Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fantasy Worlds

While typing out the previous post, the thought started to dawn on me that the smart thing to do would be to a devise a series of computer games which would appease today's moralisers. I'd need someone to do all the geek stuff, of course, but I reckon this little collection has something for everyone and, as such, is a sure fire winner.

Guardian Reader Commando: armed only with a copy of the liberal-left broadsheet and impeccable ideals, your character is sent on a series of missions in the most deprived parts of the city to see if you can save the underclass from themselves. Enter an inner city comprehensive and single-handedly inspire your charges with a love of Shakespeare and transform them from feral thugs into the people who write poems empathising with the plight of children in the Gaza strip. Win points for luring poor people away from the BNP by giving them tea and some kind words; for not running away when you meet a gang of black youths late at night; score a bonus for taking children into care if their parents insist on smoking inside the house and watching too much daytime TV; fight off the evil chip shops, kebab vans and cheap cigarette sellers who are exploiting the people of the area.

Richard Littlejohn's Extreme Taxi Driver: you are a taxi driver and your mission to get the Daily Mail's voice of common sense to a TV studio to castigate political correctness gone mad. Your path is beset with dangers including speed cameras, asylum seekers, and feral chavs. What do you do when a single mother pushing a pram steps out into your path? Will you be able to get Richard there in time, or will the gays get you? Lose points for every occasion your passenger is forced to utter the phrase 'You Couldn't Make It Up'.

Jihadi Training Camp: this unique interactive religious learning experience offers you to play a number of parts including a young warrior for Allah sent on the ultimate mission; a charity worker who must find a way to get vital humanitarian supplies of arms, rockets and high explosives to the muhjadeen in Afghanistan (just watch out you don't get caught by the evil Americans, will you be able to convince them you are there for religious study?); and a preacher who must turn a group of disaffected youngsters into a crack squad who have learned the Koran by heart and are now ready to die for Allah. Just make sure you convince the visiting BBC camera crew you're no threat to anyone. Comes complete with interactive fatwahs and map of public transport systems in 10 major cities.

[NB: even reading about the above game is an offence under the Terrorism Act. Please turn yourselves if you have read it.]

Victorian Patriarch: (a much healthier game than Miss Bimbo) protect your wife and daughters from unhealthy influences. Win points for shielding their eyes from unhealthy literature, for keeping their minds unsullied by dangerous political ideas (and for soundly whipping any harlots you may encounter). Knock up the parlour maid, but just make sure you don't get caught.

On The Tiles With Patricia Hewitt: learn to enjoy alcohol moderately and responsibly while celebrating the former health secretary's many achievements.

And this last is a harmless fantasy which will appeal to many hacks.

Fleet Street Classic: get pissed, get in a fight with the news editor, go and have a three-hour lunch with a contact. See how creative you can be with your expenses. Go off to see your bit on the side when you're meant to be following a story. Fight off the unreasonable demands of owners, the advertising department and the dreaded members of the public. Just make sure you get back into the newsroom on time to file 600 words on the shocking standards of modern behaviour.

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The weaker sex, apparently

Where you at all familiar with the Miss Bimbo game before the press suffered a collective fit of the vapours over its very existence? Thought not, so it's an excellent PR coup for the makers. There's something especially strange about a lot of the criticism it's attracted, however. Here's a fair summary of the criticisms:

Healthcare professionals, a parents’ group and an organisation representing people suffering anorexia and bulimia criticised the website for sending a dangerous message to impressionable children.

While I've no doubt that young girls would rather be thin that not, pretty than not and that this game reflects those interests there's one important point they are overlooking. IT'S A ROLE-PLAYING GAME. The most dorky, geeky, uncool thing imaginable and not generally something to boast about being influenced by.

