Tuesday, 30 June 2009

They're doomed says Fraser

I've posted before (only three times, it seems, but feeling like a lot more) about how exasperated I am with the outright lies being told by Brown et al. I'd promised myself not to notice it any more because, well, it's just a bit upsetting to little flowers like me.

But I couldn't resist adverting to this: one of the first signs that they're beginning to feel the hot breath of a vengeful truth breathing down their necks.

Have you noticed, by the way, how Brown and Balls roll their words around their mouths before spitting them out as if they burn? Dante might have described a circle of hell where this sort of thing happened.

You may also have noticed, as I just have, how I come over all biblical when discussing this topic. Can't be a good sign, for me or them.

That's definitely it now. No more.

Monday, 29 June 2009

The Paradoxical Specials

The Specials were on TV playing at Glastonbury the other night. My best band ever. Or at least they were when I was 13 or 14. I can't hope to convey how much they meant to me and how much fun they generated back then. That rhythmic, jaggy, punk-aggressive bass didn't half make you hop around when you were fourteen and full of beans, as well as a few cans of Courage Light Ale.

The music and songs still sound great, the lyrics too. Bouncy, moody, cheeky, threatening, witty; sometimes all in the same song.

Looking back, they appear very much a good thing. They were, of course, anti-racist but I don't recall them being preachy; I'm sure they mentioned it in interviews but just being who they were and sounding as they did was enough.

During the period from The Specials through to Soul II Soul the UK, at least for the most part, really began to put black/white racial tension behind it. Even the BNP don't go on about black people much any more - it's the muslims they're targeting.

I read about a survey of social attitudes the other week in which the bigger part of youth thought racism was just a bit bizarre, cranky and weird; somewhere between train-spotting and bear-baiting. A friend of mine, who's a barrister, was doing some local education authority work up Tottenham way and it involved talking to some teachers and pupils about race. They were of the view that there were no real racial issues between black and white. What worried them, pupils as well as teachers, was how to handle the more recent immigrants from the Balkans, Turkey and East Africa who had often been exposed to serious violence before their arrival in this country and had fewer qualms about using weapons.

Anyway, from today's perspective, The Specials appear to have been a force for harmony. But at the time, the band seemed enveloped in a constant scrap. The violent energy in the bass lines wasn't confined to the music.

I saw them at the Oasis in Swindon in about 1980. There were rolling fights in the crowd throughout, with lead singer Terry Hall, usually withdrawn and melancholy, repeatedly stopping the gig to berate 'boxer boys', threatening to 'have them myself', but prudently and quite carefully ('yes, him there, that one') directing the bouncers to beat several shades out of the trouble-makers. They split up shortly afterwards citing this sort of violence as the reason.

The '80s were a time of rough and tumble, fear and loathing. The atmosphere when I was at university in the latter part of the decade was politically poisonous. On the streets, squares, picket lines, factory floors, football terraces, and dealing rooms there were a lot of punch ups, real and figurative. But paradoxically we emerged into the '90s with much more of a live-and-let-live attitude. Looking back now, The Specials don't just demonstrate this; they were a fundamental part of it.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Tales of Welsh tractors

Nige relates an accidental adventure in which he and his companions are rescued from a Welsh bog by a tractor-mounted, melted-cheese-eating angel. I'm working my way through Borrow's Wild Wales, which provides a much better (if now probably outdated) model for tramping across the Principality: no OS maps, instead relying on the natives for directions whilst engaging them in talk of bardic traditions and the quality of the local ales (mostly not up to much according to Nige).

But tractors aren't always good news. My cousin M__ (of Pen-Y-Bryn) used to ride over to the pub most nights, get leglessly drunk, be slung across his horse which then, trusty old thing, would find its way back home, by which time he would have sobered up enough to stagger to bed.

One day he traded his horse in for a tractor (or 'tractor' as it's called in Welsh). You can probably guess the rest: he met his end late one night, just after closing time, when his new vehicle tipped over into a ditch. One for the technophobes, I guess.

He was actually a cousin to my branch of the family and tenanted a farm neighbouring the one where I was born. I'd assumed there was bad blood there: I'd been told it was unwise to venture into fields bordering Pen-Y-Bryn as there was a danger of getting shot at. But apparently only my great-uncles were shot at; the feud didn't impinge on our bit of the family, we'd only get shot at accidentally.

M__ was, in fact, an ally. Another neighbour - a Mr Hayball - had a dog that'd been killing my Dad's sheep. When one night M__ saw the creature at work he roused Dad who, grabbing his shotgun, proceeded to chase the dog across the mountain.

He eventually caught up with him at Hayball's farm. The dog was whimpering on the doorstep, sensing somehow what my old chap had in mind for him. Knowing this was a golden chance, Dad shot the poor creature dead. Almost immediately after, Hayball's wife opened the front door, saw all too clearly what had been occurring and proceeded to go absolutely mental.

Hayball apparently played hell. But there were no consequences - I suppose you'd be disposed to tread quite carefully. Golden days. But perhaps not a wholly healthy environment for hikers.

Second Test is the hardest

One of the most physical games I've seen with five British Lions players hospitalised. They were unlucky to lose and probably deserved to draw or win. A brave performance, but even if it'd been a winning one, I can't see how they'd have overcome the physical attrition to win again next Saturday to take the series. Very disappointing.

It's striking how the Springboks constantly try to psychologically and physically overawe their opponents off the ball. Always looking to stand over a player, intimidating him, forcing him to stay down, trying to humiliate. But that just comes with the territory and unfortunately the Lions weren't wholly successful in resisting the Springbok expression of power. It underlines how the Lions of 1974 and 1997 were really something: great skills, yes, but also real mental and physical toughness.

Only three teams have ever won a series in South Africa: the All Blacks of 1996 along with the two Lions teams. It's easy to see why and I hope the press don't go on too much about the Lions failure this time. They're in good company including every All Black touring team bar the one.

Just like after the last tour to NZ in 2005 it will take some of these players a long time to recover. A Lions tour represents a career peak, as everyone points out. What's less reported is that the downward slope afterwards can be painful and protracted.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Crimson Cat

I mentioned my favourite beers in the comments section of the last post, Timothy Taylor Landlord and Hook Norton's Hooky Bitter. They're both versions of the same type of beer, really: pale, dry, light, flowery-hoppy and not too strong (around 4%)*.

Like all real ales their being kept well is of critical importance. I've enjoyed them most in a small pub where, almost miraculously, they're the two beers usually available, but only one at a time. The pub - The Red Lion in Ampney St Peter - is worth writing about as it has a few peculiar features, nearly all of which I've seen in other pubs but never together in the same one.

