Friday, September 28, 2007

More of the same

Italian nuns have left quite a subversive legacy. This is thanks largely to the literary labors of Pietro Aretino, a Venetian author who is today hailed as the “father of modern pornography.” In addition to his ground-breaking book of sonnets – The Sixteen Postures, which described a string of athletic sexual positions with handy engravings – Aretino penned the classic Secret Life of Nuns, whose panting prose would not be out of place on today.

Not, sadly, something I was aware of when I wrote this. Venetian nuns seem to have been quite the party girls, a number of them were accused of "sex crimes against God".

Read more. It's always worth expanding one's stock of knowledge in this way, isn't it?


The perils of drink

Weegie gets four-week hangover after a mere 60 pints. What a wuss, although it turns out that he'd have okay if he'd gone for an Irn Bru livener. (Thanks to Ross who suggests the timing may not be entirely coincidental.)

Drunks should do funny stuff if they want to make the news. Something like this hapless Bavarian boozer.

A German man who had been drinking heavily at Munich's Oktoberfest beer festival got stuck in a chimney for 12 hours while trying to climb into a friend's apartment, police said on Friday.

Somehow, I fell this tale should be accompanied by a parping oompah tune. The detail I love is this.

He had managed to turn around and had removed his clothes to try to help him squeeze back up.

Why in God's name? Because if there's one thing more embarrassing than being stuck in a chimney, it's being stuck in a chimney naked. I wonder what sort of surprise he was planning for his friend?


Thursday, September 27, 2007

The people have spoken: just get on with it

I wouldn't have thought that Gordon Brown was much of a gambling man, but if he really is going to call an early election I'll have to reassess that. To go to the polls would be the act of a real high roller: enormous risk with no much reward on offer. A gratuitous act done for the pure, intoxicating thrill. (Oh and it "will do no credit to Brown, the Labour Party or British parliamentary democracy".)

But, you might be asking, what of the chance of getting his own mandate, dishing the Tories for good, and cementing a liberal-left lock on power? Mere stuff, I reply. The worst thing that could happen to Brown is that he'll be compared to George Canning; the best is a comparison to Tony Blair. My guess, though, is that he'll end up turning himself into John Major: a small majority which leaves him in thrall to his own party's awkward squad and leeches away his authority. A combination of poor weather, a few more economic jitters – maybe even a few nasty shocks– and voters asking "why now, what's he hiding?" could very easily leave him in that unenviable position.

Nor do I think he'll necessarily compare well with Tony Blair in future years. If you were to split Blair in half (form an orderly queue there) and divide his most disagreeable characteristics equally between the two halves – say his vacuity, slick PR-driven style and transparent thirst for power on side; his intolerance for debate within his party, obsequious pandering to the very wealthy and shameless appropriation of Thatcherist ideas on the other – you'd pretty much end up with Cameron and Brown.

Still, like Norm, I enjoy elections. A close bloody fight which leaves both leaders looking weak and foolish would be just fine by me.

I've been wondering, though, why Brown leaves me so cold (in the case of Cameron it's easy: he seems like a prat). This week, though, it all fell into place. Never mind all these lazy references to his Presbyterian roots and being a son of the manse (I have Presbyterian roots and I would hardly feel put off if I'd learned a young lady I was keen on was the daughter of a clergyman). The thing is, Brown gives of the unmistakable odour of a Victorian public school headmaster. It was his wholesale appropriation of Edward Thring's mantra: everyone has talents, we must work to ensure that they achieve their potential that finally clinched it for me.

It's worth pointing out that I went to Uppingham, Thring's old place, where this was still a guiding principle. While it's sound enough in principle – a statement of the bleeding obvious, in fact – it had a few practical problems. It gave the school a particular appeal to the parents of rich thickies who could be coaxed through exams given sufficient attention, but who didn't need to be pushed or encouraged to think because they could fulfill their potential on the rugger pitch. The other problem is that this whole thing rather implies that life is a process of working towards a set purpose to which our talents direct us. Pious, deterministic guff, in other words: we're not machines that need to be finely tuned; well-rounded, interesting, valuable people are flawed individuals who waste time on stuff they might not be great at rather than nurturing their potential in things they are talented at.