Teenage boys have long been playing these things in basements and, of course, there are periodic moral panics about those too (oh look, here's an example from today). However, no one, so far as I know, has seriously argued that more teenagers are shooting each other than ever before because they've been playing too much Grand Theft Auto. (Then again, I've seen the argument that Dungeons and Dragons will turn people into genocidal sociopaths so it's probably only a matter of time).

We could patiently rehash the arguments about fantasy not being the same as reality, most people (even teenagers) being able to tell the difference (to paraphrase Charlie Brooker slightly: "I spent Sunday playing Civilisation, building a society dedicated to culture, enlightment and learning, in my pants surrounded by piles of unwashed crockery and overflowing ashtrays) and the fact that the ones who can't are worrying in a whole heap of ways unrelated to computer games. However, the arguments in the case of Miss Bimbo seem to be implying that teenage girls are in some way weaker and more in need of protection. The Times's Alpha Mummy blog hums and haws around this point, but with the starting premise that teenage girls are "particularly susceptible" and "can get dangerous and unhealthy ideas into their heads pretty quickly" she's not quite able to convince herself that girls will be able to act out some of their Paris Hilton fantasies without coming to grave harm.

I don't really know what goes in the minds of teenage girls, I do wonder, though, whether the author thinks this unique vulnerability is confined to body image, or whether we should protect teenage girls from things like politics and religion too lest they fall prey dangerous ideas. It does seem strange, however, that someone writing as an "Alpha Mummy" is helping to revive the notion of women as the weaker, sillier sex.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

EDW: Get a Hat

In wind, rain, sleet or snow, the umbrella is a damned nuisance. Apart from its associations with a certain type of prissy, furled Englishness, the things are a menace to one's face when being wielded in crowds, put the user into a sort of bubble in which they feel distant from the mass of humanity around them (thereby increasing the danger of poking out someone's eyes) and have an alarming habit of being blown inside out in strong winds. (Or moderate winds in the case of the cheap and nasty brollies most people use these days).

By contrast a good hat will keep you dry without any of these disadvantages. However, this strictly utilitarian argument is the least of reasons why I urge you all to invest in some quality headwear. I do not feel brave enough to comment on female millinery (save to say, keep it simple, girls) so I'll stick to the benefits a gentleman can derive from a good piece of headwear.

I'm confident that in the forties and fifties, many a fellow modelled himself on Humphrey Bogart, that most elegant sporter of headwear. The photograph to your right should convince all of you of the merits of doing so today. (If it helps you garner a Lauren Bacall-alike so much the better)

You'll notice, of course, that the hat is truly what gives Bogart his particular verve and style. Without the hat, he's just a well-dressed man smoking a cigarette. With the hat he is Humphrey Bogart. Even in his day hat-wearing was not fashionable, a good thing of course, and today a good trilby or panama* will elevate you to a state beyond fashion, beyond the mundane and into a sartorial state of grace. A good hat allows you to effect (or affect if your prefer) a fundamental transformation in your character: a jaunty angle will give you verve; a lowered brim cultivates an aura of mystery; it gives dignity, grace and substance to your character.

It is even possible to pinpoint the moment that hats ceased to be fashionable. John Betjeman's poem the Death of George V captured this in the image he chose to encapsulate the start of a new age.

Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the runway
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

Bogey or a Nazi-sympathising failed royal? I know which one I'd follow.

*Vaguely interesting fact. Panama hats are made in Ecuador.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: English stouts

Further to my recent comments on Guinness and other Irish stouts, this blog would be failing in its public service remit if it didn't point out that there are plenty of good English stouts and porters available.

It's a matter that's been on mind of late following conversations with an Irish friend of mine in London, who isn't overly keen on English beers (I attribute this to an under-educated palate, but that's a matter for elsewhere) but who is keen to try something beyond the sometimes indifferently served Guinness you can get anywhere.

I suggested that he should try some English stouts and, noble and dedicated soul that I am, I've been researching the matter. One might, for instance, try the Titanic Brewery's stout (drink enough and you won't even notice the iceberg) or Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout (generally I can't abide that brewery's products, but I am happy to make an exception in this case).