1. There's no bar; instead there's a smallish parlour. There's a table in the middle of the room, benches and chairs around it, in one corner a real fire and in the other, on a few wall-mounted shelves, a few bottled beers, the wine and some soft drinks, the barrel (only usually the one) sitting underneath.

2. You may have noticed the shortness of the list of drinks for sale. You already know what's in the barrel; there's no draught lager. There are only two wines available: red or white, and they're only available by the bottle (less than a fiver, last time I looked). In the event that you don't finish a whole bottle in one sitting the landlord will look after it for you until your next visit.

3. The landlord, John, has presided here for as long as most people remember and has known many of his customers for decades. He's 'retired' now so works full time at the pub, but I believe he used to work at the Royal Agricultural College and do the pub part-time. I also believe him to be the fourth landlord of the Red Lion since about 1850 (I had trouble imagining that, too).

4. Food: dry roast or salted.

5. The gents always smells fresh, a bit like a wet hedge. This is not only because John runs a tight ship, it's also because year-round the door's left open (there's no way to reach them without leaving the pub and walking round, by the way). Rain doesn't get in much when it sweeps across the wolds as the entrance is underneath the eaves.

6. The pub's 400-years old, much of its decor doesn't appear to have changed for over 100 years and its furniture appears indeterminately ancient. It's wonderfully unimproved.

7. It's only open evenings Monday to Saturday and lunchtime on Sunday.

Listing The Red Lion's attributes like this makes it sound a bit austere. Nothing could be further from the truth. What with everyone sitting around the same table in the parlour and the roaring fire in winter, it's wonderfully snug. And sociable - if you want to shoot the breeze, you'll certainly get the opportunity.

In fact, if you go in there on a Friday at about 6.30pm, more often than not, you'll find my old chap. He looks a bit like a scale version of Brian Blessed but without the silly voice. He may well be smelling of sheep.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

All the more for the rest of us

French wine is becoming less and less popular. And it's not just the cheaper end of the market where the French are suffering; some New World wines are commanding unbelievable prices. It's a global phenomenon too. For the first time ever, the Argentinians are selling more wine to the US than the French.

It's apparently all down to New World branding, grape-led labelling, consistency of product and bigger, more obvious flavours.

Presumably, then, French wine is too authentic, has too much provenance and individuality, and its flavours are too subtle and interesting.

This trend seems to run against that found elsewhere in consumer products, especially food and drink, where in recent years authenticity and provenance have become powerful selling points.

Rotten for the French, isn't it? But all the more of the good stuff for the the rest of us (especially those chilled bottles of Fleurie - is there any liquid more delicious?)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The giant kangaroo joins the long list of victims

Apparently this rather attractive creature - a giant kangaroo, with the good looks of a koala or a Keith Vaz - became extinct about 45,000 years ago most likely due to over-hunting by man. Or more specifically over-hunting by Australian aborigines - you know, the ones living in harmony with nature.

It joins plenty of other interesting creatures, from the giant elephantine mastodons of the prehistoric prairies of North America to the more recently deceased Mauritian dodo, who are no longer with us because man wasn't able to control his hearty appetites for eating and breeding.

But not all man's appetites are as understandable as these. I've always thought the 'mysterious' disappearance of Neanderthal man was nothing of the sort. What do you think human beings would have done when they found these ugly creatures hunting the same game as them and gathering the same seeds, nuts and roots? I'll give you a few clues: Rwanda, slavery, the Holocaust, Maori wipeout of the aboriginal population of New Zealand, the destruction by white settlers of the Tasmanians. I could go on but that should be enough.

We obviously massacred the Neanderthals, and probably ate them*.

It's one of the many reasons I don't buy the arguments of environmentalists who blame everything on industrialism, capitalism, the Enlightenment, monotheism, etc. I'm afraid man's always been a bit of a handful.


* And, yes, I am actually an expert on this having only missed one episode of The Incredible Human Journey with the lovely Dr Alice Roberts.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Keeping the barbarians out

One side is getting on its high horse, proud of its standards, its integrity, its reasonableness, the rigour of its approach, its concern for getting things right, respect for method.

Never mind the high horse, it's an ivory tower they're living in, claims the other side. They need to get out more, get in the swim, find out for themselves what people are saying, what they're doing. Be more reactive: the world's changing rapidly and if you're not timely, you're not relevant.

Commentariat vs Bloggertariat? Yes, indeed (there's an account of a debate on this subject from yesterday here). But it also happens to be the argument conducted by academics on one hand and journalists on the other in the early '90s.

This was an era of geopolitical flux when the Cold War ice flows were breaking up revealing new states, relationships and ways of seeing the world. No-one could be secure in their knowledge of what was really going on and this allowed the journalist commentators to make the running. And perhaps more: they aspired to not just write the first draft of history but something rather more lasting.

On the journalist side you had people like Timothy Garton Ash, Misha Glenny, Anatole Lieven and Neil Ascherson. On the other side you had the massed ranks of the academic establishment, including people like Alex Pravda, Geoffrey Hosking, Norman Davies and Archie Brown.

Naturally, the debates - being also a turf war - were suffused with professional and personal jealousies. 'Journalistic' was a term of abuse and the absence of a doctorate was sufficient to condemn your work as such.

So it's really quite amusing to hear accounts of how people like David Aaronovitch are clambering on the same high horse from which their ilk only recently tried to eject the academics. In fact, I'd like to see Aaronovitch defend his comment pieces against critics from the academy; he might find some of their criticisms strangely familiar. Indeed, as by some accounts academics make better bloggers than journalists the experience might become downright uncomfortable.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The astonishing Cobb

Patrick Kurp references the historian Richard Cobb in his post of today. He quotes Julian Barnes describing Cobb, but in words applicable to Boswell:

“Cobb’s history is archival, anecdotal, discursive, button-holing, undogmatic, imaginatively sympathetic, incomplete, droll; sometimes chaotic, often manic, always pungently detailed.”

Cobb seems more or less forgotten nowadays (though I'm not sure what form remembering him would take). When I was at Oxford his memory was still revered - he'd been the previous Professor of Modern History - or at least it was in some quarters. He was particularly appreciated by those dons who could point to their own sometime ebullient behaviour and claim with conviction that it wasn't a patch on what Cobb used to get up to (including his successor, the great Professor Stone).

But he was a one-off in many ways. The French, whom he devoted a lifetime to studying, described him as 'l'étonnant Cobb'. He lavished his very considerable enthusiasm on the disregarded, the ordinary and the everyday thereby revealing intrinsic interest where none had been noticed before. In his more extensive works the accumulation of so many intriguing smaller facts becomes illustrative of larger, entirely satisfying pictures; a sort of historical pointillisme with each point retaining its individuality and importance.

