Wednesday, November 28, 2007

EDW: Theodore Roosevelt

If only the unfortunate British teacher who decided to let her Sudanese pupils to pick a name for the class teddy bear had stopped to think for one moment. She probably can't be blamed for the fact that the vicious and squalid regime in Khartoum would be able to conjure up such contrived religious outrage. She might, however, have realised that there is no need to name a teddy bear because they are already named after someone: President Theodore Roosevelt.

Other presidents might have such achievements as US independence, the Louisiania purchase, victory in the civil war and the emancipation proclamation, the New Deal and shagging Marilyn Monroe to their credit, but none has had a cuddly, much-loved children's toy named after them.

Essentially, an enterprising toy seller decided to name a couple of stuffed bears after the president following reports that he had refused to shoot a bear cub whilst out hunting only for the name, as these things often do, to stick. For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, there's a full account here (warning, if you're easily embarrassed and other people have access to your web browsing, you might want to be cautious about that link).

It's a strange form of immortality, to go along with TR's place on Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington, but he probably deserves the allocades. He was one of the more fascinating characters to have occupied the White House – and probably the most effective apart from the ones who faced wars or other major crises.

The portrait here gives the measure of the man rather well: the splendid moustache, the what-d'ye-make-of-that gaze and the assured fashion in which he wears his tailcoat slightly askew. Without making this post into a long biographical account of a fascinating life as military leader, outdoorsman, politician and so forth (for all that I'm rude about it, his Wikipedia entry does the job pretty well) here are a few things to consider.

He was the youngest occupant of the White House (following the assasination of President McKinley), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts in ending the war between Russia and Japan and anyone who, like me, has enjoyed any of the sites maintained by the US National Parks Service owes him an enormous debt of gratitude; but the really interesting thing about his career is the what-might-have-beens.

The easy distinction of Republican = right wing; Democrat = left wing doesn't always work too well today. In TR's time it's an almost meaningless division (a look at the Southern Democrats of the day should convince you of that). It would be a ludicrous stretch to try and paint Roosevelt as a 21st century type of liberal and social democrat; but in the context of America of 100 years ago he was part of the broadly progressive forces of the day; at the very least you can say that he didn't see his role as letting big business do whatever it wanted.

TR characterised his policies as seeking a Square Deal for the ordinary man in his relations with capital; he set up various regulatory bodies to keep a check on the power of large corporations; implicitly backed striking miners in a dispute with their employers and was an enthusiastic trust buster, launching 44 legal actions to break up monopoly power.

That all this would be more what you expect from the contemporary Democrats would suggest that this political vision didn't endure in the Republican party once TR left office. And, sure enough, his successor William Howard Taft (I feel it would be remiss not to alert you to the fact that he was the fattest ever president) pretty much realigned the Republicans as the friends of big business, which is where they've stayed ever since. But here's where the second what-if comes in.

Roosevelt was so disappointed in Taft that he challenged him the the 1912 presidential nomination, was denied by a bit of chicanery at the convention and then contested the election on a third party Progessive (or Bull Moose) ticket. He picked enough support to finish second, pushing Taft into third, and letting the dramatically over-rated Woodrow Wilson into the White House. It's still the closest anyone's come to breaking the Democrat-Republican duopoly since the Civil War and, to state the bleeding obvious, had TR succeeded in regaining the White House in 1912, US – and probably world politics would have looked very different today.

Still, millions of children like to dribble and puke on a toy named after him. We can't take that away from him.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trollied Tuesday - Serge Gainsbourg

Why not start with one of the best adverts for drinking? It was a toss up between Serge and Winston Churchill.

I've plumped for Serge because while defeating Nazism has its merits, this video proves that drinking makes you more debonair, creative, erudite and attractive to the opposite sex, which is far more important in this context.

There is a ridiculous and vulgar phrase "beer goggles" for the process by which amateur drinkers increase the attractiveness of other people by distorting their own judgment through drink. For the true drinker it works the other way. By drinking they perform some mysterious form of alchemy by which they increase their own attractiveness to others. Despite looking, by his own admission, like someone had nailed a toad to the wall, Serge managed it with, among others, Ms Bardot. I think we can all agree this is worthy of the greatest admiration.