Today, however, I came across something particularly fine. To aid my recovery from a stint of work over Easter, this afternoon I enjoyed a couple of pints of the Meantime Brewery's London Stout in the Duke of Hamilton in Hampstead. (Incidentally, I hope those of you have ordinary jobs enjoyed your return to work today, you were certainly in my thoughts as I sipped this smooth and zesty little stout) and I can say with confidence that the world is better place as a result. You can also find the stout in the pubs listed here.

The same brewery produces a stronger London Porter, a bottle of which I will be shortly enjoying. To be frank, I've never fully understood the distinction between stout and porter – they're both dark beers and they both taste pretty good – nor did I particularly care. However, Camra's website suggests that porter is simply a stronger version of stout, which acquired its name due its popularity among London's market traders. Wise old birds, those market traders.

In any case this porter is a serious drink. A couple of glasses of the stuff will soothe any cares you may have, revive the tiredest of bodies or minds and brings light into the darkest places of the soul. You will feel invulnerable, well able to take on whatever the world and its less congenial inhabitants might throw at you. It is, besides, excellent with oysters; a combination that will put lead into the most feeble of pencils. Take a glass at breakfast time if you have a day of waged drudgery ahead of you.

There is, however, one stout which is even better than these. It defies superlatives and any praise would seems overly effusive. And yet, once you taste Adnams Oyster Stout you will realise quickly the inadequacies of language. It my seem heretical – treasonous even, if you are Irish – but it is the sine qua non of stouts, the music of the spheres, the drink for which the gods themselves envy mankind. It's only available until the end of the month, so I urge you to do whatever is necessary to find some before then.

I've quoted this poem before, but since Dante never wrote about stout, only Flann O'Brien can possibly do this drink justice.

In time of trouble and lousey strife
You still have got a darlint plan

You still can turn to a brighter life -

A pint of plain is your only man.


You cannot hope to bribe or twist

New that an Italian court has ruled that nepotism is a crime prompts the Telegraph to wax whimsical about how nepotism "makes Italy more Italian". There is a little barb at the end of the leader, however: "Those determined to employ their families could always stand for our own Parliament."

Or get a job in British journalism, as the writer did not add. One thinks instantly of some the Telegraph's star names and the fact that many of the paper's younger, high-profile columnists owe their positions to having parents (and grand-parents in one case) who are well-known names in journalism (talent is not really a factor; one of the said columnist's columns give every impression of having been scrawled in crayon on the desk of the comment editor) and the reason for the leader writer's discretion becomes apparent.

Not that the Telegraph is in any way exceptional in this. All newspapers feel the need to provide a "young person's perspective" and by far the easiest way to do this is find a young person who just happens to be related to someone in a senior position. I can think of at least two broadsheet editors who, in recent years, have given their daughters jobs (a column in one case) and a host of other pundits, writers and commentators who have been given a helping hand by well-placed family members. Again, ability doesn't really come into it.

I've been slightly coy about naming names, partly because it would be invidious to single out individuals (and, frankly, lots of people would take advantage of similar opportunities were they so offered), but mainly because there are so many other beneficiaries of journalistic nepotism I'd be sure to overlook some of the most egregious examples.

This isn't the worst aspect of British journalism (how long have you got? The fact that the way to get ahead is to do plenty of unpaid work experience, which heavily favours those who can afford to do so, is far more harmful). Nepotism is, however, considerably more annoying.

It's part of what makes Fleet Street more Fleet Street-ish, I suppose.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

EDW: A broke broker

With the Financial World having ballsed things up more comprehensively than at any time since 1929 – what with having sold bales of debt to people who couldn't possibly repay it, using all manner of mathematical prestidigitation to disguise the fact so that the debt could be sold off, realising belatedly that they would never be able to get the money back, then realising that no one knew who owed what to whom because of this numerical trickery and then panicking as a result – schaudenfreude would be the most natural reaction, were it not for the fact that it affects us all.