The darker side of life - or should that be the more interesting side? - attracted him in particular. Affairs, drinking, prostitution, murder, bars, thrillers: he was fascinated by all of them, and not just in his studies (I Googled this obituary: I urge you to read it, it's hilariously funny in parts; 'astonishing' doesn't do him justice).

But why bother writing about subjects whose relevance and importance to the great historical narrative could be deemed doubtful at best? In A Sense of Place, in responding to questions on papers concerned with people and events forgotten or never really even remembered, he relates the following: 'I think I assumed that the death from hunger even of a poor woman, two hundred years ago, was in itself important'; moreover, 'a continued insistence on relevance would soon result in the abandonment of the study of the past and the end of history as we know it, that is as a cultural subject, enriching in itself.'

His approach was in a way congruent with his choice of subject. Again from A Sense of Place, he was asked by a Serbian exile, keen to write history, 'what methodological equipment he should acquire....I [Cobb] shocked him very much by saying that no such method existed, that the methodology of history was the invention of solemn Germans and was the ruination...of unfortunate pupils...One just went to the records, read them, thought about them, read some more, and the records would do the rest, they would dictate the exact limits of the subject, and provide both inspiration and material. All the historian had to do was to be able to read, and, above all, to write clearly and agreeably. I could see that he was very shocked.'

His interlocutor accuses him of being an 'incurable amateur and pragmatist', a label I would guess he was proud to bear.

To read such civilised but down-to-earth and commonsensical opinions is even more inspiring today than when I first read them about twenty years ago: learning as a good in itself; a humane intelligence and the ability to read and write well being sufficient for scholarship; a humbly enquiring approach to the people of the past.

Working as an independent scholar outside the academy in his early days must have helped this unusual intellectual formation (at least for an academic). Nevertheless, such views could only be convincingly put forward by someone of the greatest learning, humility and sensitivity. They would confound the vast majority of hi-falutin' theorists, despite their using the complicated methodologies of deconstruction to recover, supposedly, the excluded 'Other'.

But what a wonderful aspiration: to be an 'incurable amateur and pragmatist', devotedly appreciative of the smallest, least considered person or event. There's a sort of beautifully understated moral greatness in this.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Exit from Paradise

Another lovely London weekend, rounded off by a trot down the canal for a couple of miles to Paradise Gardens. This was a 'truly detestable summer festival', as Edwyn Collins would unfairly describe it, held at Victoria Park, Hackney.

Hackney is getting increasingly difficult to pigeon-hole, forming now a stimulating cocktail of dippy hippies, old school cockneys, new style stabbists and latte-sippers (I appear in the day tripper class of the last category).

A warm and sunny afternoon was enlivened by excellent blues from Big Joe Louis, an old-style steam fair, a 'bounding horse' balloon (as our eldest termed it), and enough rich food to make you feel truly sick (candy floss, burger, chocolate crepe, 99s, ham and cheese crepe, bacon bap).

We enjoyed ourselves tremendously not least because we felt so safe. There were plenty of large fire exit signs positioned about the place - the green and white statutory ones perched on top of scaffolding - so we always knew where to run if a huge inferno had engulfed that bit of the park with the festival in it.

However, one of these giant erections (pictured below) puzzled us somewhat. It was situated slap bang in the middle of the park, meaning it wasn't clear where you were exiting to. Perhaps it was sitting above a hole in the space-time continuum and you'd be whisked away to, say, Stepney or Florida.



Saturday, 20 June 2009

Dandelions


Worm, no mean observer of nature, commented on my last post that dandelions are also expected in bumper quantities this year. Given his comment, I would guess that Kevin, another nature lover, welcomes this. However, I don't.

(Isn't it great to partake in the mighty clash of opposing world-views? It's what blogging is all about.)

Anyway, I believe Jon Silkin would have been in the anti-dandelion camp. He captures their rather creepy, unwholesome qualities in another of his flower poems, 'Dandelion':


Dandelion

Slugs nestle where the stem
Broken, bleeds milk.
The flower is eyeless: the sight is compelled
By small, coarse, sharp petals,
Like metal shreds. Formed,
They puncture, irregularly perforate
Their yellow, brutal glare.
And certainly want to
Devour the earth. With an ample movement
They are a foot high, as you look.
And coming back, they take hold
On pert domestic strains.
Others' lives are theirs. Between then
And domesticity,
Grass. They infest its weak land;
Fatten, hide slugs, infestate.
They look like plates; more closely
Life the first tryings, the machines, of nature
Riveted into her, successful.

[from Nature with Man, 1965]

UPDATE: I've just remembered my Nain used to claim that coming into contact with dandelion 'milk' would make you pee. Another negative.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Daisies


There was a piece on the Today programme this morning about how this year we will have a bumper crop of daisies. Apparently, the plentiful rain combined with warm conditions has encouraged their growth. They are unusually long-stemmed too.

I've always loved daisies. They remind me of lying on the school playing fields and chatting to girls whilst they made daisy chains. Picking them, pulling the petals and squeezing the oily yellow stamens would also give you something to do to avoid ogling too much. Delicious summer days.

One of my favourite poems is 'A Daisy' by Jon Silkin. His flower poems comprise the most original nature poetry that I've come across. They contain an uncanny combination of irrepressible energy, a rich sensuality and a careful, almost botanical, precision in description. They succeed in giving you a totally fresh view of something intimately familiar; and not just of the nominal subject. I get a thrill every time I read this one:



A Daisy

Look unoriginal
Being numerous. They ask for attention
With that gradated yellow swelling
Of oily stamens. Petals focus them:
The eye-lashes grow wide.
Why should not one bring these to a funeral?
And at night, like children,
Without anxiety, their consciousness
Shut with white petals;

Blithe, individual.

The unwearying, small sunflower
Fills the grass
With versions of one eye.
A strength in the full look
Candid, solid, glad.
Domestic as milk.

In multitudes, wait,
Each, to be looked at, spoken to.
They do not wither;
Their going, a pressure
Of elate sympathy
Released from you.
Rich up to the last interval
With minute tubes of oil, pollen;
Utterly without scent, for the eye,
For the eye, simply. For the mind
And its invisible organ,
That feeling thing.


[from Nature with Man, 1965]

Thursday, 18 June 2009

73.33%, not bad

The Lions team for the First Test in Durban has now been announced. How does it compare with my original selection from March, before the touring party had even been selected? Well, I've compared below.

I did rather well in getting 11 out of 15 (I've included in my score the two positions where my original selections were injured but their places were filled from my list of second choice contenders). The four I got wrong - Vickery, Heaslip, Stephen Jones and Monye (one of my contenders but not a win for me as my first choice of Shane Williams was available but not selected)  - are all choices I would agree with now on the basis of form and availability.

