless, nagging, repetitive and above all pink, pink, pink, PINK, PINK, PINK. Adverts directed at little girls - to be found on all commercial cable children's TV channels - have got to be some of the most relentless pieces of commercial propaganda ever produced.

I'm not a believer that sexual differences are wholly, or even mostly, the product of cultural conditioning. I think any fair-minded parent would admit that boys, on average, are more boisterous and aggressive than girls. (Down to testosterone apparently: I learnt from an Oxford endocrinologist that a one-year old boy has proportionately as much testosterone in his body as a fourteen-year old).

However, anyone fair-minded would also have to admit that these innate sexual differences can be widened or shaped through forms of conditioning, that is, how you treat children, what expectations you have for them. And children's TV advertising seems an extraordinarily determined project to describe the self-image of little girls.

I'm not sure I can express strongly enough how the sexes are segmented in children's TV ads: the word apartheid is justifiable. There is virtually no space whatsoever for little girls to define themselves as other than girly. Pink (of course), ponied, primped, vain, sweet, simpering, gossipy. Conversely, no adventure, vehicles, monsters, danger, or indeed anything outside the words comprising the preceding list. Incredibly confining in terms of expectations as to how girls are expected to behave, interrelate and amuse themselves. Sort of Taliban-lite.

It's fair to say that this advertising often plays in distinction to the programmes. One of our eldest's favourites is Dora the Explorer (below), a little girl with a pet monkey who goes on adventures into jungles and mountains usually to help an animal in some way. She's a girl who's doing something that either sex can do and which presumably appeals to either sex.

However, the Dora merchandising, as shown in the inevitable adverts, is led by some sort of doll's house that girls are encouraged to play with in their bedrooms, safe and sound. There's also some shitty hair-braiding thing you can do with a Dora model despite her hair (or any aspect of her appearance) never being raised as a feature in an episode (I feel qualified to make this judgement having overheard or glimpsed above a newspaper what must surely be the whole oeuvre). The merchandising is as stay-at-home-and-make-sure-you-look-nice as it could be, despite Dora spending just about all her time on the road (or jungle path).

Presumably manufacturers must find it effective and profitable to present girls in this way. Is it how little girls really want to see themselves and only commerce has an honest enough motivation to admit it (money talks and bullshit walks)? Is life just easier for toy-makers if they approach their markets in this segmented fashion? Do they find this the best way to establish insecurity and create wants that they can then set out to cater to and profit from? Are they just evil?

The onslaught of these adverts is oppressive enough. But finding the best way to respond to them would require some careful consideration: how do you manoeuvre your child towards the most natural appreciation of what it is to be a girl? Does such a thing exist? Should you even try? One could, of course, ban TV or at least everything apart from CBBC...but seriously. Anyway, all the other girls would be watching it so the peer pressure would be in place and building. I look forward to Brit's take on the subject - he now has something of an interest in the matter and if he hasn't developed an opinion yet, I feel sure one will eventually turn up.

In any event, I'm quite incredulous that this sort of thing appears to thrive in our day. Far from going mad, political correctness in this arena hasn't even begun to feel a bit eccentric. On the other hand, in about fifteen or twenty years time we can expect to have a feisty crop of feminists rebelling against the indoctrination of their childhoods. I look forward to welcoming back the dungaree - in any colour other than pink.

UPDATE: T just found this site: There's more to it than an intense dislike of pink: serious and justified concerns about the impact on girls of body image pressures and celebrity culture. I wish them the best of luck and will follow their campaign with interest.