(Then again, "us all" are the idiots who took on heaps of debt when it was offered, mainly to buy stuff, so I'm not too sympathetic in that regard either).

Leaving aside such minor matters as the utter recklesness of the people who play around with other people's futures knowing that if they really get it wrong, government will be forced to bail them out; the naked greed; the herd instinct and the fact that pay packets and bonuses allow one to measure the price at which financial workers have sold their souls, the most depressing aspect of the whole business is the fact that today's City boys (not sure what their Wall Street equivalents should be called) have not reacted to the latest market reversals with stoicism and sang froid.

Not that one would generally look to 1929 for lessons in how to respond to a financial meltdown – no one's thrown themselves off a skyscraper, after all. However, the style and grace with which the men in this picture have reacted to the course of events is an exception. Wall Street would have done well to follow their example at the time and so, more especially, would their successors (I'm thinking of the 1980s red braces era in particular).

It's unclear whether the especially sharp-looking cove with his foot on the sidebar of the car is the seller who has lost is all or some luckier (and maybe more astute) individual who is well-placed to benefit from the situation. That is as it should be. Regardless, his bearing and the cut of his cloth convey the impression of a true master of the universe far more than the showy vulgarity of the type who measures their worth in bonuses and hours spent in the office.


Serendipity, irony and the like

Or coincidence if you prefer, is more readily available than ever these days thanks the technological wonder that is the iPod shuffle function - well done, technology. So it was that while reading about Barack Obama's rather remarkable speech about race and America, up popped Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones on the iPod shuffle. Expect Hillary Clinton to adopt it as a campaign song soon.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: The Political Drinker

If, as seems increasingly likely, Ken Livingstone loses the London mayoral election his campaign and supporters must surely be included in some sort of text book to show how to lose an election you really ought to win. I would bore myself were I to indulge in a lengthy analysis of the utter folly of basing a campaign upon things people clearly know about and do not care about (Boris is right-wing! He's a Tory! Who sometimes says silly things!)) while pretending that asking questions about his rather questionable associates is some sort of evil plot.

However, for Trollied Tuesday purposes there is one rather obvious line of attack. Boris Johnson has given up drinking for the duration of his election campaign. It should be obvious that a man prepared to stoop to such low, disreputable tactics in order to win an election is not to be trusted (especially one who knows perfectly well what in vino veritas means).

The Salamander Sultan's own, well-documented fondness for a refreshing breakfast-time whisky should give him a clear advantage over his opponent by allowing him to stand as the drinker's friend (it would also give him the advantage of allowing him to distance himself from an increasingly unpopular government; they order these things much better in Scotland). But in a good example of the missing an easy target in favour of blasting away repeatedly at one's own foot to which I alluded earlier, Livingstone's warning that his opponent would take London back to the 17th century shied away from the obvious conclusion.

Livingstone should stand as the 18th century candidate: an age in which the most progressive politicians were unabashed libertines such as Fox and Wilkes. An age in which dandies, rakes, courtesans and gamblers played a central role in politics.

And, rather than the aggrieved whining which greeted the news of Ken's faith in the restorative powers of alcohol, he should copy the example of the leading Tory of the late 18th century: William Pitt.

Pitt, too, found alcohol an excellent restorative. It was said of him as a youth that:

The boy was always weak and ill, and the only remedy which appeared efficacious was port wine, which the young Pitt consumed in quantities which would have made drunk a grown man. Such a regime would have killed most boys, but Pitt thrived on it and by the time he was 15 his health had improved considerably.

As Prime Minister, Pitt – as is pretty well-known – was a three-bottles-a-day man. (Not quite as impressive as it sounds, because the bottles used in his day contained no more than half a pint). However, he was hardly unusual in this, and it would be difficult to argue that the drinking culture of the age somehow coarsened or cheapened the political discourse of the time. In fact, one could argue that drinking represents one of the things about Britain's political culture which most impresses foreigners.

