Sunday, 28 February 2010

Anarchists and aniseed balls

Bumped up against two different strands of Englishness yesterday. We went to Whitstable, which is almost a theme park of Englishness, though a lot less contrived than that description suggests (though still a bit). Whitebait, aniseed balls, scampi and chips, sherbet lemons, oysters, pineapple cubes, tweed cap, whelks: that's a pretty English list and we managed to buy all of them and eat most of them on the day.

Whilst we were mooching round the little old shops, T was in discussion with a producer about a piece she's done for today's Broadcasting House (about twenty minutes in) based on a book by Alex Butterworth: 'The World that Never Was'. It's subtitled 'A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents' and was inspired by Conrad's 'The Secret Agent' (interesting how a work of fiction has given rise to a work of history; I imagine it mostly happens the other way around).

T visited the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel founded by Kropotkin and interviewed the non-proprietor. She also had a walk around the Fitzrovia home of the German anarchists of a hundred years ago (an area that boasted German beer-halls up until the First World War). As readers of The Secret Agent will know the whole palaver fulfilled all the clichés (or perhaps what Conrad's success turned into clichés): it was a game of cloak-and-dagger, of double-dealing, of agent provocateurs, fog and shadows, fanatics and cynics.

If you look hard enough you keep on stumbling across pieces of cultural archaeology left over from this time. Our first flat in Clerkenwell was a few doors down from a converted pub where Trotsky used to meet his exiled compadrés, including Lenin who lived over Kings Cross way for a year or so. "Trotsky used to drink in our local sushi bar" was a statement that used to tickle me.

There are obviously present-day resonances: there's nothing new under the sun, not in London anyway. Londoners have often shared their city with the politically extreme and even the nihilistically murderous. It goes back a long way. Russian oligarchs and Islamists are only the most recent arrivals: they're preceded by Russian communists, German anarchists, Eastern European Zionists and before them Italian and Hungarian nationalists, French philosophes and then royalist reactionaries and going back even further, Hugeuenots and Lutherans.

Whilst it wasn't wise to allow the entire batch of recent political refugees to remain undisturbed in London - I mean mad mullahs more than muzhik millionaires - we have to recognise this tradition is as English as sherbet lemons and much older. Russians and Middle Easterners baffle us sometimes - I imagine we are just as baffling to them. A peculiar principle. Cough candy twist anyone?

Saturday, 27 February 2010

An Englishman in Tashkent

We knew he was a dick. It seems he's a lot worse than that:
The services of Sting - whose personal fortune is estimated well north of £150m - were engaged by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter and anointed heir of dictator Islam Karimov. To explore Islam Karimov's human rights record in full would take too long: suffice to say he is condemned approximately every 10 minutes by organisations from the UN to Amnesty, accused of such delights as boiling his enemies, slaughtering his poverty-stricken people when they protest, andconscripting armies of children for slave labour. Oh, and the Aral Sea on which his country sits - once the world's fourth biggest lake - has lost 80% of its volume, partly as a result of Karimov siphoning it off to intensively irrigate his remote desert cotton fields.
That smug, self-loving look on his phizog is annoying enough anyway. Now it will be intolerable. I'd boycott his crappy songs if I ever felt like listening to one. C**t.

Friday, 26 February 2010

What's French for 'ungentlemanly conduct'?

Wales score through Shane, putting them six points down. They can win it with one converted try - but time's up. At the restart, Michalak deliberately grubs the ball, not ten, and into touch. The referee blows up for time. Game over.

But Michalak committed a deliberate foul and should therefore have been penalised. At the very least he's guilty of ungentlemanly conduct (OK he's French, but the rules apply to everyone). The correct call was a Welsh penalty on the half way line. We can dream the rest...

Mind game fail?

'Wales Question Fitness of France's Mattieu Bastareud' is the headline. Coach Gatland's mind games again. We must now assume Bastareud will win the game for them.

February blues

It's been a long, cold and now wet winter. I'm sick of it. We had the roof leak last week - water streaming down the walls, followed by a bill and then the inevitable tussle with the insurers to look forward to. And we've had another extended bout of precipitation since yesterday afternoon, the third this week (have you noticed how nothing good comes in a 'bout'? Does it imply something you bow down before?).

It's got so that my eldest son seems to have developed a mild obsession with Australia, whither some friends of his from nursery returned last year. At Christmas I overheard an older playmate of his ask him why he always went on about the place. He's still keen. It's become a fabled wonderland of sunshine and kangaroos, where shorts can be worn all year round. I can't say I blame him.

Comfort, like everything else this time of year, is thin on the ground. But, for what it's worth, you can almost always find a miserable echo of your feelings in Hardy's poetry. Unsurprisingly, feeling glum in February is one of his topics.

Of course, Hardy manages to outdo us in his glumness: by the end he's introduced to an already downbeat month the welcome subjects of death, loss and mortality. But it's art - if we can't be happy, let's be sublime.

The bars are thick with drops that show
As they gather themselves from the fog
Like silver buttons ranged in a row,
And as evenly spaced as if measured,
They fall at the feeblest jog. 
They load the leafless hedge hard by,
And the blades of last year's grass
While the fallow ploughland turned up nigh
In raw rolls, clammy and clogging lie—
Too clogging for feet to pass. 
How dry it was on a far-back day
When straws hung the hedge and around,
When amid the sheaves in amorous play
In curtained bonnets and light array
Bloomed a bevy now underground!

Almost makes you want to give Ray Gosling a call.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Empires, past and future

Illuminating and sensibly unsensational view of prospects for the 'American empire' in the light of the fate of previous empires, the Roman and the British. It's from Cambridge historian, Piers Brendon.

I haven't read his books but this piece makes me wonder whether I should (having googled a little I note that his masterwork on the British Empire, natch, appears to have irritated Lord Salisbury and pleased Robert McCrum Literary Editor of the Observer, but they both agree it's a cracking read).

I don't have anything to add really apart from recommending it as an enjoyable (and comforting) bit of historical comparison and geopolitical speculation.

Hero of the left

Harriet Harman reckons Fidel Castro is a 'hero of the left'. She is a person of the left; he is her hero. Yesterday we were given a reminder of what a self-indulgent piece of moral blindness this is:
A Cuban political prisoner died yesterday after an 85-day hunger strike over alleged beatings and degrading jail conditions....
...Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 42...a former plumber and member of the Alternative Republican Movement National Civic Resistance Committee, was one of 75 activists arrested during the "black spring" of 2003. He was sentenced to three years for contempt, public disorder and "disobedience" but that was increased to 36 years after he was convicted of acts of defiance in prison.
He stopped eating solid foods on December 3 to protest against what he said were repeated beatings by guards and other abuses at Kilo 7 prison in the eastern province of Camagüey. His back was "tattooed with blows" from beatings, according to his mother.
Two weeks ago she reported he was "skin and bones, his stomach is just a hole" and that bedsores covered his legs. He was so gaunt nurses were unable to get intravenous lines for fluids into his arms and used veins on his neck instead. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Inclusive solidarity

Another engaging post by Tony Judt on the NYR blog (I discussed the two previous ones in the series here and here). He addresses what he terms the 'Edge', a place where
...countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life.

He locates himself at the Edge: he's a London-born Jew of Eastern European provenance who studies European politics and now lives in New York. However, in defining himself he resists "rootless cosmopolitansism", which
...seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.
But the celebration is intermingled with the elegiac and, ultimately, the pessimistic: he sees the Edges narrowing, disappearing:
Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages—often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified—as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhhorod. By the standards of American conformism, New York resembles aspects of these lost cosmopolitan cities: that is why I live here.