I'll leave you with the man's own words: "Je bois et je fume. L'alcool conserve les fruits; la fumée conserve la viande."

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Introducing Trollied Tuesday

My post in defence of the right to ignore the health police if one so wishes has led to this most excellent suggestion – and one I happy to steal – from Nick.

"Perhaps we should all go out and get sloshed on cheap booze in protest at the Government's nannying ways. We could call it 'Trolleyed Tuesday' , or 'Wankered Wednesday', or something ..."

Tuesday's the day, I think. There is a particular type for whom the idea of drinking so early in the week "on a school night" provokes gasps of horror. I hope that this innovation will encourage them to think differently.

Of course if you're getting sloshed to make a point, you have to let people know about it. My own small contribution to the cause will be as follows. Each Most Some Tuesdays will be marked with posts celebrating the pleasures of drinking, inspiring tales of heroic drinkers and anything which will amuse and inform.

This is not in itself enough, of course. In politics these days a sure fire method of getting ahead is to carve out a group identity, appoint yourself as leader of that group, then complain vociferously about the raw deal the group you've just created is getting. So it is with drinkers. I propose the formation of British Union of Boozers (led by me, naturally) which will defend the interests and rights of drinkers everywhere.

From henceforth let "It's my liver, I will do what want with it" be our rallying cry.

By this time next year I should have thought we should be powerful enough to rally outside parliament, each protesters clutching a tin of cheap supermarket lager, super strength stuff, absinth or dry martini as the choice takes them. To bolster turnout it might be worth bringing a few tins of Special Brew to encourage some the more picturesque members of the park bench community to join us.

Until such time let us raise a glass to booze and drink to the defeat of joyless puritans, wheresoever they may be.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Vox populae: God, maybe

Tony Blair, and sundry other religious nutters, sorry, believers, express hurt and surprise that bringing their faith into the public domain is frowned upon. They shouldn't be. There are many excellent reasons why people in England, especially – though it applies to Britain generally and should apply even more to the other bit of the UK – take a dim view of this.

The first, and probably most important point, is that there is a long, long history of trying to keep politics and religion apart. It is paradoxical in a country which still has a state church, but that state church has, since the time of Elizabeth I, been founded on the principle that the authorities should not make windows into men's souls. To put it less subtly: after the time of Mary I, the CofE was reconstituted as stroke of pragmatic genius - the proverbial broad church – in which people could believe what they liked so long as they didn't upset the status quo.This attitude of "think what you like, just don't cause trouble" has its merits to this day

This attitude inspired the later, and better, separation of church and state on which the founding fathers of the US laid such emphasis. Still, the principle of not letting your religious views be the be-all and end-all of your political actions was a sound one then – the Cromwellian flirtation with theocracy surely illustrates the point well – and, though we haven't kept pace with the US, progressive measures such as Catholic and Jewish emancipation, letting people who really want a divorce to get divorced, not locking up gays and – go on – stopping women who want abortions having to risk their lives in back street coat-hanger-and-gin joints owe a lot to the view that individuals' religious beliefs shouldn't over-ride the greater good.

There are other reasons, however, why people might think an overtly religious politician is a bit of a nutter. There is the obvious point that if you don't share that belief, whatever it may be, it's hard not to see it as a bit, well, nutty. If you don't think Jesus is going to come back (and even if you did aren't put off by his unfulifilled promise to do so within the life time of his chums) or that Muhammad's shorthand was spot on when a messenger from Allah took him to one side then, however politely you may receive someone who takes a completely different view, you will naturally be cautious if they insist too loudly that their guess about God is better than yous.

Suspicion turns to alarm, however, when a politician insists that they are doing God's work. For all his faults, Tony Blair never quite got to the stage of arguing that his decision to invade Iraq, host the Good Friday peace talks or put Tessa Jowell in the cabinet were God's work. The messianic, I-can-do-no-wrong certitude he evinced was worrying enough – even for those who agreed with him on these various issues. Yet had Blair hinted, as he appears to be doing now, that he believed in what he was doing because he believed in God, is to invite a whole other level of distrust. It's effectively saying, God is on my side, rational debate doesn't come in to it. I don't need to think about what's right, because I know what is.