If London's mayoral candidates continue to shun the finer traditions of British politics the only possible response (apart from a Livingstonian breakfast) is to revive another tradition from 18th century elections. To pelt the candidates with ordure, stones and dead cats.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

EDW: Benjamin Disraeli

If like me you've been listening to or watching the budget you'll be struggling to stay awake now. Doubtless this ultra tedium was a deliberate tactic to mask a relative lack of policies. A pity, though, if Alistair Darling had cut out all the 'on the one hand we've done a great job, on the other things are looking bad in the global economy' and the 'I might be forced to do something about this in future' stuff he could have smashed Disraeli's record for the shortest-ever budget speech: 45 minutes.

Inevitably, the longest-ever budget speech was carried out by Disraeli's long-term antagonist Gladstone (who has already been EDW'd elsewhere). I don't offer the two as a counterpoint to contemporary politics for party political reasons – Gladstone started out as a Tory besides, whilst Disraeli was a Radical, and the idea that Brown (stern, authoritative) vs Cameron (flashy, crowd-pleasing) is some kind of replay of this Victorian antagonism is a particularly weak parallel. (Bonar Law vs MacDonald might be nearer the mark for those two). Rather, Dizzy and the Grand Old Man represent the old division between roundheads and cavaliers which once again is becoming a given in contemporary politics.

Disraeli is the quintessential political cavalier. His record as a statesman is well-enough known, I hope, as are details such as his relationship with Queen Victoria, his Jewishness and the distinction of being the only prime minister to write a novel inside Number 10.

But note that none of these diminish another distinction of his. He was, in the round, the flashiest, louchest, most flamboyant premier in British history; an as such is an ideal candidate for EDW. From his start as a young admirer of Byron, bankrupt aged 21, and the ultimate outsider in Victorian England, he is the most gloriously unlikely prime minister.

As an all-round character, Churchill had the more fascinating. life, Palmerston was probably the greater libertine (though Disraeli's youthful exploits in the Med gave rise to plenty of lurid speculation in his day) and from the time of Walpole through to our own dear Tony Blair there has been no shortage of premiers whom one would treat with caution.

No matter. Dizzy's life and career are an affront to the very concept of the career politician. Sadly, career politicians are pretty much all we get Britain these days. (Though not necessarily in America). If we are to have political quotas, an unofficial quota of wits and dandies would be a most welcome innovation.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Guinness and Cheltenham

When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

Never mind St Patrick's day; this week marks the start of the real Irish holiday: the Cheltenham festival. One Irish bookie even offers a book on the number of pints of Guinness consumed during the course of the event. It's a bit of a marketing stunt, really, but how many times are puters able, collectively, to influence the markets on which they're betting?

Guinness is besides, the drink for Cheltenham. For starters, there's the strong Irish contingent (breeders, punters and jockeys) who make the event an annual pilgrimage. (This is helped by the fact that St Patrick's Day normally falls during the festival, the early Easter's done for that this year). Then there's the fact that the stout itself is perfect for the time of year and event; warming on a blustery and wet spring day, refreshing should the sun come out, cheering should your finances suffer, oh so sweet should you win (and not bad with champagne either) and calming amid the frenzy of the betting rings.

The Irish aspect of the event can be over-played, as I suppose I am guilty of doing in this post, and you will find plenty of English types there too – gamblers, country folk, working men, toffs, city boys and so forth. By far the best thing about events like Cheltenham, though, is that they are wholly inimical to prigs and puritans. Above all, it is not bourgeois.

For those who regard the prospect of risking money – which they might not get back – on chance events, skipping a working day to enjoy yourself, drinking to excess, rubbing shoulders with shady characters and shedding the constraints of the mundane world for the thrills of the chase, of intoxication and the taking of risks (be they physical or financial) events like Cheltenham are a living reproach to their sour, thin-lipped, desiccated natures. The Guardian, of all papers, captures this spirit well today.