I think any liberal-minded person familiar with these places understands the gravity of this loss. Such cities disappeared along with the multi-ethnic empires that harboured them: the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian. The Holocaust finished off what remained.

But I struggle to agree we live in a world without 'cities comprising multiple communities and languages'. It's just their locus has changed: a tolerance - which is actually more settled and thoroughgoing than that of the old empires - is now to be found in the cities of the West, that is places ruled by a pluralistic, civically-inclined nationalism. Judt's New York certainly doesn't stand alone as an exemplar: Auckland, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, Berlin, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, to name just a few, abound in an Edgy diversity.

Judt's post culminates in a pessimistic prediction:
We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself—the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies—will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.
Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people.

Firstly, I don't believe there's any evidence that globalisation will culminate in a reactionary spasm, quite the contrary. Secondly, the strengthening of barriers in a world of increasingly fluid populations is surely something of a necessity if we are to retain the tolerance and solidarity that we prize so much.

Why should this be so? The liberal nations of the West - the home of the new multi-ethnic metropolis - exist in a state of constant and usually fruitful tension: they welcome, absorb and tolerate a steady flow of newcomers, but at the same time they're bound together by political, cultural and historical ties that generate sufficient solidarity to support welfare states.

London is as full of immigrants - some recent, some established for generations - as it is of native Londoners. Yet they all share in an abundance of GP surgeries, local health centres and hospitals, all covered by the rubric the National Health Service. This potential contradiction could become a source of conflict - but we keep it at bay for the most part by holding the balance between what we might term 'welcoming' on the one hand, and 'belonging' on the other. Limiting and controlling immigration is crucial in this, and is as important for the achievement of the goals of a man of the left such as Tony Judt as it is for someone more nationalistically inclined.

Earlier in the post Judt warns:
We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms. One should keep one’s distance not only from the obviously unappealing “-isms”—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety: communism, to be sure, but nationalism and Zionism too. And then there is national pride: more than two centuries after Samuel Johnson first made the point, patriotism—as anyone who passed the last decade in America can testify—is still the last refuge of the scoundrel.

It seems more complicated to me: whilst avoiding Judt's 'exclusive solidarity' we must take care not to sacrifice our own delimited but inclusive solidarities.

L’exil, West Berlin, 1977; photograph by Dominique Nabokov (from the NYR blog post).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

White Teeth meets Jurassic Park

There was one other rule of writing fiction that caught my eye in the articles I linked to yesterday, Geoff Dyer's #1 rule:
Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: "I'm writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job." Publisher: "That's exactly what makes me want to stay in my job."

I'd add a caveat: never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project if you don't care whether you're published. (You might also want to add and if you are lucky enough to possess the uniquely quirky talent of a Geoff Dyer.)

I've been doing some asking around about the commercial potential of my novel, a thriller which is set partly in the world of international finance. One publisher friend was sceptical: financial thrillers have never really sold. He reckoned as a consequence you'd have a problem with the headline pitch, which should name-check some previous best-sellers, e.g. "It's White Teeth meets Jurassic Park but set in the Cotswolds". Apparently, every book needs one.

I received some corroboration on hearing that Philip Delves Broughton (a friend of a friend) was self-publishing two financial thrillers he wrote last year despite being a published author.

But being published is hardly the end of your financial worries. There appear to be pretty slim pickings for the vast majority of authors. Advances - hardly ever earned out - are, perhaps understandably, shrinking: £1000 anyone? And split into four installments? That's hardly going to pay the mortgage during the year you take off to polish off your four hundred-page masterpiece.

Better to self-publish and be damned? No advance, of course, and no publicity and distribution machines to promote your book. But it doesn't cost you as the author a penny and if it does sell you'll earn about £1 per book rather than the circa 35p you'd earn if was 'properly' published.

Perhaps I'll head down this road too. And in the meantime, look into re-working my second novel along the lines of "White Teeth meets Jurassic Park but set in the Cotswolds".

Monday, 22 February 2010

Getting the engine warmed up

For those of you interested in writing fiction this and this may be of particular interest. It's a couple of dozen writers' top ten rules.

Here are a few that struck me:
Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle #1) 
The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright #1) 
The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction" [pipped to the post by 'political theatre' in my view]. (David Hare #1) 
Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and "obscure" – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing. (Joyce Carol Oates #5) 
You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. (Will Self #5) 
Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant [you'll be doing extraordinarily well to need one, at least for the first few years]. (Hilary Mantel #4) 
Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. (Colm Tóibin #3)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman) 
You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Margaret Atwood #8) [Usefully twinned with...
...this:] Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Neil Gaiman #5) 
But a few tips came up again and again:
Read a lot.
Listen to what you've written.
Edit it and cut repeatedly and ruthlessly.
Write every day.
The last really rang a bell. In my experience, if you write every day (as I do for this blog) you can find yourself almost stumbling into fiction (at a loose end and almost absent-mindedly I wrote a novel over the Christmas period).

I'd noted the wisdom of this advice before, so much so that I bookmarked where I first read it. From a Q&A with journalist and author Laura Miller:
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed? 
Write every day. That way, the book you’re working on is never out of your awareness for long. It will always be percolating in the back of your mind, growing on its own. No part of writing is as hard as getting the engine warmed up, so try not to let it cool down.
I like that: writing is like pottering around in an old banger that can only be jump-started or bumped.

Reading through these rules one more time, I realise there's an obvious omission. And it may really be the sine qua non: 'somehow, anyhow, find time to dedicate to writing'. Tricky one that for most people. For what it's worth, not everyone can experience my good fortune...

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Bitter lemon

Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern yesterday afternoon. It was one of those trips where the walk there and back was more compelling than the exhibition. Gorky was highly derivative (down to his name, which he lifted from the Russian writer).

It was like seeing pastiches of Picasso, Léger, Miró, Cézanne and Kandinsky but by an artist with an inability to give his forms any dynamism and with no appreciation of colour. After the sixth or so room (he was productive, I'll give him that) you begin to wonder at how Gorky never quite manages to get his colours to work: they either boringly meander across the canvas or sit there being mildly objectionable, gloopily orange or snottily green. The two versions of 'The Artist and his Mother' (below) were good  - but that's two paintings out of a hundred or more works. They seemed flukish - nothing else approached them.

The brochure describes his work as a 'pivot' between European high modernism and American abstract expressionism. To me he looked more like the last gasp of an American provincialism that was capable of picking up a third-rate émigré pasticheur and hailing him as a notable modernist painter (the fact that he was apparently mistaken as a relative of the writer Gorky says a lot: Gorky wasn't Maxim's family name - it was a nom de plume meaning 'bitter' in Russian. And Maxim wasn't his first name either but that's by-the-by).

I'm at a loss to explain why the curators at Tate Modern have made such a fuss over him. He died over sixty years ago and I thought time was supposed to sort these things out. The owl of Minerva has obviously been unavoidably detained. Anyway, thank God for Jackson Pollock.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Purnell for Mayor?!

James Purnell yesterday announced he's standing down as an MP. He's going to train as a community organiser with London Citizens and possibly do a bit of part-time teaching at a Kilburn comprehensive. Today he's apparently out canvassing people on the streets of Islington to protest against the closure of the local Whittington Hospital.

Remind me, when's the next London mayoral election? 2012? That would be right in the middle of the next Tory Government's mid-term slump. I wonder who Labour's candidate will be? Perhaps a hard-working organiser of London's disadvantaged communities? Well, it worked out for another highly-qualified community organiser...

Exciting plinth detail

I went by train to the East Midlands yesterday. For the bit I went to you leave from St Pancras, a station that still takes my breath away. It seems an incongruously glamorous and dramatic point of departure to what must be one of England's most humdrum and boring regions (sorry). St Pancras for Paris and, er, Leicester.