I wish my predictive powers extended to relatively non-trivial matters. Or at least matters that I had a bet on: I put a tenner on Chris Huhne as the next Speaker at excellently long but now totally justified odds.

1. Gethin Jenkins - check
2. Jerry Flannery - Lee Mears. Flannery was injured before the tour started and as Mears was in my list of second choice contenders I've awarded myself this one.
3. Adam Jones - Phil Vickery. Must have been a close decision but fair enough: the Raging Bull has been back to his best form.
4. Alun Wyn Jones - check
5. Paul O'Connell - check
6. Tom Croft - check
7. David Wallace - check. But having seen both him and Martyn Williams play on tour I would now go for the latter.
8. Andy Powell - Jamie Heaslip. Defenders appear to have worked Powell out.
9. Mike Phillips - check.
10. James Hook - Stephen Jones. I would still go for Hook for his unpredictability, but he's injured anyway.
11. Shane Williams - Ugo Monye. I had Monye in my list of contenders but haven't given myself a point here as Williams is available for selection. I think Shane's gone off the boil as defenders have worked him out, as with Powell.
12. Gavin Henson - Jamie Roberts. But Henson was injured before the tour started and Roberts was my second choice so I've awarded myself this one.
13. Brian O'Driscoll - check
14. Tommy Bowe - check
15. Lee Byrne - check

How will this selection do on Saturday? I'm reasonably hopeful. But my biggest doubts stem from the inability of the Lions pack(s) to alter the point of attack through 'pop' passing and controlled use of the rolling maul. They're going to ground too quickly and getting isolated and this has been one of the main reasons for their getting pinged so much at the breakdown. It's also a factor in their not being able to cut loose with the scoring despite having plenty of possession. Without having more dynamism and variety up front, the SA forwards - who are some of the best defenders in the business - may well find it very straightforward to contain the Lions. Let's hope Gatland has some manoeuvres up his sleeve.

There are plenty of grounds for hope, however. The boys are undefeated for a start. And then there is the strange decision not to have the SA squad play over the last few weeks. I may be mistaken but wasn't this one of the reasons for the Boks downfall in 1997 where a battle-hardened Lions caught their opponents a bit cold?

Three of his fingernails were missing

Getting to the bottom of this and ensuring the people involved are held to account is of the very highest importance. We need a judicial inquiry.

"By the time Ahmed was deported to the UK after a lengthy period of unlawful detention [in Pakistan, during which he was interrogated using questions drawn up by MI5 and Manchester police] three of his fingernails were missing".

By the way, if the human rights laws introduced over the last twelve years are actually instrumental in protecting us - which I doubt - then this is their time. If resort has to be made to older legislation or if nothing happens then they really have no point.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A new front opens in the credibility wars

A strange alliance seems to be emerging between The Bank of England and the trades unions, one which further shreds the pitiful remains of the Brown Government's credibility.

This evening Bank Governor Mervyn King, in his speech at the Mansion House to the assembled great and good [sic] of the City, placed himself firmly on the side of fundamental banking and regulatory reform. This is a mighty and controversial challenge. He's very directly called the bluff of the Government, who despite repeatedly promising 'fundamental' reform of the financial system, have ended up rather weakly blaming Directors at the banks. This sort of 'must try better next time, chaps' injunction is really insufficient to address the systemic problems last Autumn's crisis revealed.

Blaming the system - that is, the tripartite system of divided-rule regulation and the ability of mega-banks to deploy Government-guaranteed customer deposits to finance risky trading activities - is something that appeals to unions such as Unite, who have dismissed 'tinkering' as a way forward. They are demanding radical reform in much the same terms as the Governor.

Vince Cable and George Osborne will weigh in, and pretty soon you have a set of foes who a weakened Government will not be able to see off. As the Chancellor can't be seen to unpick the system created and backed repeatedly by his ill-favoured predecessor, they're in a bit of a quandary here. They'll look not just overly kind to banks, but also weak, ineffectual, insincere, complacent. So on the wrong side of the argument - again.

At least they could have produced some sort of diversionary but ultimately futile flim-flam institutional reform - but they just don't seem able to get around to it. Instead another front has opened up in the the credibility wars that are gradually eating this Government alive.

And in other news, Brown continues to get bitten by everything he touches. The inquiry into the Iraq war, for instance: why couldn't he hold most of it in public with the sensitive information disclosed in camera? I can't see how going over all this stuff again in full view is going to electrify the public. So what political harm could be done to his administration? Blame it all on Tony anyway.

Also why announce when the inquiry was going to report and so leave yourself open to the charge of deliberately delaying its conclusions? Leave that to the committee and just make sure they have so much to look at (including lots of 'sensitive' stuff...) that they simply won't be able to report within a year. So a potentially positive public relations gesture ends up confirming people's ugliest (but correct) suspicions of his secrecy and double-dealing.

After all, if you're going to be secretive and double-dealing at least have the good sense to be, er, secretive and double-dealing about it. What astonishes about Brown is that although he compulsively indulges in the lowest of low politics, he's just not very good at it.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The new news-breakers

The following is ancillary to the main story, which is the struggle of Iranian people for freedom. But, like a shaft of lightning that reveals a new landscape, the reporting of the events in Iran has demonstrated for the first time what the future of breaking-news reporting will look like.

Since the first Gulf War the leading breaking-news medium has been 24-hour TV news. No more. The breaking of this sort of difficult-to-report story is now best done by web-supported diffused networks rather than the traditional media, whatever medium they use. This new landscape has been revealed particularly starkly in the US, where CNN and Fox didn't really follow the story over the weekend (it isn't clear why).

Just the other evening The Daily Show were doing a hilarious hatchet job on the New York Times in which the paper's best rebuttal to accusations of irrelevance was to ask whether The Huffington Post or Google or The Drudge Report had a Baghdad bureau; no, they were all parasitical on 'proper' news organisations such as the New York Times.

Well, that rebuttal looks a lot less powerful now that Western-based bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have been receiving twitters and emails that in quantity, immediacy and proximity to the story dwarf anything the traditional press could get from their own reporters. This is even more the case now that the Iranian authorities have banned Western reporters from the streets. 

So the web-supported network gathering of news trumps more traditional methods of news-gathering in its quantity, proximity and immediacy. Accuracy, however, will continue to be debated. Yes, tweets and emails from participants in the story will inevitably be raw and partial. They need to be read and interpreted with care. But when experienced - and caveated - through a blog such as Sullivan's The Daily Dish, one you know to be reliable and trustworthy, this primary information is as valid as that informing the reports from traditional news sources.

Anyway, the reliability of the traditional filters and interpreters of eye-witness reports is overdone. Who would you rather get your eye-witness reports from: directly from dozens of people on the spot whose perspective and potential prejudice can be readily guessed at? Or, say, a Robert Fisk character (or even worse, a reporter who you haven't worked out yet is Fisk-like)? Read Scoop for an absurd but not wholly fanciful illustration of this point.