Put it this way: do you really think David Beckham would have given more to humanity if only he'd spent more time practising his free kicks? Would the world be a better place if Madeleine Bunting honed her skills for writing utter tripe about religion that bit more; if I made more of an effort at drinking and conjuring up mischievous historical analogies?

I should have spotted Brown's headmasterish-ness when he started his term of office by alluding to the dear old school's motto and British values (because no other nation cares about things like looking after each other). The signs were when he was started spouting off about patriotism and the empire's civilising mission.

Then there is the almost intolerable combination of priggishness and cant in his heavy-handed efforts to impose the correct moral tone on the nation. Remember the delight his u-turn on the casino was greeted with by the most sanctimonious elements of the press (the Mardian, we might call them). Yeah, turns out that gambling's not so much of a problem after all. Then there's more of the same with hints at cutting back on our drinking time. Why? Simply from the desire that we must be made to behave as our betters would wish.

Of course, while the heyday of the public school turned out pious, hardworking Christian gentlemen, they also underpinned a society which was characterised by massive economic inequality and unrestrained greed from the more rapacious elements of the city. Still we needn't worry about that* so long as people are taught to work hard, love their country and to behave themselves.

* Unless after a mere ten years of setting taxes it becomes politically embarrassing.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Elegantly (Partially) Dressed Wednesday: A Naughty Nun

I'm pretty much fed up with people complaining about how offended they are. Especially those who insist that their religious beliefs should over-ride everyone's right to free speech because it's such an important part of their identity that... well, it just means a lot to them, okay? So respect them, or else.

So frequent has this become that it's pointless to even begin to log all the case of this special pleading - you probably remember such classics as the Mo Toons, Jerry Springer: the Opera, – more recently, there have been riots over the suggestion that there is no actual evidence that Rama and his monkey army built a South Asian version of the Giants Causeway, another cartoon of Muhammad as a dog and, guess what, Jesus given the same treatment. In Australia it's even reached the absurd levels of Christian and Muslim nutters dukeing it out in the courts.

The trouble with this whole process of taking offence is that there are so many ways in which it can be used to weaken everybody's rights. There are various arguments employed: sometimes it's racist to attack Islam (or AN Other Faith,) but attacking atheism is just fine; sometimes it's the argument that religion is a good thing so it should be beyond criticism; sometimes, and this is the one that silences a lot of good people, it's because religion is such a fundamental, ha, part of people's lives it's really important we mustn't seek to undermine their views because by doing this we're undermining the person.

This last is the most insidious, because it appeals to people's better natures; but really, it's amazing that these arguments don't attract more mockery and aggression. Because anyone who claims that believing in something, anything (could be in Jesus as our Lord, could be that Prince Philip is a god, could even be that Lenin was right) gives them the right to demand that everyone else modify their behaviour accordingly is a menace.

In such circumstances, it's best to pick your battles carefully. And I think I've found one that should be dear to all our hearts: the right to look at pictures of topless nuns: in this case, outside a former convent in Wales.

Tenby Town Council is urging planners to refuse permission for the sign which depicts a nun lifting her bodice.
They claim it is "disrespectful and inappropriate" for use outside the former St Teresa's Convent building.

This is the perfect summary of why this sort of thing is so wrong-headed. We need not detain ourselves with the absurdity of public representatives acting a sort of morality police to decide what is and is not, appropriate - impropriety is fun, besides – nor the obvious fact that it isn't a bodice she's lifting.

As for the disrespect, while it's quite right to respect individuals and the views they hold, no belief system as a whole has the right to respect; that only happens if you happen to believe in it yourself. In this case: yeah it's disrespectful, too bad. It's not going to harm any Catholics who see it and who happen to have a deep respect and affection for nuns (not all do, I gather). Note also the fact that the "offensiveness" is not severe that the British media can't reproduce the image to allow people to judge for themselves how grave the offence is.

There is a more fundamental reason for my concern, however. A prohibition on the display of naughty nuns undercuts one of the more deep-rooted, and fun, currents of Western thought. It is possible that the councillors were worried that the sign was a continuation of the British tradition of anti-Catholicism – this concern is as commendable as it is ignorant.