I'd arranged to meet a colleague beneath the beautiful clock and next to the house-sized statue 'The Meeting Place' (right). The more I see this the more I like it. It's gross and a bit vulgar and it seems the plinth is even better. I hadn't noticed before but it's surrounded with highly detailed, intricately miniature, station-related scenes. They play with perspective and scale to striking effect.

One of the dozen or so is shown below. Slatternly women in tight skirts and Samuel Beckett lookalikes abound for some reason - surely good things. You can find a couple more here (however, I can't find pictures of the best). Well worth taking a look at if you're in the station.

H/t for the plinth detail Silvertiger.

Friday, 19 February 2010


Yesterday evening I watched Scrum V, the BBC Wales rugby highlights programme. It underlined what a bizarre win Wales had against Scotland last Saturday. What happened - Wales slogging away in downbeat, mediocre fashion for seventy losing minutes only to play the most sparkling and spontaneous rugby seen so far this championship in the last ten, scoring a winning try in the last move of the match - defied rational explanation. What can Warren Gatland, a coach from the dour and disciplined rugby culture of New Zealand, make of it all?

And then to round off the bizarreness, Wales flanker Andy Powell is arrested at a motorway service station at 5.40am the next morning having driven a golf cart over from their luxury hotel retreat. I can well imagine his logic: I've been drinking all night and I really fancy a fry-up; the hotel kitchen is closed but the motorway service station down the road will be open; I haven't got my car and I'm drunk; I'll take a golf buggy down the motorway as they don't count.

It all made me wonder whether there is a particularly Welsh form of - what would one call it? - whimsicality, fantasy, illogicality? Being rather mercurial, a bit random. One must always be careful about national stereotypes and generalising from particular eccentric incidents. But we do have some corroboration on this point and from a notably unromantic and bullshit-detecting writer, Kingsley Amis.

In his memoirs he reflects on his time in Swansea, a happy time. He liked the Welsh:
...I would still rather enter a room of randomly picked Welsh strangers than a comparable hodge-podge composed entirely of English. I would rather deal with a Welsh stranger, from an official to a shop-assistant, than an English one. (In Swansea market in 1987 I suddenly wondered what was making everybody so nice to me, until I realised what country I was in.) And if circumstances made it possible, I would choose to be nursed in illness by a Welshwoman.
But what a student of his described as 'a perfect summary of the Welsh character' might be found in the story of Mrs Professor Morgan and the grocery order:
On seeing that she had assembled a pile of goods that amounted to more than she could conveniently carry, the assistant said, 'Have you you [your] car with you, Mrs Morgan, or has the professor taken it down to the college today? Oh well, that being so I suggest we deliver your purchases for you, all right?'
Mrs Morgan was mightily pleased, though after about four days with nothing in sight her pleasure had abated.
When reprehended on the telephone, the manager said, 'But Mrs Morgan, this stow [store] has not operated a delivery service since 1939.'
'In that case, what did your assistant mean by his suggestion?'
Well...I suppose he was only trying to be helpful.'

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Disabled with laughter

Talk in yesterday's post of the shameful intersection of disability and laughter brought to mind one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I recount the incident as I'm still not entirely sure what exactly happened and it may be that writing it down will prove cathartic.

A group of us were staying in a B&B on the Spey in Scotland for a long weekend. It was a beautiful place and we spent every day out and about, fishing, pony-trekking, walking. We even managed a bit of skiing, bouncing along the top of some sleet-brushed heather. The B&B offered dinner and as we were in the middle of nowhere we ate there each night. The food was great.

One evening we sat down to dinner at the large dining table. There was, I think, just enough room for two other smaller tables, one in the window alcove at the front of the room and another butting up to the side wall nearest the door. We came down in dribs and drabs having taken it in turns to use the two baths that were ours.

Joining us on the table near the wall were a couple in early old age, friendly and thoroughly nice. We introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries and experiences. They were pretty fit it seemed, out walking all day, despite her having a severe hunchback - she was bent over nearly double. It was great that they didn't seem to let this stop them enjoying an active life.

Anyway, we left them to their meal. We were now just waiting for one of our party, R. He entered the room, stooped over, his hand on the small of his back and a grimace on his face. He was a chronic sufferer from a bad back so it was no surprise that the day's activities had wrought some damage.

He saw we'd noticed his discomfort and smiled bravely. "The bells, the bells!" he cried as he came over to us. "Quasimodo - I can barely stand up straight! Quasimodo! Quasimodo!" As he walked, he exaggerated his stoop.

I looked around the table. I saw on everyone else's face the look of horror I must have been wearing on mine. We looked at him, silently pleading him not to mention Quasimodo again or make any references to "the bells". Then for some reason one of us - I won't ascribe blame as it's not fair - stifled a crazy giggle. It was an involuntary reaction to the combination of embarrassment, panic and shock we were experiencing. One by one we fell under the influence of this malign hilarity until the whole table was quaking with the grunts and shakes of a sick, stifled laughter.

R looked at us with incredulity - he knew nothing of the brave hunchbacked woman and her admirable husband. "What's up he asked? What's the matter? All I say is something about feeling like Quasimodo and you all crack up! What's so funny?"

Could this get any worse? How could we make it stop? There was nothing to be done: we were caught in our paroxysms like flies in honey, thrashing uselessly.

Eventually one of us managed to inhale enough air to mouth that R should sit down - we'd tell him later what was up. We chomped joylessly through the dinner, hardly talking. We could barely meet each other's eyes we were so ashamed.

Seeking to make amends, to at least show friendship from there on in, I asked whether the couple would like join us for a game of scrabble afterwards (there was a cosy sitting room with board games next door). Thankfully, the husband said he would; his wife said she was feeling very tired and would go up to bed.

They would certainly have heard everything R had said as well as our humourless sniggers. But they gave no indication of taking umbrage. The husband remained perfectly pleasant throughout the rest of the evening. Perhaps, incredibly, he had understood?

It's an incident I'll never forget and which still fills me with shame and, even now, a degree of disbelief. It's difficult to credit: we knew in every fibre that it was wrong, it wasn't even fun at the time - it was excruciating -  but nevertheless it happened. Disability and laughter.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ray of light?

Ray Gosling, eh? I had an inkling that this sort of thing happened a lot more often than is reported.

Ray should have waited to confess until he was pretty much on his deathbed. The perfect getaway: the police can't get you there. But I suppose you have to be wary about leaving it too late - someone might help you along your way before you're quite ready.

Something Special

I occasionally find myself half-watching a bit of kids TV - it's unavoidable, unfortunately! The other day a programme called 'Something Special - Out and About' caught my attention. It featured a presenter - a children's TV comic - who goes out and about with a disabled child or two. Having looked the programme up on the BBC's website I've discovered it's made primarily for disabled children, their parents, teachers and carers. But nevertheless my eldest, who's four, found it interesting and amusing; he likes the comic, whose clown persona, Mr Tumble, he knows from a couple of other programmes.

This particular disabled child was in a wheelchair and looked as if he had cerebral palsy. I immediately thought of Joey Deacon, a man with cerebral palsy (or spastic as we called it then) who appeared on Blue Peter. Wikipedia explains what happened:
He was presented as an example of a man who achieved a lot in spite of his disabilities. However, despite the positive light in which the programme's editor was trying to present his story, the impact was not as intended. The sights and sounds of Joey's distinctive speech and movements had a lasting impact on young viewers, who quickly learnt to imitate them. Joey's name and mannerisms quickly became a label of ridicule in school playgrounds across the country.

It seemed funny at the time. God, kids are horrid.

