Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If the headline is a question, is the answer automatically no?

Or in the case of this video, is asking whether George Bush will be the most unpopular president ever, a reliable guide to his future reputation?

Still, it's a good overview of presidential reputations, and a good warning against making snap judgements. For instance, Harry Truman left office with even lower approval ratings than the current incumbent, but I doubt many people will bracket the two together in years to come.

It's quite the intellectual parlour game, this business of presidential reputation. There's a few surveys (here's a summary, with the usual caveats, from Wikipedia) in which there is a broad agreement on the worst presidents (Buchanan, Harding, Pierce). And there's an even bigger consensus on the top of the list: Lincoln, Washington and FDR as the three best, Jefferson next and Teddy Roosevelt the best of the rest.

There are those who get widely different ratings (eg LBJ and Nixon), while some of those who usually make the top ten: Truman and Andrew Johnson have some pretty big controversies: Hiroshima, the start of the Cold War and Indian Removal (okay, that isn't really a controversy these days). Still, both score highly in other regards: in the case of Truman, few would argue Marshall Aid was a bad idea and there was a growing awareness of the near-impossible circumstances he faced which put his decisions in a more favourable light.

Symptomatic of this shift was Henry Wallace, the vice president who was bumped off the 1944 Democratic ticket (he'd managed to piss off half of Washington and was thought too likely to take a soft line with Stalin.). In 1948, he stood against Truman on the Progressive ticket (the Democrats had splintered three ways, with Strom Thurmond standing for the white, Southern Dixiecrats, no wonder Truman was expected to lose). However, in later life, Wallace decided he had, indeed, taken a far too emollient line towards the Soviets and produced the political memoir with the best title of the genre: Where I Was Wrong. I'd like to see more like this, but somehow I suspect Tony Blair may take the opposite path. Still, you may wish to draw contemporary parallels if you like that sort of thing.

Personally, I'd like to inject a note of sneering negativity – or honesty, as some call it – to these historic debates. In this case: my list of the most over-rated presidents. It's tempting to start with Clinton and Reagan as both are bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia given the style and troubles of the current administration. As a corrective I could cite such things as Iran-Contra; voodoo economics; the failure to deal with al-Qaida, get Kyoto passed and fatal dithering in Rwanda and Bosnia – plus it's arguable that others deserve the credit for such achievements ending the Cold War and keeping the economy ticking over.

But for now I'll stick to Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom instigated policies which have pissed substantially in the soup of posterity.

In the case of Eisenhower, his bid to take to the heat out of the Cold War (which evokes wistful comparisons to today's hands-on school of Republican foreign policy), involved some pretty questionable tactics. Under him, the CIA developed the practice of covert operations – events such as the overthrow of Mossadeq (look how well Iran has turned out since the Shah got back into power); of Lumumba (ditto with Congo); plus the organisation of the Bay of Pigs operation, a fiasco which Kennedy didn't have the confidence to veto (I don't need to labour the point, do I?). The problem is, this policy trend continued throughout the Cold War (hello, Dr Kissinger) – nor has it entirely gone away – and has left a legacy of mistrust, if not hatred, of America in large chunks of the world, plus an institutionalised and cynical fondness for house-trained tyrants and fanatics and under-hand, morally questionable actions. The current utter fucked-up-ness of the Middle East is just one of many consequences of this.

As for Wilson you can sum up his presidency thusly: "only a naive white person would ever claim he was a great president". The reason is that this icon of liberalism oversaw the extension and defence of segregation at a Federal level. I won't insult your intelligence by outlining all the political and cultural implications, save to add that the federal government was one of the best means of Black advancement at the time, but I think we can agree this isn't an ideal form of liberalism?*

Worst, Wilson's greatest achievement – the League of Nations – didn't involve your actual achievement of something of lasting worth. The fact that league became a useless talking shop is partly attributable to Wilson's failure to get the US to join the damn thing. (The fact the at the end of the presidency he was utterly incapacitated, but hadn't really told anyone and was letting his wife run the show on the quiet, probably didn't help him rectify the problem.)

Racism and a totally worthless international talking shop: it's not the best of legacies, is it? For all his faults, I'd say Truman did rather better.

*NB: I know Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. (And, gosh, didn't they feel guilty about it?) We all know this isn't great, but they didn't put the clock back on this issue.


What do Robert Fisk and Miss Teen South Carolina have in common?

A: Both have attracted a fair amount of comment (mostly derisory) on the interwebs after making embarrassing and ill thought-out effusions.

A bonus question: which of the two do you feel more sorry for?

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Friday, August 24, 2007


Luxury lederhosen.

Wohlmuther, who works with a local jeweler in the Styrian town of Liezen, said his first pair of luxury lederhosen — decorated with 166 diamonds — went to a German buyer who lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, earlier this summer. He said he hopes to attract more interest from that region, as well as from Russia.

In München steht ein Hofblinghaus, ein, zwei, g'suffa...

(A German of my acquaintance once translated g'suffa as "up your bottom", I don't think that's quite what he meant. But you can take your oompah and shove it....)

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Obscenity, I'm for it

Give me smut and nothing but!
A dirty novel I can't shut
If it's uncut
and unsbutl-le.

Tom Lehrer with what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.