The belief that locking young ladies away in a repressive environment produces interesting effects long predates the Reformation, and all its attendant distrust of Popery. It is found in the writings of Boccaccio, it was a standard theme of reformers such as the Lollards and it cuts across the barriers of religion, nationality and class.

Without this prurient, lascivious, and wholly entertaining, attitude we would have been denied much of Gothic fiction, the more philosophically challenging passages of de Sade, the Decadents, as well as a fundamental part of the collective erotic imagination – and without that goodness knows where we would be. If you doubt me, try Googling "naughty nuns" or – and I did this purely to test my hypothesis out of courtesy for you – "Catholic schoolgirls" and you'll see what I mean.

It has helped such significant cultural figures as Edmund Curll, who published Venus in the Cloister or the Nun in her Smock, and who was hauled up before the courts for so doing; the Hell Fire club (members included Dashwood, Wilkes, Sandwich and Franklin); Pepys and Balzac. It would also appear that Nunsploitation is an entire cinematic sub-genre which may repay further investigation – if anyone can claim superior knowledge of this, do enlighten us.

Naughty nuns are a vital, and often neglected part of our heritage. Sadly, it seems that the developer has pussied out of this one. I am offended by this.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

If you're going to sell your soul, I'd go onto eBay for the best price

This autumn's hottest ticket in Prague is the work of Satan, as an 800-year-old work of his goes on show after 359 years of it being hogged by the Swedes, who pinched it during the 30 years war.

Codex Gigas, also known as the Devil's Bible — a medieval manuscript said to have been written 800 years ago with the devil's help — has returned to Prague after an absence of 359 years.

This AP report, written in a prose style which could be used to torment hapless, but literary minded, sinners in the afterlife, has more. The monk who compiled the book is reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil in order to get the thing done in one night. He'd apparently promised to do so to atone for his sins, and... well, logic wasn't really his strong point.

Worse, it's not even an alternative bible , something which might, say tell you to do all the wicked things like wear clothes of more than two fabrics; plant different crops in the same field; criticise the institution of slavery; spill your seed in entertaining, non brat-spawning places and eat sausages which the regular Bible deplores – dash it, it could even have even more juicy, lurid and fruity stories than the original. Instead: 'It contains "a sum of the Benedictine order's knowledge" of the time, including the Old and New Testament, The War of the Jews by the first-century historian Josephus Flavius, a list of saints, or a guideline how to determine the date of Easter.'

In other words the same old stuff everyone has heard before, plus lots of boring facts about obscure things and some rather crude and childish drawings. Not really worth selling your soul for: is it? I have some friends who produce books of boring facts about obscure things for a living, but I doubt very much they would sell their souls just to add some rough jottings to illustrate them.

The question I should like to ask you is: what sort of literary work would you be prepared to sell your soul for? It's not as easy as it may sound, when you consider that the while Devil may, perhaps, arguably have the best tunes (though for my money the harmonies of Spem in Alium beat the opening tritone to Purple Haze); Satan's literary output does not stand up to closer scrutiny. He might have inspired the more memorably bits of Paradise Lost and Les Litanies de Satan, but works attributed to him include tedious, self-aggrandising rants such as Liber Legis; obscure, occult unread and other apocryphal stuff; works by religious nutters of which religious nutters of a different stripe disapprove, and the collected works of Jeffrey Archer.

By contrast, the far more entertaining Devil's Dictionary was solely the work of Ambrose Bierce.

No wonder God claims a near monopoly on the disposition of souls, rather than allowing a proper free market to operate. Ought we to sue in a bit to dismantle this cartel?


Friday, September 21, 2007

If you are concerned about this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing which will cause you concern

Some of you might not be too interested in the possible takeover of Arsenal FC. Some of you may not even be terribly interested in football, but here's something football related which should worry you: the heavy-handed application of Britain's unfair libel laws to silence criticism.