Outstanding reporters - Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, John Simpson - will always have a hugely important role, sometimes one of historical importance. But these won't necessarily be the sole or most important vectors for the hot-off-the-press stories. Their reportage will inevitably be more considered and better written than the flurry of tweets. And as such qualifying, delayed and supplementary. (By the way, they will not necessarily appear in newspapers or on news channels).

To imagine Orwell's Barcelona in the 21st century: we would be bombarded by a lot of first-hand often unreliable eye-witness reports. However, these would be a lot more difficult to control than those manipulated at the time by the Communists. Orwell would then be invaluable in putting these into context and interrogating the facts. Incidentally, he would also now find it a lot easier to get published, his views at the time being unpalatable to the fellow-traveling leftist press. My bet would be that British consumers of news from a 21st century Barcelona would end up much better informed than their 1930s equivalents.

News organisations have always competed in who could break a story first, get the scoop and the poop before anyone else. For the first time blogs, twitter, email, youtube have all come together to demonstrate very powerfully how breaking news from difficult places is going to be most effectively gathered and distributed from now on.

UPDATE: This helps prove the point.

Monday, 15 June 2009

What actors have to put up with

Dustin Hoffman had a tough start in the business:
For five years, Hoffman scraped together a bare subsistence living in New York City. He got a handful of tiny parts, mostly one-shot guest appearances on New York-based TV series...Hoffman worked as a waiter, as a toy demonstrator at Macy's, as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, and as the only male typist in the steno pool at the Manpower temp agency. When jobs got really scarce, he would sleep on Gene Hackman's kitchen floor. And on the few occasions when he was able to get an audition, he was turned down every time.
He decides to give up acting - 'to the extent that you can quit something you're not doing' - to try to get into directing. But then he gets a break, an audition for a part in a very Off-Broadway production:
The role for which Hoffman read was Immanuel, a handicapped, cross-dressing German who was living with an American soldier in the ruins of Berlin after World War II. "He just walked in off the street", says Ribman [the playwright]. "And we knew instantly he was Immanuel".
Like, er, gee thanks.

From 'Scenes from a Revolution' by Mark Harris.

Iran

The news from Iran: gripping, moving, alternately inspiring and depressing. Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is providing an incredible stream of stories and testimony. I just wish there was something we could do to help these heroic protestors. It feels awfully like Tiananmen...

Friday, 12 June 2009

Springwatch for Larkin

I remember some time last century Jonny Morris being forcibly retired as his brand of anthropomorphism - giving animals funny voices and pretending they were doing comical human-like things - was considered old hat. But watching BBC's Springwatch demonstrates that anthropomorphism is alive and well and still raising wry smiles. I suppose this is only to be expected on prime time, and anyway we all do it some time or another.

But what is a bit objectionable is that the animals, when they're made out to be human-like are always doing lovely things. This is a form of species self-flattery and obviously doesn't do justice to the full spectrum of human behaviour.

What if it was a lot more realistic? How about:

'Oh, look there's a fox. Ooh, he appears to be acting like some sort of bloodthirsty psychopath in senselessly massacring those chicks even though he can't eat them all. Oh dear, he's dismembered one or two. I wonder if he's going to hide the body parts all over the countryside like in that recent murder?'.

Perhaps not.

Mind you, while we're talking about human behaviour mimicked by animals, why doesn't Springwatch show us some real human behaviour out in those woods and fields? As everyone knows Spring brings the opportunity for humans to indulge in some highly pleasurable outdoor activities - no, not just picnicking.

In the immortal lines of Philip Larkin:

'Hurray, hurray it's the first of May,
Outdoor fucking begins today!'

Set up near a handy lay-by and let the cameras roll. But again, probably too much of the wrong sort of nature.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Humility

Anthony Daniels, prompted by a book of photographs (ironically titled 'Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era'), meditates on the awful landscapes of post-industrial Romania:

'...the vast industrial complexes built under Ceauscescu in Romania...have, as the title suggests, fallen into ruins; they fell into ruins the moment captive markets for whatever they produced were freed to buy anything else. Untold acres of land are now deserts of crumbling ferro-concrete towers, surrounded by polluted land of evil coloration, with pools of water that could almost serve as national repositories for toxic chemicals. Steel rods emerge from much of the concrete, twisted like the antennae of insects in their death agony...

Fields of rubble; forests of abandoned chimneys; enormous skeletons of concrete girders; vast vertical plains of corrugated iron and smashed windows; processions of square concrete columns leading nowhere except to churned-up wasteland; rusting iron staircases rising or falling to or from a void; immense trellises of ironwork, supporting nothing; crumbling concrete tanks, silos, and water towers. It is as if a gray-brown organism that solidified into immovable detritus had invaded the earth and spread malignantly, eating up the landscape for miles around...

No humans are to be seen; one has the impression that, at last, an environment has been created in which even rats cannot live. All that survives in the wasteland is a spiky, dry vegetation that takes on the same coloration as the ruins and that is able to grow where there is much cadmium, arsenic, lead, manganese, and other metals in the soil.'

He sees the industrial ruins as a grave and horrible memorial to the false faith of communism and the urge to re-make the world inherent in the modernism of Corbusier and his like. But we shouldn't sorrowfully but smugly shake our heads, thanking God that it didn't happen here. The blindly modernising radical impulse may not have the same scope for destructiveness in our country; but it can still create a mess and we need to beadily look out for it.

I was prompted to remember David Miliband's ridiculously juvenile interview on the Today programme this week: full of progressive nonsense about making 'the unconventional, conventional' and pointing to last Autumn's bank rescues as an example of brave 'radicalism'. To adapt Tacitus: 'they made a wasteland and called it radical'.

And they're not finished. I'm not sure whether it's laughable or chilling but he declared Labour's mission as 'half complete in respect of political reform, it’s half complete in respect of economic reform, it's half complete in respect of social reform'. I'm just surprised he didn't throw the environment in: it provides huge scope for overly-confident and disastrous application of know-better-than-thou policy.

I fear for the health of our politics and democracy if they sincerely believe they have a last shot at radically recasting our constitution. As a previous post indicates I'm all in favour of reform but I just don't trust this lot of Year Zero-ers to do it well. You can guarantee that plenty of babies will be defenstrated and some particularly dirty bathwater introduced for us to wallow in.

It's the childishly destructive lack of humility and respect with regard to what we've inherited that is so egregious. This book of photographs should be presented to all the Millibanding meddlers as a sort of memento mori, for them to reflect on the limits of reason, the imperfectability of the world, and how radical intentions go awry.