It's not as if there isn't historical precedent. The last British PM to have this sort of religious certitude was Gladstone (Churchill wasn't short of confidence, but his view was the he was right, Hitler was wrong. He didn't need God to tell him that Hitler was wrong).

Published just a day before Blair aired his doubts about being doubted, Chistopher Howse wrote this piece in the Telegraph about Gladstone.

He was increasingly driven by the notion that he had some great heroic task to perform, informed by the conviction that, as he confided to his diary in 1880: "The Almighty has employed me for His purposes in a manner larger and more special than before." The chosen battleground was Ireland.

The Almighty has a sense of humour, at least. Being singled out by God caused nothing but constitutional tension, however.

"The idea of a deluded, excited man of 82 trying to govern England and her great Empire with the miserable democrats under him is quite ridiculous," wrote the Queen in 1892. "It is like a bad joke!"

She was quick to notice a "weird look in his eyes". In short Victoria thought Gladstone mad, and said so on several occasions.

Oh for an unprincipled dilettante like Disraeli.


And people make fun of Belgian politics

This deserves a wider audience. (Thank you to my man in - in spirit - Kyiv). Yulia Tymoshenko and her acolytes attend the opening of parliament in matching outfits which, I like to think, were inspired by Liverpool's 1996 FA Cup Final outfits.

There's something about the body language – to say nothing of the pissed-off, sour-faced demeanours – of the drones standing beneath Yulia's queen bee, that unsettles me, however. They look as if they're in the dock while receiving a heavy sentence for something pretty unsavoury. I doubt this is an appropriate image for Ukrainian politics, especially not for Yanukovych and co, but it is unfortunate none the less.

The fellow in the centre of the picture also has an unfortunate resemblance to Hugo Chavez.

Fans of modest, self-effacing politicians can find more of this sort of thing here.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two out of three news stories based on studies are a waste of news print

One in three graduates ends up in a job that does not require a degree, researchers have found.

One of the least promising starts for a news story. Even more unsurprisingly, arts graduates are more likely to be doing a job in which their degree is not relevant. The point is, well I stopped reading when a bit of fake political controversy was shoe-horned into it.

David Willetts, the shadow higher education minister, said Labour's obsession with its "artificial target" of getting half of all young people into university by 2010 had left millions saddled with debt doing courses which had a "poor track record" of resulting in well paid work.

Two jobs for which a degree is not required: journalism and politics. Some of the best hacks I know of don't have degrees. There are plenty of fairly well-educated but over bright ones out there who get by on feral instinct and not by intellect. (This, incidentally, explains why so many non-stories based on "studies say" appear in the press. If only newspaper recruited more science writers with the proper qualifications.)

For the main point: I imagine something similar applies to politics. John Major didn't go to university, Gordon Brown has a PhD. The difference this makes is pretty minimal as far as I can tell. A good education might make you a more rounded, and interesting individual, but – bar scientific and technical stuff – it's got little to do with turning out economically productive units with "skills". You'd have thought David "Two Brains" Willetts would know that.


Monday, November 19, 2007

What's Aramaic for 'get a job'?

Given the confused, fragmentary, lost-in-translation and sometimes downright contradictory nature of the Gospels, it's not surprising that from the time of St Paul onwards people have been projecting their own ideas onto the life and teachings of Jesus.

After all this is, according to some of the legends of his life, a man who lived at home with his parents until he was 30, preferred hanging around with his reprobrate chums and cocking a snook at the conventions of the day to getting a proper job. A hippie, in other words.

And now a film is going to take that to the next level: an interest in Eastern mysticism.

The result is the Aquarian Gospel, a $20m movie, which portrays Jesus as a holy man and teacher inspired by a myriad of eastern religions in India. The Aquarian Gospel takes its name from a century-old book that examined Christianity's eastern roots and is in its 53rd reprint.

Oh dear it sounds pretty awful, doesn't it?

The film's producers say the movie will be shot using actors and computer animation like 300, the retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, and will follow the travels of Yeshua, believed to be the name for Jesus in Aramaic, from the Middle East to India. Casting for suitable Bollywood and Hollywood actors has begun.