Since lots of more committed types have picked up the story: I'll keep it brief. Former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray wrote of his concerns about oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who's seeking to increase his stake in Arsenal. Usmanov objected to these comments and others from blogger Tim Ireland (no idea who he is, a fair few geeky politicos seem to do so, however) but rather than suing directly (and remember, even then Murray would have had to prove the truth of his comments – he says he's quite willing to attempt to do this) he leaned on the hosting company, which, not wanting to risk the courts, pulled the plug on Murray's blog, Ireland's blog, Arsenal sites and a whole host of others which had nothing to do with the Usmanov spat. (Boris Johnson's was one of them, as everyone who blogs about this is contractually obliged to note).

Now, clearly I don't know whether Murray's claims are true or not – you can easily find them via Google if you wish to know more – but let's see what Usmanov's lawyers said in a rather curious bit of pre-emptive threatening sent to all national media outlets.

Mr Usmanov was imprisoned for various offences under the old Soviet regime. We wish to make it clear our client did not commit any of the offences with which he was charged. He was fully pardoned after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office. All references to these matters have now been expunged from police records . . . Mr Usmanov does not have any criminal record.

Got that? He didn't do it. And even if he did, he has been officially cleared and there's no record of it. Which means it never happened. For some reason it reminds me of Marlowe's Jew of Malta. "Thou hast commited.." "Fornication. But that was in another country. And beside, the wench is dead."

There's so much that stinks about this. The unfair libel laws that, uniquely in English law put the burden of proof on the defendant, and which make it far too easy for people with money to silence their critics. The fact that this particular rich man is leaning on the weakest links – the blog hosts – to avoid a potentially trick court case with someone who, as our one-time man in Tashkent, presumably knows a few things about the topic.

Then there's the fact that because of this legal stuff a possibly questionable character might get the wealth and status that comes from owning a leading football club with few awkward questions asked because the media is too scared to ask questions. In fact, Usmanov's links to the deeply unsavoury Karimov regime should be enough to get the alarm bells ringing. (Although Thaksin Shinawatra's takeover of Man City, has already proved that the FA isn't too fussy about ethical concerns.)

But, as others have already noted, if bloggers can be shut down this easily, then we all are potentially the poorer for it. A final question, though, if Usmanov's takeover succeeds, would you eat the sushi in the Arsenal boardroom?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A reminder

It's still international Talk Like a Pirate Day, so if you still have the urge to drink rum in low company, it's not too late.

People have always been fascinated by pirates, even in their heyday when Captain Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates was a best-seller which did much to create the popular image of the swash-buckling rebel. But, remember, this fascination can be taken too far, as in the case of one the most unfortunately named sports teams ever: the Butte Pirates. You can probably do your own jokes about plundering booty and all the rest of it.

PS: I first encountered the Pirates in this list of the worst sports names of all time. This list is, however, sadly parochial and misses some even more ridiculous names from outwith North America. Admittedly pirates don't feature. But with teams like the Mysterious Dwarfs of Ghana, shirt sales favourites Deportivo Wanka of Peru and the unbeatable* Dangerous Darkies of South Africa, who needs them?

*In footballing terms they are very beatable. As this old league table shows. They've been declining ever since and have a limited web presence.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

You can never go wrong with sticks and porter

With all the good-old fashioned panic outside the banks and in the City, one of the strangest topics of debate is whether or not the people who were queueing outside Northern Rock branches to withdraw their money were acting rationally.

A silly question. The only possible answer is, of course it isn't rational: the only way a British bank could possibly collapse is if everyone started panicking and taking out their dosh at the same time, which is what people have been doing.

The question is, is this sort of crazy, irrational behaviour understandable? Again, of course it is. Humanity is hardly noteworthy for a consistent adherence to rationality, after all. If people feel their life savings are at risk – especially if everyone else is doing the one thing that will put them at risk – it's hard to say otherwise. (This Graun blog and these Times pieces pretty much says the same if you prefer a serious slant to it). This behaviour is even more understandable when you realise that no one, really, understands finance and economics. Certainly not me; not most journalists; not the government, which is flapping like an especially camp pigeon when a sparrowhawk hoves into view; not even the people who are paid to write about these things (though I do know they are less confused about it than me).