However, I wondered whether 'Something Special' might be more successful at normalising disability as it was starting on its audience young, appearing in a slot for four- to seven-year olds. I asked my son what he thought about the boy who'd appeared that week. He didn't know what I might be referring to. So I asked him what he thought was wrong with him and he replied,"I think the schoolboy had to stay in his buggy because he broke his leg".

I wonder whether early exposure to seeing children with cerebral palsy doing everyday things and having the sort of fun he'd like to have will mean he'll grow up to regard disability as the equivalent of, say, a sports injury? Or as he gets older will he morph into one of those children from the '70s who think seeing someone on TV with cerebral palsy provides good material for a joke? If kids are educated young enough can they be made to behave better? I guess I'll find out in a few years...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Spinning plates

There's a fascinating debate underway right now as to what the rise of China means for us. China has just supplanted Germany as the world's biggest exporter and it's now the second or third biggest economy in the world (we'll find out which later this month). Understandably, thoughtful people wonder whether this rapid growth will continue and what it means for us if it does.

In the last few months, the successes of the Chinese economic 'model' have been presented variously as reasons to reform our own capitalism and politics in emulation (Anatole Kaletsky), to disbelieve in the efficacy of free markets (John Gray), and to hail the establishment of a new hegemonic power and culture (Martin Jacques*).

And those who doubt China will fulfill the ambitions of these boosters because of immediate problems have been given some lapidary advice by Thomas Friedman: 'Never short a country with $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves'. (I find this comment bizarre as I'm pretty sure both Japan in 1989 and the US in 1929 both had huge foreign currency reserves, but anyway...)

Friedman was responding to a remark by Jim Chanos, who runs the biggest short-selling hedge fund in the world (that is, they aim to make money when the value of specific investments go down). Chanos recently said that China was 'Dubai times 1,000 — or worse'. He made a boat-load of money by betting against Enron. Now, he's on China's tail.

I'm as sceptical as Chanos that China has discovered a new golden egg-laying goose and for pretty much the same reasons - he's just got one or two more of them and has an awful lot more telling detail to hand. If you're really interested in this stuff you can hear about it all from Chanos's own mouth here.

But here's a quick summary if you haven't got the leisure or the interest to listen to the whole thing (it's about an hour long).

China is an economy where GDP targets appear to drive growth. This should make us suspicious about the value of this growth. It's highly reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where 'growth' came about as a consequence of targets that were often economically irrational and wasteful.

In any event, Chinese growth is what economists call 'extensive' rather than 'intensive'. It's reliant on population migration from country to town, on increases in the educational level of the workforce and the application of large amounts of capital in the form investment in fixed assets (buildings, machinery, bridges, etc.). The first two of these factors is peaking and the third is showing increasing diminishing returns. This looks very much like the Soviet Union in its latter years.

The extent of over-investment in fixed assets is striking. Bubbles are being created, the biggest in real estate. There's massive over-building funded by credit. Banks are increasing their loan books by over 40% a year versus the 10-15% seen in the US bubble economy of recent years. The result is that the equivalent of a 5'x5' office cubicle for every man woman and child is currently under construction in China.

The aftermath of this bubble will be ugly. As in most economies, property investment is critically important, not least because residential property forms the major store of wealth for the Chinese middle classes.

And longer term the future isn't necessarily rosy. China has yet to prove it can transform its talent for extensive growth into one for intensive growth, i.e. growth that doesn't rely on increasing applications of labour or capital goods but on increased productivity and innovation.

Chanos reckons China is showing promising signs of having the wherewithal to move to a technology-driven intensive growth phase. But with the important caveat: 'Everyone's backing 9 men in a room can get it right all the time'. (A more pithy version of what I said here.) Contrary to the message of the China boosters referred to above China's political system may well turn out to be a hobble. As another commentator I respect, Thomas PM Barnett, puts it (directly countering Kaletsky elsewhere):
Once the extensive growth period is done and the "golden period" of demographic advantage dissipates, there is no advantage to having authoritarian government--despite the many myths recently created about the "superiority" of China's single-party state. China is heading to the all-things-being-equal part of advanced development, and when a regime reaches that point, democracies simply perform better--not by how they run things but by how they get the hell out of the way of those who really need to run things, aka the private sector.

Chanos ended his talk with this arresting mirror image:
China embraced capitalism to entrench its socialist elite. The US embraced socialism to entrench its capitalist elite.
Apart from the paradox isn't it always the way? It's the elites that run off with the money and it's the poor wot gets the blame. And being poor - or even just moderately wealthy - may soon become a lot less fun in places other than China. Just ask the Greeks. Or the Spanish, Portuguese, know how this ends.

* Critics from various quarters agree that Jacques's book is wrong-headed. I agree with the couple who also think it ignorant and unpleasant.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Close but no cigar

Unbelievable. I came that close. You see I was at school with Nige, who's a nice bloke, though I did once hit his twin brother on the nose for chatting up my girlfriend of the time. I'd even bought a ticket under T's instructions - she'd been to Primrose Hill for a yoga class and fancied a house up there. I mean, how close can you get?

There's only one thing for it:

Dear Nige

You may not remember me but I hit your brother on the nose when we were at school. I was wondering whether you might spare enough money for me to buy a house in a really nice part of London?

Yours, etc.

Sous le pavé

I was wondering why mention of Paris in '68 by Tony Judt made me think of Roger Scruton's recollections of the time (apart from my being a reactionary bugger, that is). I went back to the latter's book, 'Gentle Regrets', and took a look. They were memorable as they were so well-written.

I'd described the memoir in the earlier post as 'beautifully judged' and reading this part again I recognise now that much of it is hardly judged at all. I found just a handful of words that could be construed as pejorative. There was no explicit condemnation; it was inferred by the reader from description and the odd telling juxtaposition. The description, though, does get through an awful lot of work:
In the narrow street below my window the students were shouting and smashing. The plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground. Cars rose into the air and landed on their sides, their juices flowing from unseen wounds. The air was filled with triumphant shouts, as one by one the lamp-posts and bollards were uprooted and piled on the tarmac, to form a barricade against the next van-load of policemen.
The van - known as a panier à salade on account of the wire mesh that covered its windows - came cautiously round the corner from the Rue Descartes, jerked to a halt, and disgorged a score of frightened policemen. They were greeted by flying cobblestones and several of them fell. One rolled over on the ground clutching his face, from which the blood streamed through tightly clenched fingers. There was an exultant shout, the injured policeman was helped into the van, and the students ran off down a side-street, sneering at the cochons and throwing Parthian cobbles as they went.
Being put in someone's shoes is always more powerful than being told what to think.

Sunday, 14 February 2010


T and I don't observe Valentine's Day. I like to think most days are a Valentine's Day for us, except for the flowers, card, chocolates, champagne, etc. (There may be other views.)

But we are agreed it's a piece of commercialised, sentimental, regimented, manipulative fakery. Expensive, too. It's a huge relief not to have to engage in the whole tomfoolery of it.

"What up DOE!?"