It seems a bit unlikely to me. Given the whole "render unto Caesar" ideal to respecting the authorities and the fact that Jesus is not recorded as have uttered any condemnation of slavery, I think the idea of him as "a wandering mystic who travelled across India, living in Buddhist monasteries and speaking out against the iniquities of the country's caste system" is pretty implausible. But, it's all a bit of a laugh, isn't it?

Thankfully, I can't imagine anyone will be terribly upset by this. I concede that the Catholic church has the idea that since you can't really rely on the Gospels, God has given it the power to decide what Jesus really meant to say and do (even if it takes a while to work out whether or not Limbo exists), but the Vatican didn't get to where it is today by over-reacting to any trifling disagreement about theology.

And as for all those Protestants – that religious tradition founded on the basis that since the meaning of the Bible is so unclear, everyone should try and work it out for themselves – from Nigeria to the US, I am sure they will display their characteristic restraint and unwillingness to impose their own interpretations on everyone else.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

EDW: Jerome K Jerome

The post below this one begins with an apt quotation from Jerome K Jerome. Those of you who know of him will probably know him for Three Men in a Boat: a worthy enough thing to be remembered for in itself – it's funny, appeals to a broad range of people, it stands up well to the passage of time and has a certain Edwardian charm to it.

The sequel, Three Men on the Bummel in which George, Harris and the narrator visit Germany for a bicycling tour is also well worth reading: it manages to make fun of the Germans (pre-World War One without rancour) and the Englishman abroad rather successfully.

So, a fine humourist, then. And, as the picture shows, a sharp enough fellow. But JKJ's particular appeal to me is his masterwork Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. It is the wittiest and sharpest rebuke towards those who somehow believe that labour for material gain, or for its own sake because of a lack of wit and imagination to appreciate other things, are in themselves good things.

I overuse the word "puritan" as a term of abuse, I know, but in this case it precisely the sort of joyless, grinding mindset that is so utterly inimical to the thrust JKJ's arguement that in this instance I shall throw the term about with the abandon of a pederast handing out sweets in a orphanage.

There is in this work the proper philosophy of idleness. I amazed that no one has tried to develop it further. Still, here is the key to the pleasure of doing nothing in particular.

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then, and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Quite. There is plenty more on these lines. While I urge you to read the whole lot if you haven't here are a couple more pertinent bits. In keeping with the EDW theme of the post, here he is on clothing:

They say--people who ought to be ashamed of themselves do--that the consciousness of being well dressed imparts a blissfulness to the human heart that religion is powerless to bestow. I am afraid these cynical persons are sometimes correct. I know that when I was a very young man (many, many years ago, as the story-books say) and wanted cheering up, I used to go and dress myself in all my best clothes.

Then there is one of the most apt sections of the whole book. In JKJ argues that with the barriers to women beginning to fall, it's only a matter of time before they were treated as equals with men and started doing the same job. Gradually, he predicted, women would be able to do all the important work, leaving men free to concentrate on more important things. It's a great pity that he was rather too optimistic about the rate of progress and that women are still paid less than men, and face glass ceilings, sexism and other such problems. Without them his most delightful of prophesies might have come true:

I am looking forward to the time when we men shall have nothing to do but lie in bed till twelve, read two novels a day, have nice little five-o'clock teas all to ourselves, and tax our brains with nothing more trying than discussions upon the latest patterns in trousers and arguments as to what Mr. Jones' coat was made of and whether it fitted him. It is a glorious prospect--for idle fellows.

Higher wages and longer hours for women now.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

You'll have to prise the cheap lager out of my cold, dead hands

I like work. It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours - Jerome K Jerome.

How did that happen? I've been busy, constantly, these past few weeks. And it was most unpleasant: mainly a grind consisting of doing things for other people and all that sort of nonsense. So serious was it that I have neglected this blog.

Obviously, to return one needs an issue of real substance to write about. I had thought, briefly, about writing about some classic "oh really" headlines of recent days, such as Search for British Motto Turns Cynical (I vote for Mottos: Not Really Our Thing) or, even Smoke Caused by Large Fire.

But these didn't quite do it. Even the fact that the Daily Mail ran a story arguing (and I may be over-Malilifying the argument here) that Scare Stories Give You Cancer did little to inspire me. Only a topic close to my heart would do.