These thoughts were prompted by this entertaining blog on erudite filth and why the division between porn and erotica is nonsense. (I must confess, though that there is something faintly disturbing about dozens of Guardian readers discussing what gets them going.)

The curious thing is that while smut is easier to get hold of these days, the market for poetry is dwindling all the time. I say this is curious, because poetry (lyric verse, certainly) is possibly the best way to purvey filth: a sort of rhythmical thrusting way to insinuate itself into the reader's emotions, if you like.

Filthy verse has a long and distinguished history, of course: the ancients were adepts, writers such as Byron and Baudelaire had their moments, a glorious last gasp of Gaelic Ireland was Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (the Midnight Court) by Brian Merriman (pretty sinuous when read aloud in Irish) while, in English, the supreme master was Lord Rochester.

But today? There is some good stuff , for instance, I like Neil Rollinson's poem which begins:

Fucking in zero gravity
is something else,
as Jan from the particle lab
ably convinced me.

Here's some more of his erotic verse (note he doesn't call it filth, for pity) but it's all tad literary. This, I think, is the reason why poetry in general doesn't get the sort of penetration it once had: to much intellectual stroking and licking without an aesthetic climax. So what better way to revive the art than adopting a more direct style to discuss everyone's favourite pre-occupation?

Of course, there is plenty of ribald verse out there, but from what I can tell (to be honest I haven't looked all that hard) it's mostly junk writing. Same applies to the market for erotic books (you know, the Mills and Boon with dangly bits marques that you see on sale in railway stations).

So, my question is this: am I missing out on lots of lyrical smut due to the follies of the publishing industry? If there was more reader friendly, well-written smut out there, do you reckon it would sell? Is this the way to revive traditional verse forms as an integral part of modern culture? I think it could just work.

It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination, for instance, to see Rochester as a precursor for some of the hip-hop lyrics which cause such pious angst. (Bling was, after all, popular in Restoration England).

I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk before seven; and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of a clap,
I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap.
Then we quarrel and scold, 'till I fall fast asleep,
When the bitch, growing bold, to my pocket does creep;
Then slyly she leaves me, and, to revenge the affront,
At once she bereaves me of money and cunt.
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coil do I make for the loss of my punk!
I storm and I roar, and I fall in a rage,
And missing my whore, I bugger my page.
Then, crop-sick all morning, I rail at my men,
And in bed I lie yawning 'till eleven again.

Up with this sort of thing. Careful now.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

EDW: Lafcadio Hearn

I am not certain what aspect of this summer is more distressing. The rain, the heavy skies, the dullness of these dog days; the fact that the brief outbreaks of sunshine prompts an outbreak of pale, wobbly skin, shorts and singlets on people who should not be wearing them, men wearing sandals; or the fact that so many people dress in this distressing, unpleasant travesty of summer wear no matter what the conditions.

It prompts memories of the times and places when people would not allow hot, humid weather to stop them from dressing elegantly but, rather, adapted stylishly to their conditions. One thinks of places such as New Orleans in its heyday as a city of dandies and duellers. Or of places such as old Japan: the kimono is a fine way of combing grace with ease of wear.

Which brings me to Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-born, Anglo-Irish chronicler of both those places (pictured here with wife). As a young man he moved to the US and finally made his way down to the mouth of the Mississippi. For many years his sketches of the city provided a vivid portrait of all aspects of the place. These are collected in the book Inventing New Orleans, a revealing title in itself, given his influence in creating our shared mental image of the city.

In the course of collecting his unparalled vingettes, Hearn haunted the high places and low life alike. His writings evoke, variously, its high society; the gilded elegance and ante-bellum decay of a place that had made its money on the back of slavery; the bordellos and gamblers; the disease and decay of its swamplands and the mystery and strangeness of voodoo (an example of which may be found here.)

Hearn later moved to Japan, where writings such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan did much to introduce many Westerners to the country's culture and, in some cases, reintroduced the Japanese themselves to many aspects of the more arcane aspects of their own heritage.

It was in Japan that he found his true metier and his aesthetic ideal:

I believe that their art is as far in advance of our art as old Greek art was superior to that of the earliest European art-groupings. We are barbarians! I do not merely think these things: I am as sure of them as of death. I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does.

Leaving aside the slightly wistful Orientalism of his views, its easy to see why his popularity endures in Japan. A further point, however. To see the world so beautifully requires a proper elegance of dress, even in the most humid of climates.


Hunting, nuking and swishing: a guide to saving the planet

Here's irony for you. I watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on a plane to the US. That's life though, messy and uncomfortable. Which is why I hadn't thought to say anything about the Heathrow climate camp: I thought it a pointless exercise which was more about massaging the egos of the participants, making BAA look like twats (a pleasing side effect, I concede) and likely to have no effect whatsoever in terms of getting people to fly less and lead more environmentally friendly lives. (This argument is well made by the Jura Watchmaker here). In fact, I'd add that implying that ordinary people are stupid and evil and guilty of destroying the planet by flying off on their hols is probably the worst possible way to get people to change their behaviour. (Bribery would work better for me if any rich and/or attractive protesters are reading this).