As Daniels says in his conclusion:

'Man is free, no doubt, but to what extent does the past weigh on him? There is no doubt that what we see in these photographs is highly oppressive. We cannot just say, “Well, we’ll start out again, as from new, as if nothing had happened,” because the attempt to start out anew is what produced the catastrophe in the first place.'

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

In praise of Haydn

Haydn Tanner died on 5th June. He was one of the more legendary of the apostolic succession of great Welsh half-backs. Contemporaries such as Wilf Wooller, Bleddyn Williams and JBG Thomas reckoned him the best Welsh scrum-half ever. Apparently he could reverse pass across half the width of the field with unerring accuracy and often scored from the couple of breaks he allowed himself in a game.

His career began in 1935 in Boy's Own fashion. He was selected to play for Swansea against the mighty All Blacks whilst still at school. His fellow schoolboy and cousin Willie Davies played fly-half. As the losing captain said following the decisive 11-3 defeat: 'Tell them we have been beaten but don't tell them it was by a couple of schoolboys'.

The two lads, indeed, were reckoned to have masterminded the famous victory and Tanner received his reward by being capped by Wales to face the same All Blacks later that year. Just eighteen years old, he now helped Wales to victory, for the first time since 1905 and for what turned out to be only the third time ever. He went on to play twenty-five times for Wales over fifteen years, twelve as captain.

Wales reveres its diminutive, will-o'-the-wisp half-backs (outside-halfs the most) and the more boyish the better. Seeing crafty, plucky little fellers run rings around the powerful but oafish obviously tickles historic memories, or at least fulfills a wish or two. Tanner fitted the bill in every respect.

I remember reading a while ago that the Welsh name Haydn actually came from the composer. Aspirational Welsh parents adopted it as a way of celebrating their love of his music and, no doubt, to show off the sophistication of their cultural references. This is not entirely true: Haydn is related to the Celtic name Aidan, meaning - very appositely in Tanner's case - 'little fire'. But it could be a respectful name-check of the composer too.

Haydn wasn't the only composer to inspire boy's first names. Funnily enough, whilst Haydn was playing for Swansea, a Handel Greville was playing scrum-half for local arch-rivals Llanelli. In fact, in 1947 when Haydn was injured and unable to play for Wales, Handel filled in for him. I don't know enough about classical music to say whether this pecking order would be supported by the critics.

Sports stars named after classical composers! How far we seem to have fallen. From Haydn and Handel to Armani and Lexus (both genuine contemporary 'aspirational' children's names).

No pants!

Imagine my disappointment after clicking on the Daily Beast's story 'No Pants? No Problem!' to discover they were using the word 'pants' in its American sense. But I suppose a story about women going out in their knickers isn't to be sniffed at. We must get diversion where we can in these dark, Brownish days.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Top 10 living artists

Felix Salmon has extracted the top 10 living artists from The Times list of the 200 best artists ever and everywhere. He has some suggested additions: Gerhard Richter seems justified; Ed Ruscha, I don't know enough to have an opinion (but now provoked to learn more).

I would also add William Eggleston and Howard Hodgkin. Eggleston's quirky ability to give aesthetic form to the detritus and disorder of life is perennially surprising. There's something to be said for making puddled car parks and lightbulbs hanging from cracked ceilings beautiful.

The art establishment tends to be a bit sniffy about Hodgkin, as well they might. I mean, his attractive use of colour and his evident love of paint mark him out as suspect. He's the painterly equivalent of Elizabeth David: bringing colour and light to our frigid northern latitude. Obviously a good thing. But making him cavalierly bourgeois and old-fashioned to the conceptual roundheads of the art world.

Who to lose to accommodate these four? I've never seen the point of Cindy Sherman. Once you remove all the post-modern blather about playing with identity there's not a lot left. At least no more than you'd get from the photos in, say, Vanity Fair.

What I've seen of Bruce Nauman I haven't liked; he might be good in some way obscure to me but fling him out anyway. Then it would have to be the terrible twins of BritArt: Emin and Hirst. However, they'd both have to make it to the top ten of the best ever art promoters. No Damien Hirst = no Tate Modern. Mind you, this might be seen as a good thing by some.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Actually living in London

As I've probably pissed off any of my old friends from Ciren who read the last post, I'd just as well go the whole patronising hog. I love the place but it can be a bit inward-looking (or used to be).

As I related in Saturday's post, I was looking forward to the wedding reception as it presented an opportunity to catch up with old school and drinking friends:


First Conversation

Me: 'Oright?'

Friend 1: 'Oright?'

Me: 'What you been up to, then?'

Friend 1 [shaking head ruefully]: 'Gor, I've been all over the place, lived everywhere...'

Me: 'Oh yeah?'

Friend 1: 'Yeah. I lived in Stratton. Then I moved to Chesterton, then Watermoor, and now I live over in South Cerney.'

Me: 'Gor...'


Second Conversation

Friend 2: 'Oright?'

Me: 'Oright?'

Friend 2: 'So where're you living now?'

Me: 'Oh, London'.

Friend 2 [looking slightly confused]: 'What d'you mean - you work up in London...?'

Me: 'No, I live there and work there.'

Friend 2 [jolts head back in amazement]: 'What? You actually live in London?'


But then I remember when Cheddar Man was discovered nine thousand years after his death, his DNA was still present in the modern day inhabitants of Cheddar. At the time I read somewhere (can't remember where) that a large majority of people in Britain don't move further than ten miles from their birthplace. This is easily forgotten in cosmopolitan London.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Cotswold Taleban

This talk of the differences between men and women reminds me of an experience I had back in the '90s. I was attending the wedding reception of a very old mate with T. my girlfriend (and future wife). It was in the Cotswolds, where I grew up, and I was looking forward to catching up with old friends from school and pub.

After an hour or so of chatting, drinking and having the odd dance, T. asked me why all the men were standing in one area (where the drinks were) while all the women were sitting down in another. She also wondered why after I'd introduced her to my old mates none of them addressed any remarks to her, barely looking at her, just sneaking the odd surreptitious look. My brother's partner said she'd had the same experience.

I really hadn't noticed. The behaviour seemed normal to me in this context. But I realised it was highly unusual in other contexts - that of university or London, for instance.

But why? I joked that they were probably scared I'd punch them if they showed too much interest in my missus. But then, I reflected later, was there some truth in this light-hearted remark?

I began to speculate anthropologically. Might it be that, consciously or otherwise, women in this arena were perceived as highly sexual and potentially very promiscuous beings? Men, on the other hand, might be perceived as constantly on the hunt for sex, a perennial mission which was usually uppermost in their minds.

As a consequence, for a male to interact with an attached female in full view of her partner could likely be construed as a sexual challenge and an act of great disrespect. And the fear would be that showing an interest, with all that implied, would provoke violent retaliation. So men generally didn't dare address the female half of a couple.