Such individuals will get a measure of revenge tomorrow, when the chancellor is expected to offer a few corrective taxes on drinks as a sop to the sanctimonious. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away several thousand of people will be proving that it is perfectly possible to drink to excess without the whole thing degenerating into a mass brawl. Think of it as a pocket of resistance.

There is a rather senimental idea that Guinness tastes better in Ireland. It's not entirely true; for one thing the stuff you get in London is all brewed in Dublin these days. Besides, in Cork you should stick to Beamish or Murphy's. However, any beer that does not sit too long in the barrels will taste better than one which is not consumed in streams. One's physical location, then, is less important than one's state of mind if you want to get the best of your pint of Guinness; another reason why the drink is so perfectly suited to a day at the races.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

People will copy anything

The Sunday Times says:

Make me like Gordon: doctors are reporting a surge in the number of middle-aged men plumping for Botox injections, to enhance their authority by emulating the premier’s glower.

Are they paying to get the bags under their eyelids inflated too?


The lady's not for interring

It seems that God is not yet ready to meet Margaret Thatcher. (Pause for pantomime style cheers or hisses). However, the Sunday Telegraph, in very respectful style does a dry run for her death by running three pages of eulogies encomia.

Sometimes, though, these tributes do not have the effect that the bedazzled admirer intends. Take Andrew Roberts's effort, for instance. In a bid to convince her that her mind is still sharp and that the Iron Lady is not yet eaten by rust, he includes several anecdotes which don't necessarily support his assertions.

There is the alarming detail that her pet cat is called "Pussikins" – a name that whiffs of old person, of sentimentality combined with an inability to think except in the most literal terms. Even Roberts concedes it does "not sound very Thatcherite"; one would have expected something like Pinochet or Tebbit.

But he says, despite "some short term memory loss" (the some is an interesting description):

As a historian, I am much more interested in Lady Thatcher's long-term memory than what she had for breakfast that morning, and when she talks of her childhood, the Second World War and life in Grantham in the Thirties, she has what seems like total recall.

This is pretty typical of the very aged. Their earlier memories stay vivid even as the rest of their mind descends into confusion and fog. Then there's this anecdote.

Introduced to Lord Dalmeny, whose ancestor, the Earl of Rosebery, had won the Derby whilst prime minister, she suggested that the three living ex-prime ministers - herself, John Major and Tony Blair - should each buy the leg of a horse and try to win it again. When I pointed out that that would mean Gordon Brown buying the fourth leg, she thought about it, before saying: "He doesn't look as if he'd enjoy that kind of thing very much, does he?"

Her assessment of Brown proves she's not totally gaga, at least, but to me it doesn't quite convey what Roberts wishes. The image of him patiently and slowly getting her to understand something which even a child would grasp – that horses don't have three legs, do they?, you haven't thought of what to do with the fourth, come on, try a little and you can complete the metaphor – evokes nothing so much as my 98-year-old grandmother on one of her bad days.

Leaving the temptation to sneer to one side, despite Roberts's best attempts at stiff upper-lipped, teary admiration, there is something rather sad – pathetic in its true sense – about it all. Sic transit parliamentaria gloria or something like it.


Saturday, March 08, 2008

No Graver Insult

Barnsley fans, watching their team's remarkable victory over Chelsea, produce a cruel, but funny, taunt.

"Are you Wednesday in disguise?"

Ouch. One consolation is that this season Owls fans have produced an even more amusing chant. "You'll never lick the Beaver". (For Mark Beevers).

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

An Irishman's tart is his imagination

An Irish bar in New York has banned Danny Boy for St Patrick's day.

It's depressing, it's not usually sung in Ireland for St. Patrick's Day, and its lyrics were written by an Englishman who never set foot on Irish soil.