Anyhow, whilst it is both easy and appropriate to carp and sneer at such people (and at the arguments of those who seem to believe that this passive-aggressive hectoring is the best way to start a debate, despite the fact that the climate camp did their damnedest to ensure that the media sources the vast majority of the country relies upon couldn't properly report the thing) it's not enough. So here are some practical hints on how you can do your bit to save the planet.

1. Sleep more, do less. If you're flat out with the lights, TV and so on turned off, you can't do anything harmful or consume any resources. Those of you with significant others might be able to amuse yourselves in the dark, thereby cutting back on your electricity bills. I mean talking and that, obviously, anything that carries the risk of bringing more kids into the world would be disastrous.

Work less too and have a long lie in every morning – you won't be using electric equipment, there will be no polluting journey to work etc. You will expend less energy, therefore reducing the need for food to be transported to your neighbourhood. Best of all, a few months of this regime will leave you with less money so you will not be able to take flights abroad or buy things that might contribute to environmental harm. In the hours of daylight one might be permitted a little light flanerie, or to read. (A hardcore environmentalist might decide to retrain as a bard in order reduce the literary world's reliance on paper).

2. Be less indulgent towards children. They're the ones who'll suffer if the planet goes tits up, after all, so it's for their own good. If children are used to being treated like the most important people on the planet, it's little wonder that they'll demand more and more things like toys and sweets and what not. The toys will invariably be produced in China, which is now the world's worst polluter, and the demand for more outputs from factories will only increase emissions further. Most kids will happily amuse themselves with everyday household objects such as scissors, empty wine bottles, matches or the contents of the bin.

An additional bonus is that if kids grow up with low expectations they will demand less in future thereby easing the strain on the planet's resources. And though I've said it before, I'll say it again: treadmills for fat kids, hooked up to the national grid.

3. Buy vintage clothes. Less demand for cotton, fewer heavily polluting sweat shops in the Far East. Old stuff also looks better and lends one a certain old world charm. It's the only way I get to wear Savile Row stuff, anyhow. This solution also offsets - ha - the financial problems caused by suggestion number 1.

4. Hunting, shooting and fishing. This is not to say we should all live in the country, obviously. All that mud and inbreeding is off-putting, while nothing is quite so annoying as the Goldsmith school of environmentalism. You know, the sort that advocates we all live on several acres of land and grow our own food and keep chickens: indulgence that would have made Marie Antoinette blush.

You're better off living in towns or cities – any environmentalist who does otherwise will end up skewered by their own sanctimony as George Monbiot was when he decided he really did need to buy a car because he wanted to live in the country and still go to events to flog books. (The obvious solutions: stay in a city, get by on fewer royalties or accept that lots of people need cars and stop hectoring them didn't seem to occur to him.)

That said, there are aspects of traditional country live that city dwellers might usefully adopt.
You know beef is really bad for the planet, don't you? And, since soya is blamed for destroying the rainforests, tofu munchers have nothing be proud of either. (Unless the soya used for tofu is somehow magically different from that used to feed cattle.) The best way round this is to eat more wild things. If you can afford to buy game, do so. If you can afford to head up to northern Britain to shoot birds and deer, do so. Take up fly fishing and wear more tweed. Take up fox hunting and agitate for the law to allow the sport to resume more organic killing methods (ie dogs). The sport helps cut down on wasteful farming practices by keeping sheep and chickens alive and it ensures the countryside is given an economic boost, thereby ensuring the unfortunates who have to live there can afford to keep it in decent trim. The Facebook group Vegetarians for Fox Hunting is the ultimate expression of this ideal.

If you can't afford any of these, poaching is a traditional and fun solution. I think we should take a lead from those enterprising Poles one reads about who are catching ducks and carp from parks and canals.

5. Annoy environmental campaigners. Not by telling them to get a job or wash, but by forcefully advocating the merits of nuclear power and GM foods. (As an aside I would also urge you to mock readers of the Independent newspaper in the same fashion you would those of its right-wing twin the Daily Mail. Snort with derision whenever you are in a newsagents and it does another "Climate Change: Bush is poisoning us all" front pages. It's just porn for the politically solipsistic).

However large sections of the green campaigning movement treat GM and nuclear power as absolute no-nos. This despite the fact that, as things, stand nuclear power is the only sure way to meet our power needs without relying on oil. I do get the point about the dangerous of nuclear waste (until scientists manage to crack nuclear fusion, anyway) and poor safety standards at power plants – and yes, I know the construction of the power plants is not going to be carbon neutral – but these are things that might happen, whereas the only other way to generate enough power is to keep on burning oil and coal. And we know what the consequences of that are

That said I would certainly like to see more investment in developing alternative technologies – in fact, if any of you have some spare cash to invest, do so in companies which specialise in that sort of thing, thereby enraging the anti-capitalist crew further.

GM, on the other hand, has the potential to feed millions. Aside from reducing the sum total of human misery in the the here and now, it could also potentially reduce the environmental degradation caused by intensive farming techniques. There is a quite reasonable objection to how large companies might exploit this technology but this is akin to objections about how drug companies exploit their patents. It's not enough reason to dismiss in a most superstitious fashion the technology itself for being somehow unnatural, prevent any scientific study of what impact it has on the environment, seek to protect your organic brand identity or witter on about health risks without providing any credible reason why they should be bad for one's health.