That topic is cheap booze. More specifically, the news that a coalition of tedious puritans thinks that cheap booze is a bad thing. The reason being, of course, that too many people drink too much so therefore we should make it harder for people to get hold of drink at all.

Leaving aside the tedious and hysterical nature of some of the scare stories (I suspect that some of the more tedious and hysterical parts of the press are as much to blame as anyone for this – especially if they get hysterical about supermarkets over-reacting to the great booze panic).

But the suggestion, by the Alcohol Health Alliance, that the tax on alcohol be raised to discourage people from drinking too much is the key thing here. There is a glib and easy point to be made about how effective this approach has been in Scandinavia and Finland (indeed, the Telegraph, the news desk of which seems to have a particular weakness for glib booze scare stories, recently depicted the latter as a land where "for men, drinking is now the number one cause of death, and as many women are killed by alcohol as by breast cancer"), so of course I'll make that glib and easy point.

What irritates me more is the mindset behind this engineering. It's fine to argue that something must be done to stop people drinking - education; a broader approach which actually looks at what causes people to drink too much and acting on that, even, I suppose, scare stories in the press; all that's fine. The mantra "please drink responsibly and in moderation" may be annoying, but it isn't the problem here. If health groups, or whoever, want to change the national culture, they're free to go ahead and try. If they succeed in curtailing drunken violence in the streets, I'll give them a round of applause.

The problem is the belief that if we, as a nation, are too stupid and blind to our own interests to mend our ways then we must be made to. Especially when, though I concede we have to pay taxes to the NHS and so on, it's essentially of question of individuals choosing to harm themselves.

This desire to enforce correct behaviour – the reflex instinct of the meddling puritan – is what I find so disagreeable here. To look at one aspect of the story, the attitude that something must be done about cheap supermarket booze.

The 22p can of lager is also singled out here. There are, goodness knows, enough things you can bash the supermarkets for. But it seems that selling alcohol cheaply isn't one of them. Corner shops, too, are pretty competitive in this regard; six cans of Grolsch or Becks, or eight of Fosters and Carlsberg, for a fiver is pretty standard round here. I bet it's easier for school kids to get served in these places and - moral panic alert, there is plenty of pornography on sale, and cigarettes too – yet these fellows don't get it in the neck.

My defense of discounted drinks is partly motivated by the fact that I like cheap booze, of course, but I would draw the line at the 22p drink in question. It's less than 3% alcohol and must – surely – taste pretty foul. If somebody is drinking copious amounts of that stuff , then I'm afraid that their life must have reached an unimaginable low and the availability of cheap booze is the last thing we should be worrying about. (Not least because Special Brew and the like are always going to be with us).

There is of course, another aspect to this: it might be bad for children. Even they, I imagine, would struggle to get drunk on own brand cheap lager, but it seems that the risk they might do so, or take advantage of another promotion, is enough to spur the legions of healthy decency into calls for action. It is not enough, clearly, that there are laws to stop children buying alcohol. Nor is the obvious point that making alcohol too expensive for school children would be every drug dealer's dream going to stick.

The danger is that if everything that might pose a threat to children were to be proscribed, or at least made more disagreeable, then life itself would soon become intolerable.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is at the heart my objection to this form of puritanism: the belief that some businesses should be forced to change their commercial strategies, that some adult drinkers should pay more tax because the authorities cannot enforce their own laws on under-age drinking, that we should, all of us, pay for the fact that some people make life style choices which health groups disapprove is not one we should encourage. Any attempt to coerce us because we can't be convinced is something to be resisted. I think that even a mind addled on Tesco Value lager should be able to work out why that is.

Still, the campaign isn't all bad. The constant reminders that supermarkets sell cheap drink prompted me to investigate what was on offer in my local Sainsbury's. I was delighted to see that the Taste the Difference Range includes a range of lagers by Greenwich's excellent Meantime brewery. I am delighted to see that a small business like this, which is dedicated to producing a quality product which will bring pleasure to discerning customers, has the chance to reach a wider audience. At less than £1 a bottle it was a real bargain and every sip was enhanced by the fancy that, somewhere, a joyless purtian's bloodless lips were being pursed ever more thinly in impotent disapproval and rage.

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