Probably patronising bollocks. Perhaps my friends were just shy? Perhaps it was an understandable reaction to a pretty, and obviously well-educated and posh outsider? But then why the clearly visible sexual segregation that would have been there with or without the presence of the female strangers? In any event, my wife still sometimes makes mention of the Cotswold Taleban.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Can we impeach him?

At yesterday's press conference, Brown again presented himself as whiter than white; but only white in the sense that sepulchres are white. But there's so much to be incredulous and appalled about in our politics at the moment that one aspect of his behaviour hasn't received sufficient commentary. Yesterday, Brown soiled the highest level of British politics with a brazenness and shamelessness never witnessed in modern times.

The conference began with Brown promising he was going to be 'totally candid'. This wasn't borne out: when he was asked repeatedly to confirm that he'd wanted to replace Alistair Darling, he repeatedly refused, even stating the opposite. This was despite it being clearly briefed (if such an oxymoron can be permitted) throughout the week that this was his intention.

'Politician lies!' is not much of a headline nowadays. But I believe this was rather different: it was a lie, which didn't avoid the truth through a careful form of words; it was a lie where the truth wasn't a matter of opinion; and it was a lie and everyone in the room knew it was. I think in this sense this lie represented a remarkable new low for British public life.

Tom Bradby of ITN expressed the frustration of the political pack present in the room. He still used civilised euphemisms, in accusing the PM of not being 'candid'. But it was clear that he was publicly accusing him of being a liar. And what was extraordinary was that Brown knew he was lying; the press corps knew he was lying; he knew they knew; and they knew that he knew.

Later, on the Ten O'Clock News, Nick Robinson told us, in a not so roundabout way, that the Prime Minister was lying on this point. This surely represents the crossing of some sort of moral Rubicon: our premier news programme accuses our Prime Minister, rightly and unarguably, of being a liar. And we move on. At least Kirstie Wark on Newsnight was suitably enraged: her questioning winded Peter Hain, who did his crappy best to avoid providing any real answers.

And this wasn't all: this whole farrago came in the wake of Brown invoking the name of his father who, in an apparently remarkable departure for parenting, 'brought [him] up to believe you have to behave with integrity at all times' and 'always [to] be honest'.

Hypocrisy, of course. But what a strange, almost naive, form of hypocrisy. My parents brought me up to be a good person; it's most likely that yours did. It doesn't always work, but it very often happens. Brown appears to believe he's nearly unique in this.

So, a rather bizarre hypocrisy. I wish a novelist like Justin Cartwright or Alan Hollinghurst would try to plumb the murky depths of the Brown character. Or perhaps Brown might find his Robert A. Caro? But then, Lyndon Johnson, the subject Caro has practically devoted a lifetime to, whilst being a true monster was altogether a larger figure with some real achievements. You can't write a tragedy without a hero.

Brown has been so destructive of so many parts of the polity and economy. Not least, he's established a new low in British politics with regard to truth telling and integrity (the word 'irony' doesn't seem to do this situation justice). His political destruction at the hands of his 'colleagues' or the electorate won't be enough for me now (although it would be nice). We need a punishment with some grand historical and ritualised resonance - can we impeach him?

UPDATE: And here's the heroic Fraser Nelson trying to nail Brown on one of his more important lies. Mendacity is a way of life for this man.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

I shop like a lady

I talked about a breakfast seminar in my previous post. In the course of the seminar I also discovered that I shop like a lady.

Men tend to have a goal-directed and functional approach to shopping: in and out as quickly as possible and with a minimum of fuss. Women have a more recreational approach: the experience is enjoyable in itself.

There are, however, five areas where men shop like women: tools, technology, booze, cars and, more surprisingly, magazines. In the last, women shop exactly like men do in other areas: they know exactly which is 'their' title and just go and buy it. Men, however, tend to graze the glossy pastures: they browse, pick up, leaf through. Then do it again, cud-chewing as they go.

This is reflected in the layout of the magazine sections in places like WH Smith. The part containing golf, motoring, wine, computer and sailing titles is extensive and relatively spaciously laid out; the part with the women's magazines is compact, streamlined and near the tills.

One attendee with experience in magazine retailing said that his business referred to the men's magazine section as 'the library'. Another said they called it more figuratively (and rather disgustingly) 'the urinals'.

Anyway, it struck me that I shop almost exactly like the typical woman. I nip in and get my Spectator with nary a browse. The only men's category I enjoy taking my time over is that of booze. No interest in the others at all. So I buy as quickly and as straightforwardly as possible and only when I have to.

On the other hand I love shopping at the butcher's, fishmonger's, greengrocer's. And I'm not averse to a bit of clothes shopping. I draw the line at make-up, however. I borrow the wife's.

The Waitrose Behavioural Internship for Creative Artists

Went to a breakfast seminar today. Dread phrase, as Wallace Arnold would say, but interesting. The speaker, Graham Bishop of What If, an innovation consultancy, talked engagingly about the uses of a behavioural approach to customer loyalty.

This approach focuses on how people actually behave rather than how they tell us they behave. There's often a big difference. In this approach, theory is not as important as observed behaviour, and the behavioural triggers and switches that are therefore revealed.

Man is a resourceful animal - the most resourceful. One of the reasons is that man combines reason with a more primordial approach to problem-solving. We take shortcuts in making decisions based on pointers we're not consciously aware of using. Being able to make use of these signs relies on the fruit of experience being boiled down into what feels like an instinctive judgement. Learning how this works can be of huge commercial advantage to business.

A classic example is the so-called 'German clunk' of the door of a quality car. Research has apparently shown that a customer's view of quality is 70% dependent on the noise made when the car door is slammed shut (no idea how this is calculated). The doors on a Mercedes saloon make this satisfying clunk and car buyers learnt - mostly subconsciously, I would have thought - to use this as a shorthand for quality. There was no need to lift the bonnet - or ask someone to give you a view on what was under the bonnet - the clunk was enough.

This shortcut in decision-making was used by Toyota when they developed their luxury brand Lexus. They replicated exactly the back-door clunk of a Mercedes. It happened that the engineering was superb anyway. But the clunk was enough to demonstrate this to customers intuitively, so putting to bed concerns as to whether the Lexus was genuinely a quality car. Telling them alone would not have been enough to convince them.

It can work in reverse too. Tesco didn't understand why they weren't selling as many free range eggs as they should have been. It turned out they were displaying them in cages - easy to wheel in and out. But the idea 'cage' bespoke of battery hens - customers didn't therefore intuitively believe in the ethical promise of Tesco's free range eggs.