This is weird, scary, intriguing, baffling, tedious, horrifying, exciting and new. It's called ChatRoulette and here are some extracts from a highly amusing article about it in the New York Times:
The site activates your webcam automatically; when you click “start” you’re suddenly staring at another human on your screen and they’re staring back at you, at which point you can either choose to chat (via text or voice) or just click “next,” instantly calling up someone else. The result is surreal on many levels. Early ChatRoulette users traded anecdotes on comment boards with the eerie intensity of shipwreck survivors, both excited and freaked out by what they’d seen. There was a man who wore a deer head and opened every conversation with “What up DOE!?” A guy from Sweden was reportedly speed-drawing strangers’ portraits. Someone with a guitar was improvising songs for anyone who’d give him a topic. One man popped up on people’s screens in the act of fornicating with a head of lettuce. Others dressed like ninjas, tried to persuade women to expose themselves, and played spontaneous transcontinental games of Connect Four. Occasionally, people even made nonvirtual connections: One punk-music blogger met a group of people from Michigan who ended up driving eleven hours to crash at his house for a concert in New York. And then, of course, fairly often, there was this kind of thing: “I saw some hot chicks then all of a sudden there was a man with a glass in his butthole.” I sing the body electronic.
A few hours after my first ChatRoulette session, one of my actual physical friends came over to my actual physical house. I told him all about my horrifying experience that afternoon—the insults, the masturbators, the searing flashbacks of adolescent shame. He demanded that we get on the site immediately. Somehow, with two people, the experience was different—the rejections less intense, easier to laugh off. We ended up staying on, talking and dancing, connecting and disconnecting, for four hours. We chatted with Pratt students in Bed-Stuy, with a man inexplicably sitting on his toilet, with a kid waving a gun and a knife, and with a guy who went to my wife’s old high school in California. We saw Chinese kids in computer cafés and English kids drinking beer. We danced with a guy in his bedroom to the entirety of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” We talked for half an hour with a 28-year-old tech writer from San Francisco.
After a while, I started to get the lay of the land. The median age seems to hover around 20, and males outnumber females probably twenty to one. Sex is ever-present, whether insinuated or enacted. (My wife sat in front of the webcam for a while, and it was suddenly, disturbingly, a much friendlier world.) People are endlessly soliciting nudity, both in person and via signs (“FLASH TITS FOR HAITI,” etc.). Roughly one out of every ten chatters is a naked masturbating man, and even they will usually hang up on you, one-handedly, before you can click away.
After you...

H/t Daily Dish.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Daliwch ati!

What was it? Seventeen points in the last five minutes? Never give up - you never know it's over until it's over. And all that.

They missed the Revolution

An attractively written and ingenuous post by Tony Judt at the New York Review site.

He reflects on his days as a student revolutionary and how history has revealed the ironies in his position. After discussing his experiences in the course of 1968, when he participated in various agitations from Cambridge to Paris to Goetttingen he wonders at he and his friends' blindness:
What does it say of the hermetically sealed world of cold war Western Europe that I—a well-educated student of history, of East European Jewish provenance, at ease in a number of foreign languages, and widely traveled in my half of the continent—was utterly ignorant of the cataclysmic events unraveling in contemporary Poland and Czechoslovakia? Attracted to revolution? Then why not go to Prague, unquestionably the most exciting place in Europe at that time? Or Warsaw, where my youthful contemporaries were risking expulsion, exile, and prison for their ideas and ideals?
Looking back, I can’t help feeling we missed the boat. Marxists? Then why weren’t we in Warsaw debating the last shards of Communist revisionism with the great Leszek Kolakowski and his students? Rebels? In what cause? At what price? Even those few brave souls of my acquaintance who were unfortunate enough to spend a night in jail were usually home in time for lunch. What did we know of the courage it took to withstand weeks of interrogation in Warsaw prisons, followed by jail sentences of one, two, or three years for students who had dared to demand the things we took for granted?
For all our grandstanding theories of history, then, we failed to notice one of its seminal turning points. It was in Prague and Warsaw, in those summer months of 1968, that Marxism ran itself into the ground. It was the student rebels of Central Europe who went on to undermine, discredit, and overthrow not just a couple of dilapidated Communist regimes but the very Communist idea itself. Had we cared a little more about the fate of ideas we tossed around so glibly, we might have paid greater attention to the actions and opinions of those who had been brought up in their shadow....
...In our own eyes at least, we were a revolutionary generation. Pity we missed the revolution.
Reading this reminded me of Roger Scruton's account in his beautifully-judged memoir 'Gentle Regrets' of how the self-indulgent and futile événements of 1968 confirmed his conservative 'vocation'. However, even now, Judt wouldn't see things quite like that:
We [the revolutionary generation] protested the things we didn’t like, and we were right to do so.
'The things we didn't like' - is that really sufficient, I wonder, to throw cobblestones at heads and call for the overthrow of 'Fascist' Western governments?

And I'm inclined to deflect more implicit praise in Roger Scruton's direction. Also in 'Gentle Regrets' he recounts his experiences in the 1980s when, being a dedicated supporter, he made a number of contraband-smuggling and morale-boosting visits to Eastern European dissidents. This should surely justify him as a true and admirable revolutionary using Judt's measure.

It's really quite funny that history as written by a former soixante-huitard implicitly paints the High Tory Dr Scruton as the real revolutionary of the late-twentieth century. Clio does have a sense of humour.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Is sleep deprivation torture?

Alex Massie does a terrific job of putting the recent revelations in context. Some very powerful testimony about the methods and effects of sleep deprivation.

We shouldn't wonder at the consistent (and ongoing) desire of the British Government to cover up the facts. It's deeply shaming. The people who have conducted, participated in, condoned or tolerated torture have been discrediting our claims to be better than the nihilistic lunatics who oppose our way of life. Personally, I'm as angry as hell. We need a judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of the whole experience and to hold politicians, bureaucrats and intelligence operatives to account.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Today's gay rugby news

Welsh Rugby Union, eh? A sport leading the way in its acceptance of openly gay participants. Who'd have thought it?

The biggest event, of course, was the coming out of Gareth Thomas, former Wales captain, record Wales try scorer and all-round Valleys legend. But now we have what seems something of a setback.

Jonathan Thomas, playing at lock for Wales on Saturday, tweets something suggestive about another recently-out participant in Welsh and international rugby, referee Nigel Owens. His comment has been deleted, but he made reference to a fellow player's fatigue and aches being down to the sexual prowess of Mr Owens.

He was made to apologise by the Welsh Rugby Union and was condemned as homophobic by that even higher authority, Peter Tatchell. But this is very much a game of two halves.

Owens protested that this was merely a bit of teasing banter between friends - he and the two players are good mates apparently - and in no way should be seen as homophobic. This view appears to have been shared unanimously by commenters on one of a number of gay sites that have been discussing the story: it's the sort of talk that often goes on between straight and gay friends.

And isn't it always a sign that the heat's gone out of an issue if you can joke about it, everyone joining in to have a good laugh? It seems to put the issue outside of the group, the laughter confirming that friendship comes before any differences. Given that most (all?) conversations that happen in rugby dressing rooms revolve around banter, wind-ups and piss-taking it's probably the ultimate sign of acceptance that gayness becomes just another source of wise-cracks.

I remember at university in the early '90s the FA and the German football association cancelled a Germany-England friendly as the date the teams were due to play happened to be Hitler's birthday. The German and British students felt so incensed that that tyrannical corpse could still spoil people's fun that we played our own match instead.

All the old jokes came into play: the Italian student changing sides at half time; Americans not being allowed on until the game was well underway; it all ending in penalties (which, of course, the Germans won); and so on. Lots of much sicker jokes were also made but a fine time was had by all. Why? Because we were friends and our nationalities only mattered to the extent that they pointed up amusing differences or an opportunity to be tasteless.

Anyway, I think Jonathan Thomas (right) got a bit more than he bargained for. I hope it doesn't put people off from having a bit of innocent banter - it helps the world go round. He may also have got more than he bargained for in other ways: it seems he's now being talked of as 'kind of hot'. I guess the invitation from Attitude is in the post? It's the least he could do (in fact, I hope someone sets up a Facebook group).

Hair today, hair tomorrow

As longstanding readers will know, I take a passing interest in facial hair developments. So, when an errand took me down to fashionable Shoreditch, I was bound to enliven it with some casual pogonotrophic research.