As defenders of the Climate Campers said: we need to debate these issues. And some things are too important to be left to self-righteous hippies.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Just because

Something infective and joyous: Laisse Tomber Les Filles. France Gall, singing Serge Gainsbourg – and as readers of this blog should know, that's a combination that will bring a smile to the face. Groovy, bébé.

And for those of you who are in particular need of cheering up (not me, thanks. I'm fine), Quink has posted a story that has everything. (Larry David would approve).

UPDATE: here is what is, in retrospect, a rather unfortunate picture of the vacuum cleaner man in question.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Gin lane, redux

Britain's drug dealers over-whelmingly support a move to raise the legal age for buying alcohol to 21, an exclusive Foolish Interruption poll can reveal.

However, most of those questioned were less keen on moves to raise the price of alcohol, pointing out that while it might be good for business, they were partial to a beer themselves and didn't see why they should suffer because of the actions of a minority.

In a survey conducted around Brixton tube station and Cold Harbour Lane, nearly 81% of the local entrepreneurs questioned expressed support for removing a legitimate way for young people who are old enough to join the armed forces, drive and vote to get their jollies. Of those, nearly 73% said they were "very" or "fairly" keen to add legal sanctions on the competition. An additional 63% managed to keep a straight face when adding that they were very concerned that drink-fuelled violence caused by young people was one of the biggest problems affecting their neighbourhood.

A similar number, 67%, also responded postively to a suggestion that youngsters who drink too much be placed in care homes where they would be far easier to target. "We are businessmen," said one, who declined to be named. "Kids in care are our focus group. It's important to know your market."

In a similar survey of police officers, 46% said: "Don't be so cynical, Dornan. America is a much less violent society (except for, well, you know). But that's a different matter,"; 33% were too busy trying to link cheap cider to the latest spate of shootings and 21% said: "When dealing with a number of complex social phenomena in which a culture of aggression, loosening social and familial ties, diminishing education standards and the complex nexus between growing economic inequality and rampant materialism – to say nothing of an historic predisposition towards drink-fuelled rowdiness – all need to be considered, scape-goating one lesser aspect of the problem for the sake of trite, simplistic newspaper headlines which appeal to the middle classes who do not experience the worst aspects of these problems is unhelpful and quite possibly counter-productive. Now if you could just launch an irrelevant rant about speeding tickets it would be far easier to dismiss all you've said out of hand."


Quick update

This sums up this nicely. Francis Wheen is a fine fellow, I do hope he doesn't get sued. After all, he is repeating the alleged libel and I doubt that a journalist on a respected paper would have made up a claim that the Independent's lawyers would fund his threatened action after a blog without a dedicated libel fund had repeated the same allegation.

That said, I am sure that the fact it's August is the only reason the suit hasn't been filed yet. The fear that any Indie vs Gnome case would attract a lot of coverage, and that one of the Indie's "star" employers might be exposed in court has having been guilty of the odd terminological inexactitude, shouldn't be a factor if there's a principle at stake, surely?

If the fear of looking like a wanker is what's stopped the latest writ; you've got to imagine occasional Big Brother pundit Hari as a sort of cartoon creature (yes, too easy, I know) who runs off a cliff and runs along in the air, legs pumping, for a couple of seconds before looking down and realising his mistake.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

EDW: Jawaharlal Nehru

Since both India and Pakistan are celebrating their 60th anniversaries, this is as good a "happy birthday" as I can manage. While Gandhi gets all the plaudits in the west thanks to his non-violence shtick, I'm afraid his appalling dress sense (half-naked fakir, indeed) disqualifies him from an EDW.

Jinnah would be a different matter, but since Pakistan has not quite developed in the fashion in which he might have hoped, I think Nehru is the best choice. Not that Nehru was perfect by any means – but he's one of those exceedingly rare politicians, like Churchill, who were wrong about many, many things (eg Churchill was wrong about India, Nehru's economic policies were disastrous), but who provided vision, leadership and inspiration to their country when it was most needed. In Nehru's case this resulted in a state which was essentially secular and democratic – not perfectly so, but the many, many examples of what happens when India veers away from this path suggest that with poorer leadership in the early years things could have been much worse.

His speech at the time of Indian independence is once of the finest of the last century, but the fact that he delivered it whilst wearing a type of clothing that would be named after him seals it. Rare are the statesmen who have items of clothing or accouterments named after them (Gladstone bags, Wellington boots, Mao jackets, even Anthony Eden hats – why hasn't anyone named a handbag after Maggie Thatcher?). Not even Churchill managed this (although he did have a champagne named after him and Special Brew was created in his honour).

However, it's 60 years since Indian independence, but it's probably still too soon to try and have a sensible discussion about the British raj, much less on the interweb. (That said, I'd be interested in any decent arguments about what responsibility the Brits, and Mountbatten, have for the post partition bloodshed: was if foreseeable at the time? was it realistic for the Brits to stay in India longer?) Unfortunately any such discussion does tend to veer between the "we brought peace, civilisation and stopped you burning widows to death" vs "you bastards, you stole all our money and killed us" and the self-flagellating converse. Still for sensible discussion of these topics, this is as good a place as any.