Even the loveable scamps in the City who try to scrape together enough for a new Ferrari by gambling with everyone else's pension money don't seem to know what's going on. In fact, they seem even more prone to herd instinct and panic than anyone else. "Ohmygod, like, the banks have lent sooooo much money to people who can't afford it. And now the banks are, like, totally, fucked and have nooo money and everyone else is selling. We'd better do what everyone else is doing" sparks a grin-and-bear-it market. Later they notice how crazy it is and soon: "Ha, ha. Where are your market forces now? The government won't let the banks go bust and all those idiots who sold have pushed the share price down far too low and now everyone's buying. Let's do what everyone else is doing," sparks a bullshit market.

Still, I did try to do the rational thing in the face of this possible economic meltdown and my experiences might help illuminate the dangers and difficulties of doing so. When I realised that the government would guarantee all savings at Northern Rock, the reassuring news that lower-income taxpayers would, if needed, be forced to bail out in full people who had invested a million or more in a private concern, I knew that the only smart thing to do was get some of that and invest in one of the bank's higher interest things.

Of course, I needed to raise the cash to do so. So I liquidated one of my offshore concerns. (I do hope the pygmies at the plantation will find another source of income, but I did keep telling them that they should learn how the markets operated, that free trade was their best hope for the future and that hardened souls like they should be able to exploit the panic of today's cosseted Wall Street types. I may as well have saved my breath).

Anyway, down to the nearest branch sauntered I, briefcase of ready cash handcuffed to my wrist. And what did I find? A bunch of ignorant peons, in a line stretching round the block. That's what. Worse, they seemed to be taking their money out of the only 100% state-backed bank in the country and trying to hide it under the mattress in whichever god foresaken hovel they had been able to afford after selling their first born to a lifetime of servitude in Northern Rock's call centre.

I tried to tell them that I was going to invest money which would make theirs safer. I tried reasoning with them in the reassuring manner of Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life (although I might have misremembered his spiel and I now wonder if he did, in fact, tell the worried customers they were full of shit before threatening to hit an old lady with collected works of Milton Friedman.) I even told them that they should listen to their superiors in the government who told us there was nothing to worry about. Didn't make any difference.

Nor did the bank help matters. If Northern Rock was serious about reviving its fortunes, they would have ushered me to the front to the queue. Maybe given me a spot of lunch, with champagne poured by the more attractive female members of staff, and possibly allowed me to puff away on a cigar while the manager polished my shoes, before gratefully accepting my money. As it was, I walked away in disgust and left them to it.

Late today I learned that the panic has subsided and people are now queueing to put their money back where it was, despite the fact the bank's liquidity position – the thing that sparked the whole crisis – is the same.

For a science that depends on judging how people will react in a particular set of circumstances, economists have a real problem with our predisposition towards crazy behaviour. It does tend to make predictions something of a guessing game. I believe there have even been attempts to get round this difficulty with theories about how our first instinct is the right one or the crowd is often right. However, I'm guessing these weren't devised by African-Americans who faced a capital charge in Alabama in the 50s or anyone who has been reporting on, or investigating, the Madeleine McCann thing.

I think I'll invest my money in a big bar of gold, a shotgun, a cellar of fine wines and a troupe of Colombian dancing girls. It's the smart thing to do – we might even call it understandable – in the face of such understandable irrationality.


Headline of the week

Margaret Thatcher savaged by pitbull.

It might be the Telegraph, but I imagine some of the hacks derived enormous pleasure from publishing that.

The opening paragraph includes such details as:

The paper reports that "Margaret Thatcher yelped in agony as the pit bulls tore into her" body and that a man called Bob Walston "screamed for help and in pain as the pit bulls bit his arms in their frenzy to reach" Maggie, whose memorial service will be held on Wednesday.

Yup. The author is certainly loving it.

PS: I used to work as a sub doing Teletext stories. One particular skill it needs (or needed, I think the cheap halfwits they employed up north after they sacked us all have more leeway) is the ability to write a headline that is exactly 32 (or 36, can't remember now) characters long. As hacks will, we amused ourselves by abusing this skill with a contest to write the headlines we would most like to see for real. Pity no one felt brave enough to put them to air as an act of career-destroying revenge. However, the winners were:

Baroness Thatcher dies in house fire
Queen Mum dies trying to fuck horse
and, a poor third this, but it was fun on the day.
Alcoholic MP in lavender marriage

I won't tell you his name, but one part of it will no longer get me sued.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

EDW: Sir Henry Morgan

One of the many unfortunate aspects of the British psyche is the refusal to recognise the national mixture of violence, ruthlessness and panache which allowed it to turn out some of the most flamboyant and entertaining pirates in history. It's an age old profession – one which is still practised today – but the golden age was dominated by British buccaneers: Blackbeard Teach, Callico Jack Rackham, Captain Kidd – rarely has common crime, treachery, brutality and rapine seemed so glamourous.