Shoreditch is, you see, a living laboratory of hair styles. Indeed, it is internationally renowned. Most notably it was the roundabout birthplace of the Hoxton Fin, first sported by Shoreditch's eponymous Twat. This hairstyle swept the world, carried by style icons such as David Beckham (right).

So it is where you should go if you want to see the follicular future. And, friends, I've seen it first-hand - or, more properly, first-furry lip. Casually leaning against the wall of St Luke's churchyard was a young blood sporting a pair of Dali-like moustaches, waxed and curled into perfect part-circles (see below - it was closest to 'connoisseur' but even more extravagantly curled).

So what, you say? You may well have come across one of these on the phizog of a youngster having inadvertently stumbled one evening into some trendy urban hell-hole. Yes, I can well believe it. But I feel sure the personage wearing such carefully-teased lip-gear was kitted out in a similarly eccentric outfit: inspired by a WWI fighter pilot, for instance, or perhaps Dali's own cape-and-cane rigmarole.

However, the notable thing about my find was that the young fellow was otherwise ordinarily and casually dressed. Jeans, desert boots, unremarkable shirt, boring jacket: a sure sign that this formerly eccentric facial accoutrement has mainstreamed.

So calling all WAGs: you may soon find yourself hanging on the arm of a foppish, moustachioed dandy. Beware parents: your teenage male progeny will soon start looking like a spotty El Mystico. And marketers of hair products: start dusting down those long-retired pomades and nets.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

You'll only encourage them

Brit continues to bemoan The Mary Beard Experience, rightly so. He points to her bizarre and insensitive views as being typical of the knee-jerk anti-American left. Which, of course, they are. However, he struggles to explain why she might hold them. I would argue that to pursue a rational, political explanation is to head off in the wrong direction.

MB is merely a show-off. She most closely resembles Rod Liddle. In fact, she's the female Rod Liddle, just as Rod Liddle is the male Mary Beard. They're two peas in a pod, the golden couple of exhibitionism.

There's usually no point in trying to rationalise their views - instead, look to what sort of effect they have. That gives you the secret of why they hold them. They just play to different galleries.

Personally, I think their natures are to be found pretty much entirely in their photos (which I can't bear to reproduce here). I'm sure you knew these types during your schooldays: the ugly, clever girl who finds the attention she craves by setting out to shock the nuns with her unconventional views and by flashing her knickers at the boys; the ugly, clever boy who shows off his unique qualities by dying his hair purple and by being plain rude, consideration and politeness being examples of bourgeois hypocrisy, oh yes.

Nothing wrong with all this, of course. We probably all did a bit of it. But, then, most of us grew up. We probably had to as, unlike our celebrity couple - and let's give them their due here - we didn't have the talent for shocking, the cleverness and the flair, to be able to make a career out of it. Or perhaps we just didn't have the neediness.

Anyway, what is to be done? As your mother told you when you were provoked by this sort of child: 'don't dear, you'll only encourage them'.

A British Palin

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Promptly following my questioning why there wasn't a British Tea Party movement (shamelessly ripped off by Simon Jenkins), here comes Daniel Hannan volunteering to lead one. But does he have what it takes to be the British Sarah Palin?

Hands down

This story has been bothering me since I read it on the weekend. It's a remarkable example of how money can become so important to an individual that it actually inflicts what it is commonly reckoned to protect against.

The increase in marginal tax rates has encouraged Guy Hands, the enormously wealthy private equity entrepreneur, to move to Guernsey to become a tax exile. He's not able to visit his family in England if he is to retain this status. This was revealed in the course of prosecuting a case against the advisors who sold him EMI, a failing investment by his firm Terra Firma. Allegedly, the crafty bankers who sold him the company encouraged him to overpay (something I'd supposed they were paid to do).

Most people, if they had Guy Hands' £250 million fortune (according to the Sunday Times's Rich List) would surely use it to live where they wanted to, not in the place that was the most economical for them, and certainly not if that meant they weren't able to live with their family. This sort of situation is more often associated with migrant workers driven from home by poverty.

All quite peculiar. Perhaps we should invert some of our more usual descriptions? How compromised you can be when you're dependently wealthy, what being desperately rich can drive you to do...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Website designer in compensation shock

Surely the real story here is that a website designer managed to bring his client to book after having done lots of the usual unpaid 'just one more little thing...'?

This is usually the most you can hope for.

A British Tea Party

Reading some of the US blogs you occasionally come across British supporters of Sarah Palin. Their comments usually run along the lines of 'if you guys don't want her, we'll take her off your hands'.

I wondered why in Britain we don't have an equivalent of a Palin or a Tea Party movement. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. There's not the same suspicion of the state in the UK as in the US.

2. The US has a revolutionary tradition and we don't (cf. Tea Party).

3. We have some Tea Party equivalents. One is UKIP. However, the state it opposes - the EU - doesn't fuel the same popular feeling. Another is the LibDems: a third party with mainstream representation that continually opposes business as usual and so provides a lesson in the potential and limits of this approach. Finally, the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland are intrinsically anti-establishment (or at least anti-Westminster establishment).  Perhaps an English nationalist party would be our Tea Party equivalent?

4. There's much more cynicism (or a lot less idealism) about the possibilities of politics over here. It's difficult to see people getting excited about any politician or any political cause at the moment. It's more a case of disengagement and 'a curse on all your houses'.

5. The importance of the individual. We don't have a Sarah Palin - a charismatic populist capable of tapping into people's anti-government and anti-élite feeling.

6. The class system has got the British used to being screwed over by an élite - the perpetrators of economic and financial disaster produce a shrug of the shoulders rather than anything more concrete.

7. There's no room in the British political system for a radical movement to get any traction, at least at the centre: first past the post, power focused on Westminster, the inconsequentiality of local councils.

8. There's no TV channel to fuel and support a Tea Party movement, unlike Fox in the US (though there are a lot of newspapers that I'm sure would sponsor something like it).

9. The US is a bigger, more diverse country - there's simply more space between federal government and the people and between the coasts and the interior for such particularism to thrive. Conversely, the British élite has much more of a grip on the country than any US grouping could possibly hope to possess.

10. Perhaps the biggest difference: the Tea Party movement seems to get a lot of its energy from the religious right. We don't do religion in the same way.

And finally, you couldn't use the term 'Tea Party' over here as it brings to mind chimps drinking PG Tips.

Any more? Will anything change to produce one? Should we wish for one?

Monday, 8 February 2010

The super rich connoisseur and the schoolboy

Felix Salmon on the recent record $104 million sale of a Giacometti sculpture:
[T]his is proof of the primacy of the fungible. The most valuable works of art are increasingly not unique, but rather part of an edition: the Giacometti is just one of ten, including four artist’s proofs. Hugely-expensive works by Koons are always in an edition; sculptures by Murakami often are; and in the world of painting, where uniqueness is pretty much a given, the most expensive artists — people like Warhol and Prince and Hirst — are often those who paint the same thing over and over again, allowing many collectors to buy essentially the same artwork.

This, of course, contradicts what we would think intuitively about scarcity in art and collecting more generally: that the unique is worth more than the multiple. Unique is always used as a term of approbation; it provides an important part of an artwork's aura, perhaps the most important part. Or so we'd think.

Why, then, are the most valuable artworks ones that are issued in an edition, ones that are deliberately rendered non-unique? Well, I suppose that if you were looking to buy one of an edition and the others pieces were all owned by wealthy, discerning people or institutions you would get a degree of comfort that there was some objective value there. In art this is particularly important as objects have no utility value and there is no universally agreed benchmark of quality. In fact, it provides the supreme example of something only being worth what someone's willing to pay for it.