Nevertheless this is a good a time as any for modern Britons to reflect on what a remarkable accident of history the Raj – and, by extension, much of the British empire – was. When Charles II was given Bombay as a wedding gift (it was just a pawky wee island) he hived it off to the East India Company at the first opportunity. And if you'd told the 17th century traders who worked for the company that it would one day rule most of the sub-continent, that the whole land would recognise British rule and that it would sweep away the Mughal empire they'd have though you were crazy.

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Important organisations sometimes employ idiots, shock

Wikipedia claims that it has evidence that, among other organisations, the CIA, the Vatican and the Democratic party out of the US have all been tweaking references. The only thing I find worrying about this is that the tweaking is so petty and pointless.

On the profile of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the tool indicates that a worker on the CIA network reportedly added the exclamation "Wahhhhhh!" before a section on the leader's plans for his presidency.

The Democrats are worse. One of their employees couldn't find anything better to do on the whole of the interweb than accuse talk show host Rush Limbaugh of being a "bigot" and branding his audience "legally retarded". (This is the party that couldn't even beat George Bush and which is now in charge of a Congress which has lower poll ratings than the widely despised president. Something about glass houses and whatnot comes to mind here.)

One occasionally reads articles (mainly from pompous, middle aged and successful people) about how the internet is having a pernicious effect on public discourse. These overt displays of childish behaviour make it easier to argue that is the case, but then the internet makes so many things easier: conspiracy theories linking the CIA, the Democrats and the Vatican in some nefarious plot to poison our minds are easier to propagate online. So what?

There is one thing which baffles me, though. Why on earth would someone in the Vatican be so worried about defending Gerry Adams from accusations he was in the IRA? Surely even someone who believes that God never wants them to get laid and that they can turn a wafer into the body of Christ would find the Sinn Fein president's denials in that regard laughably unconvincing. (An aside, the Catholic church in Ireland and in the wider world never supported the IRA, even if some individual priests were heavily involved.) Yet, Wiki claims:

The site also indicates that Vatican computers were used to remove content from a page about the leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams.

The edit removed links to newspaper stories written in 2006 that alleged that Mr Adams' fingerprints and handprints were found on a car used during a double murder in 1971.

Wikipedia is an online resource noted for inaccurate and misleading claims [citation needed] but which sometimes provides a reasonable factual overview[needs verification].


Monday, August 13, 2007

Keeping it riyal

Saudi Arabia has produced its first ever pop music video. As you might expect, it's a pretty religious affair:

Unlike pop videos popular elsewhere in the Middle East, the video's female star, Ruwaina al-Jihani, appears covered up in black with only her face showing.

The saucy minx. I've a few Arab songs on my iPod. I fondly like to imagine that some of the young ladies singing on them, who have voices that could make an imam kick the kaaba, would show more than their faces. Very sensual it is, anyhow, and not very religious. Anyway, I digress, because I can't imagine they are officially available to the Saudis (who would at least understand the lyrics). Back to the topic in hand.

The song tells of a young Muslim who strays from the true path by smoking, flirting and skipping prayers.

You know this will end well. The noteworthy thing is that this morality tale seems to echo the spirit of a 1950s American pop song (although I'd say it lacks the verve of that sub genre):

He suffers by losing his fiancée, falling behind at work and then having a serious motorcycling accident.

Only he lives, and goes back to the mosque – along with his motorbike gang – and all is well again.

Here is the vid, anyhow. Slick, though they make it pretty hard for anyone not get the message: Western ways, having fun - bad. Praying - good. (I particularly like the bit with his colleagues dressed in traditional dress praying while he lounges at his desk smoking and wearing, the horror, jeans and t-shirt). The music, well, it's no worse than most of the shite godless infidels turn out.

PS: Here's something that I imagine will not be available in Saudi Arabia anytime soon, though I can't rid myself of the suspicion it's all an elaborate joke. (It includes a sample of Serge Gainsbourg's 1967 paen to the Israeli armed forces, which is how I found it in the first place. Do you think I'd go looking for French Hassidic rappers? Now if only he were a techno artist, I could end with a Hassid House gag to complement the headline).

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Bloody Puritans

An especially idiotic example of morality getting the better of humanity. The Government might start jailing prostitutes again.

Now, this isn't an old school form of morality aimed at punishing the filthy harlots. Prostitutes are to be offered counselling and the like in the hope of getting them off the game. Rather, they'll be forced to have it, or else. If they refuse this help, if they refuse to concede that the people trying to help them are right and they are wrong to do what they do, they will be jailed. Classic puritanism, in other words: our sense of morality will trump your ability to make your own decisions as to how to behave.

Meanwhile, and in a delicious irony, it seems the Government's own websites are helping to recruit staff for escort agencies.

When you're out saving fallen women, save one for me - Disraeli to Gladstone.


The loves to love the loves to love the loves to love

Norm Geras is somewhat exercised by a poll of the Greatest Love Stories of All Time, in particular by the number one position for Wuthering Heights. As he puts it: "a love story cannot be the greatest, in which things go badly wrong and one of the two romantic protagonists ends up merely a ghost... the greatest of love stories turn out well in the end".

It's understandable that a man who celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary recently would feel that way, but I don't buy his arguement. The greatest love stories have that epic-y, soul-shaking quality that, for many people, is bound up in failure, disappointment and all the rest.