God forbid that maudlin sentimentality should ever intrude on the drinking habits of New York's Irish diaspora. He should consider, though, that if he's going to exclude things that originated on the other side of the Irish and British sea, he is going to run into problems with the whole concept of St Patrick's day.

No bad thing, in my view, the whole thing now smacks of a drinks marketing celebration of enforced jollity and plastic Paddy-whackery and is followed - every March 18 - with a mini-moral panic in the media about drunken, disorderly youths. I'm with the people of Dripsey in Co Cork, who host the world's shortest St Patrick's day parade every year.

The AP report, incidentally, does nothing to downplay stereotypes of Irishness.

The song is "all right, but I get fed up with hearing it — it's like the elections," Martin Gaffney, 73, said in a thick Irish brogue.

Gaffney said Wednesday he looked forward to crooning his own Irish favorites, such as "Molly Malone" — whose own theme is hardly a barrel of laughs.

A sort of unofficial anthem of Dublin also known as "Cockles and Mussels," the song tells the tale of a beautiful fishmonger who plies her trade on city streets and dies young of a fever.

There is an argument that Molly Malone was itself written by a Scotsman, and that Molly herself was probably a street prostitute, who used the whelk stall as a cover for her real trade, possibly conducted near that well known hotbed of debauchery, Trinity College. (There's an echo of that in the name given to her statue in Dublin, The Tart with the Cart, which is not to be confused with The Floozie in the Jacuzzi). Given that in the later part of the 19th century, Monto in north Dublin was Europe's largest red light district (and by the standards of the time that was saying something) she seems the ideal figure to commemorate the city's millennium.

It's not clear what Molly did to so distinguish herself from her peers. A pity really, as it would make for a better song.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

EDW: Petronius

Celebrities should set an example, we're told. Why on earth should they? What we want is high-profile figures setting an example for flamboyant bad behaviour (so why don't have to do it) or style.

In the case of Gnaius Petronius Arbiter, Nero's arbiter elegentiae, we have both.

As befitted his office, he slept days and partied nights. He was a lover of style, manners, and literature, and his personality was characterized by freedom, a lack of self-consciousness, a loose tongue, and an attitude. A rival's jealousy turned Nero agains Petronius, and he was forced to commit suicide. However, before his death, he lampooned Nero in his will and sent the emperor a copy.

Now that's the way to do it. He's remembered as the author of the splendidly louche Satyricon.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Against the Grain

The previous week's discussion around the topic of potent and intoxicating liquors, Mortdecai makes the following observation. "Any drink which intrinsically mixes grape and grain (black velvet, dry martini, Pimms royale) is usually both interesting and highly damaging".

Just so. It is the dangerous allure of something that is so powerful that it can make our imagination, our wit and our passions run in different, possibly unchartered, and maybe even unhallowed territories that is one of the great things about really drinking. (It's also fun to breach pettifogging injunctions such as the bar on mixing grain and grape). Literature can have a similar, though less physical, effect and it's little surprise that the two go so well together. In which spirit, I urge you to consider this post a powerful and fascinating cocktail of literature and strong drink.

For starters, you might recognise the allusion in the title, Against the Grain being a good English approximation of the title of Huysmans's decadent classic À Rebours. In one brilliant passage, the hero Des Esseintes suggests a synaesthetic manner of drinking in which the tastes of certain drinks mirror the tones and sounds of instruments. He describes the effect of the mouth organ thus:

Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.

He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,--the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin…

These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.

He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer's motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages. (Much more, here)

It captures precisely the violent strangeness that you'd go looking for in a good literary cocktail. A similar effect can be attained by Hemmingway's Death in the Afternoon (mentioned here previously) which mixes absinthe and champagne and, like its literary namesake, has all the passion, drama and danger of the bull ring. (A recipe for Death in the Afternoon, and other absinthe drinks may be found here).