So the more people there are who are not only willing to pay for a work but have actually paid for identical versions of it, the more validation you have that the version you're buying is worth something. Some sort of consensus about value has been established and it's been backed up by hard cash. Ultimately, it comes down to the old saw that there's safety in numbers.

And this turns out to be an extraordinarily valuable advantage in an artwork. Uniqueness is obviously still an attractive value. But in this instance, it hasn't merely been superseded, it's been entirely obviated. This must mean that the comfort factor, the underwriting effect of multiple versions being variously owned, is so valuable that it not only offsets the loss in value from the lack of uniqueness, its net effect is actually to add a premium. In a group of broadly similar, highly expensive artworks security of value seems to trump everything.

Now, the proposition that human beings prefer the security of the herd over the risks of singularity is fairly unremarkable. But what is perhaps peculiar is to see it demonstrated so clearly amongst the super-rich, who one would think less prone to this sort of behaviour. When I used to trade the latest craze in the school playground - whether top trumps, coins, marbles or stamps - uniqueness was a supreme value. Might we therefore conclude that schoolboys exhibit more discrimination and confidence in their judgements than the average super-rich art collector?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Dung roaming

We went to Tate Britain today to see the Chris Ofili show. I thought it was very nice-looking - the dark room with the illuminated monkey paintings was simply stunning. Highly decorative - by no means a bad thing - but, for me, no more. I wonder whether it's because the African and black cultural references don't have the same resonance for me? Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

We took the elephant poo in our stride. Our four-year old didn't seem to think its presence in a painting was that remarkable. His main concern was with the logistics. He saw the disadvantage in not hanging the paintings with 'string': as they lean against the wall, sitting on two cannon balls of poo, his little brother couldn't roam around in case he touched them. But the key issues were the negotiations you'd have to conduct with the elephants (he wondered whether they might have suggested the idea in the first place), the need to travel out of London to talk to them (he knows they're no longer located conveniently at London Zoo, having moved to Whipsnade), and the requirement to wear gloves when you transported the poo. But on balance, he thought, it was all worth it as it would involve contact with elephants.

Afterwards, we decided to walk along the north bank of the Thames back to Westminster, then cross over to the South Bank and get the bus home. On the way, we stopped off in Victoria Square Gardens and had a look at the Buxton Memorial Fountain (below). I'd often seen this whilst driving by and wondered what it was all about. It dates from 1865, commemorating the end of the slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834.

One of the reasons I'd noticed it before was the combination of colours used in the roof of enameled steel panels: like other Victorian schemes it's one we wouldn't dream of coming up with today. Close up, the colours look no less peculiar and the various Gothic encrustations add to the monument's strangeness: gryphon and sea monster gargoyles, sparkling little mosaics mostly of water fowl, various types of masonry including two different granites. And you can see for yourself below the exuberance, complexity and detail of the stone-carving.

It brought to mind those Hindu temples in India whose roofs are like a steeply-banked football terrace packed with colourful gods. I felt I was in the presence of a sort of European barbarian art that had dropped out of our collective gaze at some indeterminate point in the past century. (By the way, there were no references in the design to slavery, which seemed strange - the designer S.S. Teulon obviously felt under no pressure to be relevant).

And it struck me that all this was at least as exotic as Ofili's work back at the gallery. I'm not saying it was qualitatively better or worse. It just seemed, if anything, stranger and more foreign. I wonder whether this was why Ofili's work didn't have the impact I expected - after over a century of African-inspired primitivism in European art, nearly forty years of Funkadelic-style album and CD covers, and about fifteen years of British art incorporating such artifacts as elephant poo, sharks, bacon and eggs, etc. - were the themes a bit run-of-the-mill? Perhaps our four-year old's matter-of-factness is shared by us all now? And perhaps what would be really weird to see in a contemporary art show is some odd enamel panelling enlivened with a few creepy gargoyles?

Friday, 5 February 2010


I've just finished reading Lynn Barber's memoir 'An Education'. It's honest, amusing, gossipy, interesting. It's also written in an enviably easy, conversational style that can treat serious, sometimes complicated issues with down-to-earth clarity; an excellent example of the plain, almost invisible English most famously championed by Orwell.

She's certainly one of Fleet Street's finest - even if, as is evident, not the easiest of people (but then this is probably a requirement of being a good journalist). I still remember a number of her Independent on Sunday interviews, and that's without having re-read them in collected, book form. That's pretty good going, given they appeared nearly twenty years ago.

They don't all fix in my memory for particularly profound reasons - Richard Harris playing 'pocket billiards' during a tracksuit-trousered interview at, I think, The Savoy sits there indelibly, for instance.

However, I recall a couple of more serious aperçus. I think she said in the course of an Anthony Burgess interview (or possibly review) that she couldn't believe that someone who purported to love language so much could torture it so.

This comment - which has some truth in it: I don't think Burgess's love was ever a particularly comfortable thing - came to mind in Waterstone's a couple of days ago. I had ten minutes to kill and apart from admiring how the Notting Hill branch seemed to be transforming itself into a neighbourhood bookshop (the recommendations of 'bookseller' staff were prominently displayed) I had a quick look at which authors were being stocked at the moment, using that as a proxy for fashionability.

Poor old AB was only represented by A Clockwork Orange, despite having written over thirty novels. In the early '90s - around the time when Barber was doing her IoS interviews - the newspapers were debating whether Graham Greene or Anthony Burgess was the greatest living (or recently dead - they died in '91 and '93, respectively) English author. So quite a fall.

And I suspect Barber identified one of the reasons why. Burgess was deliberately demanding and, in some eyes, tiresomely tricksy in his use of language. That sort of modernism is not appreciated so much today. Being a devout Joycean he had a parallel earthy relish for the bodily - probably not as much of a disqualification for modern-day popularity. But then his further preoccupation with the mystique of the Catholic Church probably undid this good work.

The famous opening line of 'Earthly Powers' (how could Waterstone's not stock this one?) provides a summation of all this:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

It's all there, really. And if I had to choose the most memorable Burgess word it would, I'm afraid, have to be 'micturate'. His characters do a lot of it in unembarrassed Bloom-like fashion but they never merely take a piss.

Not to everyone's taste, but I like it. And if you enjoy autobiography, his is a great read: the first of the two volumes, 'Little Wilson and Big God', is particularly good. I haven't read the Roger Lewis biography as it's one of those where the biographer comes to hate his subject so much he turns on him, Barberesque hatchet in hand. But it evidently struggles to repress entirely the positive. Blake Morrison summed up what Lewis thought of Burgess: 'lubricious, sentimental, callous, superficial, crapulous, arcane, laborious, sanctimonious and "essentially a fake"'. Who wouldn't want to read someone whose enemies described him thus?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Question times

We're going through one of the periodic phases of being down on our politics. Personally, I feel sure that overlong exposure to G..... B....* would make me physically ill; an unprecedented danger. And then there's all the other stuff: expenses, lies, irresponsibility and so on.

But despite our justifiable despondency, it's important to keep things in perspective. There are some things we do well. Or at least things that other people think we do well.

Firstly, Prime Minister's Question Time. No, it's probably not what it was. But nevertheless, others are seeking to emulate it.

Obama took questions for over an hour from Republican Congressmen last week and the process was so enlightening - he shredded his opponents' threadbare points - that there's a web campaign to introduce an official and regular 'President's Question Time'. This sort of face-to-face dialogue is seen as a way to get at the sometimes elusive truth. I would guess this is especially valuable in an environment where TV news is so politicised (mind you, Fox cut away from last weeks Q&A, presumably because what was happening didn't fit their remorseless anti-Obama narrative).