I'm also guessing that most of those surveyed were women – please note, this is not supposed to be a criticism – partly because of the fondness for things like Gone With the Wind (I've never seen it, but I just know I'm supposed to hate it) and the preponderance of love stories in which the relationship between the two protagonists is absolutely central.

By way of illustration, let me point you to Rowan Pelling on this topic: "Great romantic fiction invariably requires that grim Fate conspires to keep two lovers from one another, so the reader is skewered on the rapier point of emotion. If the author is of an amiable and optimistic disposition, he or she may finally allow the beleaguered lovers their union. If the author is Thomas Hardy, then one or the other will usually end up dead."

Additionally, she makes the handy observation that a lot of men really aren't so good at this emotional stuff (imagine my surprise) whereas many women yearn for a Mr Darcy figure. (I'd be careful there, I think this Darcy complex is unintentionally revealing: that gold-digging little minx Lizzie Bennet suddenly got much more interested when she realised just how loaded he was. If he'd been broke he'd have been written off as a moody old bastard.)

Still, I might be able to answer Rowan's dilemma here (although I too prefer Patrick O'Brian):

Is it so wrong to demand a little romance in our dreary lives? As the UKTV poll establishes, 37 per cent of women would rather have a Darcy-type figure court them than a modern man. Modern men responded by saying that two thirds of them have never read a romantic novel in their lives - and "what's wrong with Patrick O'Brian anyway?" Well, that's what they said in my house anyway.

I don't think men are opposed to love and romance, per se, but a narrow, obsessive, sometimes neurotic, focus on it is alarming and off-putting. What I'm saying, really, is that a great love story doesn't need to be a simple relationship, or romantic, story. The epic-y soul-stirring stuff can come in many contexts: it is but one part of the richness of human experience, after all.

You can see this in some of the books on this list of love stories, particularly War and Peace and The Great Gatsby. This latter is an excellent choice – it's a favourite of mine – but it's about many things as well as romantic love. (We could, in fact, call those many things Romantic love: the glamourous world that seduces and damages many of the protagonists, Nick's own yearning for the sublime, Dick and Daisy's dangerous self-conceit, Gatsby's own talent for self-invention and myth-making and – of course – the yearnings which underpin all this).

Here are a few others I think worthy of inclusion on the list of great love stories, but they aren't just your few inches of ivory.

The Divine Comedy: Dante's love for Beatrice is the ultimate in hopeless yearning. Yes, there's a lot of theology, and plenty of score settling with Dante's opponents. But this near-lost soul is saved by her love, although he must first pass through the education of Hell and Purgatory before attaining his desire. After all that Paradise is rather dull. It's a good illustration that embellishments to Happy Ever After are a bad idea. (Virgil features in Dante, and I suppose you could also add the Aeneid to the list – love sacrificed on the altar of duty and all that).

The Odyssey: Come on, ten years to travel a few hundred miles through the Med. All those malicious intervention by the gods. The temptation to give up and enjoy yourself with foxy nymphs like Calypso must have been over-whelming. But no, Odysseus didn't give up, kept trying to get back to his missus. Penelope must have been pretty keen on him too since she stuck it out so long. That's quite some enduring love you've go there. (I could also include Ulysses in this list. Partly for Leo and Molly Bloom – I doubt Norm would approve – but also for Joyce's love of language and Dublin itself. I'm not so keen on the place myself: give me Cork or Belfast any day, but still. Incidentally, the title of this post is lifted from the book, via Van Morrison.)

Moscow-Petushki: If you don't know what I'm talking about, read it. Various English versions, with varying titles exist. The Stephen Mulrine translation (Moscow Stations) is out of stock unfortunately, but if you can beg, borrow or steal a copy, do so as it's the best. Otherwise, this translation is easily available.

Anyhow, Venedkit Yerofeev's work is better than The Great Gatsby, Ulysses and even PG Wodehouse, which makes it the best of the 20th century. Seriously. It has many of the qualities of Dante and Homer's great work, only much funnier: the profound, moral and theological struggle ("Eat less, drink more, so as not to be a superficial atheist"), suffering (especially when he can't find anywhere to serve him a drink, the struggle to attain the paradise that is Petushki (heavy irony there from Venichka) and the reunion with his loved one. Of course, it being set in Communist Russia there's no chance of him succeeding. His massive and heroic consumption of booze might also make things rather tricky. And there is a second, equally touching love affair here: between a man and the hard stuff. Alcohol is his only lodestone, the only thing which supports him and gives unconditionally to him, his life partner, his everything and nothing.

To give you an illustration, here is one of the greatest passages from the book.

In a word I offer you Dog's Giblets, the drink that puts all others in the shade! It's not just a drink. It's the music of the spheres. What's the most beautiful thing in life? The struggle to free all mankind. But here's something even more beautiful. Write it down.

Zhiguli beer 100g
Sadko the Wealthy Guest shampoo 30 g
anti-dandruff solution 70 g
superglue 12 g
brake fluid 35 g
insecticide 20 g

Let it marinade for a week with some cigar tobacco, then serve.

I have incidentally received letters from idle readers recommending that the infusion this obtained be strained through a colander, no less. Yes, bung it into a colander and leave overnight. God only knows what next – all these additions and emmendations derive from a flabby imagination and lack of vision. That's where these absurd notions come from.