Only the Irish really come close for romance and excitement: the women are particularly noteworthy in this regard, thanks to Anne Bonney and Gráinne Ni Mháille (or Grace O'Malley).

Typically, there have been many unsporting foreign pirates who haven't really understood the point of piracy and have concentrated on long-lasting wealth and power rather than blowing it all on rum and whores before an early demise (the Barbary Corsairs or Zheng Yi Sao spring to mind). But for swagger, adventure and – crucially for this blog – élan, you need look no further than these islands. Of course, many of the greatest pirates were in the employ of the state. Many Spaniards still curse the memory of Francis Drake (I've experienced this first hand, it deepened my regard for him) and, I can think of no higher accolade than the fact that the Argentinians have been known to refer to the English as 'piratas'.

However, one of the most remarkable of all was Sir Henry Morgan. The Welsh privateer (that's a sort of 17th century public private partnership between the crown and a freebooter) was, if we're going to keep up the true Brit theme, something of an amateur. As a sailor he was pretty useless, he accidentally blew up one ship during a massive piss up and was always liable to crash into things, but when it came to plunder and sticking it to the French and Spaniards, he was your only man.

His best known exploit was the sack of Panama in which, in true amateur fashion, he didn't have to do much sailing. Instead, he relied on pluck, determination and blind luck to march a motley crew of freebooters across the jungle (they were reduced to eating their boots at one point) before capturing one of the richest ports in the Spanish empire, burning it and making off with the plunder.

He was acting on his own initiative here, since there wasn't a war on, and Charles II made his disapproval clear by knighting Morgan. Sir Henry was later made governor of Jamaica, in which role he distinguished himself by spending much of his time drinking rum in low company. If only we had more public servants like him today. He is still revered in Wales, and I can't help but feel his like would enliven the Welsh Assembly no end.

I fondly had hoped that Captain Morgan's rum is named in his honour. It seems it is. Good.

NB: if this inspires you, next week is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Aaarrrrrrr.



So I am.

New computer, only I've been trying to catch up with what I was supposed to be doing the past computer-free days. Thanks to those of you who advised me, variously, to drink more beer; get a wifey; listen to Steve Jobs. I'm sure if I could find a way to calibrate these I'd have my life fixed entirely.

But in the interim here's something that amuses me whenever I see it. I've noticed this form of words (more or less) used a few times to describe the Polish Prime Minister. Here it is in the Telegraph a few days ago:

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has suggested gay people should not be allowed to be teachers but is unmarried and lives with his cat and his mother

Amazingly, I first saw this impressive formula – surely they aren't trying to tell us something, yet it seems to be spreading – in the Irish Times the most boring paper in the western world. It's as surprising as Scotland being good at fitba'.

Not quite as good as the Observer's "a confirmed bachelor, like most of his close friends" (for Derek Laud, not online, sadly, but I've always remembered and admired that) but not bad at all.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Domino effect

I can't quite match this tale of woe for comedic value, but I have suffered my own misfortune. And it's killed my laptop and left me unable to do much blogging for a bit.

The trouble started when I decided to do the washing up. There were already a few plates and pans drying in the rack so I decided to move them to make space for the new ones. As I was doing so, one plate toppled over. It knocked over a plastic bottle which as standing next to it, which then knocked over an empty glass bottle.

Which bottle then fell on the table next to it, knocking over half a can of beer, which spilled onto the keyboard. Might as well have poured glue on it, the effect is the same. (Alternatively, I could try drinking glue in future: it might provide a more effective buzz).

Still, bugger. I'll have to get a new one now. The moral is clear too: next time the dishes can fester till the next morning.