Secondly, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. I went to a birthday party last weekend and got talking to the French parents of my eldest son's new best friend. Unprompted, they expressed their surprise that Blair, a former Prime Minister, should have to give an account of himself in such public and thorough fashion. They said they couldn't imagine that happening in France and thought it very creditable. Some American commentators have also been complimentary about it too.

There's been a lot of knocking of the Chilcot process as being overly soft (personally I would have liked to have seen a more forthright approach at times, and from others rather than just from Sir Roderic Lyne - perhaps a different eponymous chair?). But at least it's happening. And we should resist being too judgmental until the report is out.

We might hold our leaders to account imprecisely, sporadically and sometimes noisily. But at least we do it and in direct, public fashion. To adapt Dr Johnson: a powerful British politician's ritual grilling is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but some are surprised to find it done at all.

One factor that helps us in this - certainly versus France and the US - is the leader of our executive branch not being the head of state. You don't have to be restrained by much ex-officio respect for G..... B.... as he doesn't embody the state or the country. As Robin Day said he's one of those 'transient, here-today...gone-tomorrow politicians'. And tomorrow can't come quickly enough.

* Nige appears to have adopted the habit of not spelling his name out. I think this is a good stress-reducing idea. If only I could get him pixilated whenever he appeared on TV too.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Two large bowls of jellied eels

I was in my local fishmonger's on the weekend, Steve Hatt on the Essex Road. Whilst I was waiting to be served I took a look at their list of orders for collection on the day. It was mostly fashionable seafood for smart local restaurants - I noticed Ottolenghi were due to pick up 2kg of razor clams and 3kg of king prawns. But there was also one entry that read:
Two large bowls of jellied eels - FUNERAL

That's what I like about the Essex Road (one of my earliest posts was in praise of it): it keeps it real, bruv.

Jellied eels somehow seem a more appropriate accompaniment to a funeral than baked meats. I can see the mourners exchanging regretful comments between lugubrious spoonfuls of silvery eel and golden jelly, turning away occasionally to suck on the odd piece of protuberant cartilage. Disgusting.

I like seafood and I like pies so it pains me to say how much I dislike traditional Cockney delicacies. I think it's fairly self-evident what's not to like about eels, even though they are very popular with some (all of them too: my old Pop - my London-born step-grandfather - used to scoff even the cartilage). But with pie and mash, what seems promising is let down by poor execution.

The last time I tried a portion was at Clarke's, down on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. Gritty mince, leathery pastry, insipid liquor and watery mashed potato. The application of lots of malt vinegar and white pepper got me through it. It was very cheap, mind, and they were quite busy.

It pains me to be so critical - I really would like to enjoy Cockney grub. It corresponds to what otherwise I've always understood to be good and true in the world. In fact, I can't think of another instance where I haven't liked the local, traditional, everyday food of a place (unless it's featured tripe): pelmeni, wurstl, pizza, croque monsieur, balti, burgers, gallettes, chips and mayo, waffles, herring (pickled and smoked), tapas, salt beef, stovies, noodles, fish and chips, tacos, kebabs, knishes, dosas, phô, pasties. And so on. No, I really would like to enjoy Cockney grub. But I just can't.

P.S. Poached cods roe, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in seasoned flour, then shallow-fried and eaten with chopped parsley and a squirt of lemon. Words fail me.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

From cad to bumbler

Judging by a couple of comments on the last post, James Fleet (right) is a much-loved actor. His portrayals of an upper class nitwit in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and 'Vicar of Dibley' are definitive for our day: bumbling, well-meaning, eccentric, harmless. Other examples of this type are provided by Richard Briers in the 'Monarch of the Glen' and Charlie Higson as Lord Ralph in 'The Fast Show'.

It hasn't always been like this, though. I think we've had three distinct ages of the portrayal of the posh bloke. First, in the 1950s through to the '70s, he was rather dashing and arrogant, a cad, a rake, sometimes both. He was played by actors such as Terry-Thomas (below), Leslie Philips and Patrick Macnee.

The second age, which dawned in the 1980s, saw the posh bloke played as an effete bon viveur, languid, dissolute, perhaps doomed for some mysterious reason. Anthony Andrews (right), Rupert Everett and Rupert Graves played him. When the posh bloke was played against this type - Peter Bowles in 'To the Manor Born' - it turned out he wasn't posh at all.

And then the inauguration of the bumbler, largely by 'Four Weddings'. (Incidentally, Hugh Grant bridged the two most recent stages: from languid in 'Maurice' to bumbler in 'Four Weddings'.)

I'm sure this development reflects the social position of the aristocracy in Britain. When they had real influence, we could laugh at them but they weren't too much of a joke; indeed, they could be quite impressive, even dangerous. In the '80s, their social decline was obvious for all to see and so their portrayal took on an elegiac tone. And now they're rather like otters or the vole: endearing, harmless, a charming ornament to our national life. In fact, they almost call forth our protective instincts - are they, perhaps, endangered?

It's interesting how posh blokes in the acting world have adapted to this change in social attitudes. If you have leading-man good looks you may struggle to find a posh part to suit your posh background, outside of Jane Austen adaptations, at least. And playing a part below your social class might be tricky: it's something that is not always easy to pull off convincingly, and hidebound casting directors may not give you the chance anyway. This may explain why two young Eton-educated actors with leading-man good looks, Damian Lewis and Dominic West, went off to the US where they made their names playing the somewhat unlikely roles of, respectively, American GI ('Band of Brothers') and Baltimore-Irish cop ('The Wire').

In that other branch of showbiz, politics, the posh bloke has gone some way to de-emphasise his social class. Cameron, for instance, brushes up as fairly ordinary: I bet he's 'Dad', he lives in slightly shabby North Ken, he wears trainers, he rides a bike, he doesn't shoot or hunt (at least publicly).

But not everyone follows social mores so prudently; there is another strategy, even if it's been adopted so far by just one man. Boris Johnson has cleverly embraced the prevailing bumbling stereotype and used it as endearing, disarming cover whilst he deploys his well-disguised cunning to manoeuvre himself into power.

So, Boris - the first posh bloke since Terry-Thomas to be known by a shorthand - is really the James Fleet of British politics. Or perhaps a Patrick Macnee in James Fleet clothing. Well-loved but deadly. Could have potential...

Monday, 1 February 2010

Four Weddings, a Funeral and some thoughts

Topical as ever, here are some random thoughts on watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the nth time (but not for a while):

- Why does Hugh Grant fancy the ghastly Andie McDowell so much, at best the third most beautiful potential partner in the film?

- Why does he think twice about marrying Kristin Scott Thomas, the second most beautiful? When I first watched it I thought this was unjustifiable on grounds of beauty. But now the script tells me she's sister to the 'richest man in England' my thinking has moved onto other, more practical grounds.

- It's a terrible shame the most beautiful, Charlotte Coleman, died so young. She had real filmic charisma and, I feel sure, had some incredible work ahead of her.

- The gay couple would probably have had one of the weddings rather than the funeral if it were filmed today.

- What razor does Hugh Grant use? I've never seen such a pristinely hairless jowl. And hairless chest. (Or was he an early-adopting waxer?)

- Weddings are so awful: hot wool, airless marquees, boring guests, long days, tearful and hysterical drunkenness, awful bands.

- Everyone used to have hair like Tony Blair. Now only Tony Blair does. Is this why he's no longer in power?

- T and I first saw this as a young couple. Kids change just everything.

- Can you have a good romantic comedy now we all have mobile phones? So much turns on not being able to communicate.

- It's actually very funny and charming. And I'm not surprised lefties hated it being as it is so full of nice-looking, posh people agonising over mostly trivial problems (or at least the sort of trivial problems that would occupy a Jane Austen).

- Good use of fuck throughout - particularly fond of 'fuck-a-doodle-do'.