Anyway, your Dog's Giblets is served. Drink it in big gulps when the first stars appear. After two glasses of this, I tell you, a person becomes so inspired you can walk up to within five feet of them and spit in their moosh for a whole half-hour, and they won't utter a word.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Future schlock

Dear me, I've been a bit slack posting here, haven't I? Blog etiquette demands I should say sorry, but I feel no shame about it. So...

It's no surprise given the amount of sheer bollocks we're confronted with at the moment. Silly season stuff should be meat and drink to someone like me, but it's mostly sub-par this year (Is this Lord Lucan? type of stories are a real sign of desperation.)

Much better is the story that an Israeli physicist has worked out a framework in which time travel is theoretically possible (in much the same way that it is theoretically possible that next year I'll be distracted from posting by Kiera Knightley and Scarlett Johansson rubbing sun cream on each in a wanton fashion by the pool outside and asking me to come lend a hand). In any case, the Telegraph even adorns the story with a few talking heads on what they would do given access to a time machine. For lovers of the obvious it doesn't disappoint, with the obligatory "I don’t believe in murder but I would definitely go back and shoot Hitler". I'm disappointed that no one has gone for the equally obvious arm yourself with a list of Derby and Gold Cup winners and head off with bales of cash, however.

Stephen Hawking isn't buying it, however, with the rather obvious point that we'd surely notice any visitors from the future. “We have no reliable evidence of visitors from the future. (I’m discounting the conspiracy theory that UFOs are from the future and that the government knows and is covering it up. Its record of cover-ups is not that good.)”

Furthermore, the whole killing Hitler idea seems to be problematic. Adopting Stephen Fry's conceit from Making History (which probably came from a different source originally) that things might have turned out worse had Hitler died, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to envisage a scenario in which someone flies back in time to stop Hitler from being killed, followed by someone who thinks this makes things worse flying back to stop the assassination, and so on. Soon you would have a line of people in strange 21st century garb fighting each other in a Munich beerhall or by an infant's cradle in Austria (you could expand this idea by having the time travelling vigilantes trying to outsmart each other by intervening progressively earlier in the Führer's career, but I don't think I need labour the point any further). I think people would notice this sort of thing, that's all.

In any case, any respectable attempt to stop World War Two would involve stopping World War One. And rather than getting the police in Sarajevo to buck up their ideas or what have you, the proper way to do that would be by stopping the Franco-Prussian war, thereby reducing Germany's military swagger and France's desire for revenge. (Also it would remove the prime source of cheese-eating surrender monkey jokes, but one must make these sacrifices).

Besides, this would be a most agreeable way of altering the course of history. In between gaining the confidence of Napoleon III in order to prevent him from sending that idiotic telegram to Bad Ems (telling him he would live out his days in Chislehurst would be a good way to do it), one could have a whale of a time (funded thanks to one's uncanny ability to pick winners at the race track) drinking champagne, nailing some of the celebrated courtesans of the era, frequenting saloons and, perhaps, ripping off some poems from the likes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé (one would start a few years before the war to fully immerse oneself in the era).

It's either that or setting up diversity awareness workshops for the lads heading off to the Crusades.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Kalakuta Show

Much more important than a change of government: Fela Kuti's legacy. "My name is Anikulapko. I have death in my pouch. They can't kill me."

What a life story too: he declared his home to be an independent republic, ignited protests across western Africa, became the unofficial leader of his country's opposition (and suffered a brutal retaliation from the authorities), married 27 women in one go – and he founded his own musical genre: Afrobeat.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the great man's death – it's worth remembering that it was from Aids, something too many of his African admirers don't want to accept – the Beeb has a look at how his lyrics are still relevant to Nigeria's problems (down even to the families involved: Obasanjo and Yar'Adua).

Of course, it's really just a chance to remind ourselves of Fela's fantastic musical and cultural legacy because an article restricting pointing out that Nigeria has problems with corruption, undemocratic practices, exploitation, poverty and religious division would be an exercise is stating the bleeding obvious. Although this is a good example of how an artist can be the most astute and articulate voice pointing out these facts.

However, if I'd been writing the BBC piece, the song I'd have chosen to demonstrate the malign influence of religious conflict on Nigeria wouldn't have been Coffin for Head of State, which is more about religious hypocrisy. It would have been Shuffering and Shmiling: a song which has almost everything: mesmeric grooves, explosive lyrics, incisive commentary on religion and one section of scat in Yoruba (I've no idea what he's saying, but I like the sound of it).

And if you doubt my word about what a fantastic musician and performer he was there's always YouTube to set you right.

Finally, my favourite Fela story, from here: "I asked him which musician he most respected. The answer was unexpected. 'Handel. George Frederick Handel.' I told him my father was a Handel freak and we discussed, amid the dope smoke, Dixit Dominus and the Concerto Grossi."


As I have been saying

My Gordon Brown as John Major gag gets the serious treatment courtesy of Alice Thomson in the Telegraph (as did the Cameron as Kinnock line in the Observer a couple of weeks back). She also points out that while he's made a lot of dour noises to appease the puritans, who are, it seems, happy merely at the prospect that fewer people will be having fun, he's not done much. Perhaps the lack of action is what pleases the voters but I'm going to reiterate: if the Guardian and Daily Mail both approve of something (eg axing casinos) it's a bad sign. The headline of the article 'spin with a puritanical' twist sums up her arguments nicely.