Another example is provided by the pointy ends left on toilet paper in hotel bathrooms. This indicates primarily that the bathroom has been cleaned. And this message has been so well absorbed by the users of hotels that if this sign isn't in place, the stress levels of guests demonstrably rise. They start feeling strangely uneasy. Everything might look clean...but how do they know? The bathroom may not have been cleaned, so what about the linen...and is that a mark on the coffee cup?

These insights have been in play for a quite a while with Tesco, as ever, leading the way in UK retail. And the experience shows that these unconscious triggers can be more powerful than arguments that appeal to a customer's reason. We are inclined to go with what's instinctive, intuitive and felt.

What I found interesting after thinking this through a bit is that this is an insight that has been deployed in powerful fashion, consciously or otherwise,  by novelists, actors, film-makers, playwrights. I provided some examples in a previous post. What is sensed rather than explicitly learnt, the unspoken, can make the most powerful impression. But I wonder now, can this playing on the intuitive be taught?

For instance, I wondered whether Tesco might offer creative artists an internship to study their customers in this behavioural fashion? As a consequence novelists, actors, directors, playwrights, film-makers, etc. might gain new insights into the behaviour of their characters and in how to communicate with their audience. Deliberately playing to the sensed rather than the observed. But then asking artists to partner with naked commerce as exemplified by the barrow boys at Tesco might make them feel (shop) soiled. In which case, perhaps ethical, middle-class and staff-owned Waitrose would be a more acceptable sponsor...

Could be a mutually beneficial experience. The store gets some striking publicity, and who knows, some useful commercial insights from people whose vocation demands intuition anyway. The creative artist gets to learn - or at least formalise - a particular way of thinking about both the motivation of characters and communication with the audience.

I therefore propose: The Waitrose Behavioural Internship for Creative Artists.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Monkeys and Dragons

Here's an excerpt from a post by Lee Sigelman who blogs at the Monkey Cage, whose mission is explained in its inaugural post. It's a blog well worth keeping up with.

In the early '70s he and a political scientist colleague did some field-based research in the weird and scary world of the Klan. They interviewed over the course of a handful of trips a KKK 'Grand Dragon' Bill Chaney. The post ends:

'On our penultimate visit, I discovered that Chaney had a taste for bourbon. Acting on that knowledge, I determined that it would be an appropriate component of our research methodology for me, on our next visit, to come bearing a gift, in hopes of loosening his tongue on some issues about which he had previously been reluctant to speak. On the last evening of the visit, I produced said gift, much to Chaney’s delight. He immediately began to sample its contents and invited me to join him. It was an offer I could not refuse under the circumstances, and as he continued to increase his sample size, I continued to accompany him. We drank late into the night.

Early the next morning, I was awakened by the ringing of the telephone in my room at the Holiday Inn. It was Chaney, in a highly agitated state. “Listen,” he said, “you’ve got to forget everything I told you last night. Some of what I said could get us both killed.” At which point my only response, which was totally honest, was “Don’t worry, Bill. I don’t remember a word you said.”

(POSTSCRIPT: Chaney himself was an FBI informant. In the labyrinthine politics of the Klan, all the various factions that were competing for supremacy were spilling secrets about one another to the FBI; Chaney ultimately won out over his competitors in that struggle. He was later convicted of firebombing an Indianapolis-area business.)'

But read the whole post. It's good stuff.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Happy Odyssey II

As I've related before, I get occasional inspiration from Happy Odyssey, the memoirs of Adrian Carton de Wiart. With the Lions tour to South Africa in its early days, here's a passage, about a different trip to South Africa, which Ian McGeechan would be well-advised to put on little cards for his players. Forget sports psychology, there's no substitute for blind, unreflecting, and highly-spirited lust for battle:

'My summer term was a great success as far as cricket was concerned, but scholastically it was a disaster...realising my Oxford career would be brief, I felt a strong urge to join the Foreign Legion, that romantic refuge of the misfits. However, once again Balliol was lenient and I came up for the October term, when suddenly there were reverberations from South Africa and the whole problem was solved for me, most mercifully, by the outbreak of the South African War.

At that moment I knew, once and for all, that war was in my blood. I was determined to fight and I didn't mind who or what. I didn't know why the war had started, and I didn't care on which side I was to fight. If the British didn't fancy me I would offer myself to the Boers, and at least I did not endow myself with Napoleonic powers or imagine I would make the slightest difference to whichever side I fought for.

I know now that the ideal soldier is the man who fights for his country because it is fighting, and for no other reason. Causes, politics and ideologies are better left to the historians.'

In his first piece of action, in trying to cross a river he 'received a bad stomach wound and, still worse, a bullet through [his] groin.' This may explain why he never married. But it did nothing to stop him from continuing to derive inordinate fun from soldiering, as witnessed by my previous excerpt from Happy Odyssey.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Londonski Voksal

Professor Kevin Morley of the University of Warwick on why GM Europe's new Russian-backed owners will want to lose the Vauxhall brand:

“No one in Russia knows what a Vauxhall is,” he told The Times. “I’m sure we’ll see Vauxhall the brand disappear soon after the deal. Vauxhalls in the UK will sell here as Opels.”

Prof Morley can't be expected to know that the Russian word for railway station, 'Voksal', is derived from Vauxhall. In the usual confusion, a 19th century Russian visitor (in some versions of the story it was the Tsar) asked, 'What's that?' when he noticed an unfamiliar building straddling the railway track. 'Vauxhall' came the answer. And a misnomer was born.

So Russians know perfectly well what a Vauxhall is. A railway station. Doesn't help its chances though does it?

English soul

Miranda Sawyer in the Observer on 'The Blur I Knew':

"...Graham [Coxon] is sensitive and can find it hard to find the right words. He once told me that he expressed his sorrow at Damon's upset over Justine through his guitar playing, rather than talking to him."

Has England been so good at producing great pop and rock because of the emotional reticence of its people? George Mikes in 'How to be an Alien' wrote 'The English have no soul, they have the understatement instead'. Perhaps the soul ends up in the music?

My Austrian father-in-law identifies with 'How to be an Alien'. When he was a 'resident alien' he had to travel to otherworldly Croydon to get his papers in order, to a place called Lunar House.

My other favourite Mikes quote is: 'An Englishman, even when he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one'; more an historical than a contemporary observation.

A whited sepulchre

I am really not in the habit of quoting from the Bible, wingnut-like. But Brown's parading of his religion whilst constantly misrepresenting the truth - or lying as it's also known - is driving me nuts. Only the language of the King James can condemn this man with adequate force:

'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.'

UPDATE: The bit of Brown's religion he's recently put on display is his 'Presbyterian conscience' (obviously a better model than my vaguely lapsed CofE one). The best-known Presbyterian conscience belonged to Byron. It left him roiling in torment at his dissolute behaviour...