But if the new premiership achieves nothing else, it should make it obvious that Blair and co were, despite being indelibly linked to the concept, completely hopeless at spin. All politicians try and make themselves look good: but when you only manage to look superficial and insincere it plainly isn't working. Though Brown may not be up there with the masters of spin like Tony Benn or Ken Clarke (I am not joking, they have a genius for personal image making) he's done well on presenting a new image for the government without all the hassle and difficulty of making much of a policy shift.

Example: foreign policy. He flies to Washington, refuses to call Bush 'George'. Wears a suit. Gives the impression that he won't just fall into line. He tells Bush the he could pull troops out of Iraq at any moment. Bush responds 'Ah, but you won't. Because that would be irresponsible'. Brown says: 'Well of course I wouldn't. But I could'. Bush haters appeased, Brown falls into line in return for cooperation on matters of mutual interest such as Darfur. Precisely what Blair did, in fact, only without the chumminess.

Now it can't be that the moralists who have embraced the new Brown premiership so joyously (and who, incidentally, believe no one will ever notice that, as Chancellor, he allowed rich city types to get so rich that they've pushed the price of housing way beyond what most people can afford - and, puritans should hate this, forced lots of desperate people to take on stupid levels of debt, leaving Brown now scrabbling to fix the problem before it becomes a political time bomb. I suspect he might have left it too late) are dazzled by image and style. So why the John Major style bounce - in polls as well as among the punditocracy?

My guess is this: they're seeing what they want to see and Brown has little choice but to let them down later. The people who will eventually feel the most let down by politicians (no matter of what ilk) are the ones who deceive themselves that the politician in question is something they're not.* So while Brown presents himself as not-being Tony Blair (you don't say) he's continuing Blair-era policies. In other words, the people who are reveling in the new political era are deceiving themselves (and the ones doing it newspaper columns are – wittingly or otherwise – codding the public). Their subsequent wailings (say, in 18 months' time) about how disappointed they are that Brown is continuing with the policy direction he funded for ten years the fault will be down to this self-deception rather than a fundamental contempt for the electorate. It's not just that we get the politicans we deserve, we tend to get the spin we deserve too.

*A friend of mine, who will remain nameless to spare his blushes, is the person I know with the greatest level of contempt towards George Bush, precisely because he spend six years singing the man's praises. Needless to say, someone with such catastrophically poor political judgement is now a big Gordon Brown fan.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

An unpopular choice

I don't need to bang about the delights of the intertubes and how it allows you to keep tabs on/catch up with old acquaintances. But I've experienced a particularly fine example of it this week, when I learned that someone I knew fairly well at university is now the Conservative PPC for Cheadle.

It would, of course, be quite wrong of me to repeat the many amusing anecdotes about Ben Jeffreys from his college days (I have a horrible feeling he is precisely the sort of person who did not indulge in any sort of drug-taking at university) and the Lib Dems really don't need encouraging when it comes to dirty, underhand tactics.

But there are worrying signs from the man's short bio. He's a teacher (you know what I've said about them entering politics), but there's also this gem:

Ben is also a descendent of the legendary ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffreys - how would the Judge have tackled local anti-social behaviour?!

So much wrongness in one sentence. It's hard to know where to start. The use of the exclamation mark is damning enough. As is the dog-whistle law and order stuff. But trying to claim the mantle of Judge Jeffreys is plain crazy. To remind you, this was a man who was unpleasant even by the standards of the legal profession; a blood-crazed bully; a Stuart lickspittle and a craven, corrupt wretch.

It was said of Jeffreys:

His behaviour was beyond anything that was ever heard of in a civilized nation. He was perpetually either drunk or in a rage, liker a fury than the zeal of a judge. He required the prisoners to plead guilty. And in that case he gave them some hope of favour if they gave him no trouble... This made many plead guilty who had a great defence in law. But he shewed no mercy. He ordered a great many to be hanged up immediately.

He died ignominiously in the Tower. As Macaulay wrote:

The hatred of which Jeffreys was the object was without a parallel in our history, and partook but too largely of the savageness of his own nature. The people, where he was concerned, were as cruel as himself, and exulted in his misery as he had been accustomed to exult in the misery of convicts listening to the sentence of death, and of families clad in mourning... Hanging would be too mild a death for him: a grave under the gibbet too respectable a resting place: he ought to be whipped to death at the cart's tail: he ought to be tortured like an Indian: he ought to be devoured alive... Nay, the rage of his enemies was such that, in language seldom heard in England, they proclaimed their wish that he might go to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, to the worm that never dies, to the fire that is never quenched.

Later in the passage we encounter one of the first recorded uses of the "I was only obeying orders" defence:

'I served my master,' said Jeffreys: 'I was bound in conscience to do so.' 'Where was your conscience,' said Tutchin, ` When you passed that sentence on me at Dorchester?' `'It was set down in my instructions,' answered Jeffreys, fawningly, 'that I was to show no mercy to men like you, men of parts and courage. When I went back to court I was reprimanded for my lenity.'

As a teacher, and member of the Conservative History Practitioners' Group, one assumes the judge's descendant knows all this and has concluded these are the qualities needed in an MP. I predict a Lib Dem hold.