Yet so far as I know there are few really potent mixtures which combine literature and intoxication in quite this way. (As opposed to cocktails which feature in literature). If you know of any, do let me know. In the meantime, we can take it as read that an À Rebours would be the summit of intoxication, but it hasn't been invented yet. Nor yet have the following literary works been turned into drinks. But they ought to be.

Vathek: William Beckford's Gothic, Orientalist fantasy offers the hellish, seductive nightmare of a dose of delirium tremens. Something evil and mysterious involving arak and green chartreuse would suit in this case.

The Bacchae: Never mind current worries about drunken, out of control women; a drink which captured the essence of Euripides's great Dionysian work would be sure to overshadow them. Imagine something which captured the taste the editor of the Daily Mail being torn limb from limb by ecstatic, vine-wreathed devotees of the god to the strains of unearthly harmonies.

The Third Policeman: a work as rich, and dark as stout and written by one of the great literary drinkers of the last century. Anything in which logic, order, reason, morality and the boundaries between life and death are blurred to such comic effect deserves a drink – probably something which includes a pint of plain.

The Isles of Greece: "Fill high the bowl with Samian wine! Our virgins dance beneath the shade – I see their glorious black eyes shine," capturing that in liquid form – with or without Samian wine – would take a particular type of genius.

So go on, knock yourselves out. What're you having?


A bedbath for the soul

At last, a refuge from puritanism, finger-wagging and sanctimony. I need to think of a way to spend a couple of weeks or so in a hospital.

You might have thought that lying on your back being tended to by a group of dirty, debauched girls would be the stuff of dreams; but apparently not. It's noteworthy that it's the sexual angle to Lord Mancroft's comments that really caught the imagination – why else mention it if, as he claimed, he was worried about their failings in a professional context? It does capture the attention, of course, which is why the story was followed up the way it was; Nurses: we do seduce our patients is a classic of the pretending to be shocked genre.

While many a middle-aged male news editor might be eager to put these naughty girls across their knees and give them a good metaphorical spanking, they might want to reflect that being surrounded by death, illness and suffering on a daily basis would give you a graphic reminder that life is all too short; too short certainly to worry about the sensibilities of the finger-waggers and the prigs.

Not that it's just nurses, of course. Other medical staff and patients are also doing their bit to blow smoke rings in the faces of the puritans, with two thirds of hospitals flouting the the smoking ban; because in some circumstances telling people they must not smoke is probably not, in fact, going to be looking after their best interests.

It's even possible that a stay in hospital will offer the infinite comic potential of workers attempting sexual congress with a vacuum cleaner.

PS: I don't want to labour this point to inappropriate degrees, but in general it's medical staff with an over-exaggerated sense of their virtues and importance that you want to watch out for.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Heat magazine: required reading for rapists and killers

Such at least is Mariella Frostrup's rather creative logic.

While Jemima Khan made headline news for allegedly neglecting to wear underwear (headline news? it was the first I'd heard of it), three men were jailed for heinous crimes against [women]

See there are all these gossipy, celeb sites which got very exited about Jemima's nether parts, and there are all these porn sites which features girls not wearing knickers and, if you ignore the fact that some of these cater exclusively to women and homosexuals and some of them don't, they're practically the same thing.

It may seem like harmless fun to check out Kate Moss's crinkly leg as featured on the cover of Heat, but being a model doesn't make her simply a selection of body parts put together for our delectation.

... If broadsheets struggle to separate Cat Deeley from Hillary Clinton and we all eagerly participate in a culture that judges women on their anatomy first, our society may not create rapists and killers, but it certainly contributes to the incubation.

I'm sure we are all guilty of judging Hillary Clinton on her anatomy first, but I'd like to think we live in a culture in which most people can, in fact, the tell the difference between her and Cat Deeley and can distinguish between tittle tattle and pyschopathy. But if we have a media culture in which showbiz types are urged to comment on serious issues and given the mistaken idea that they have a special insight to offer – say someone who evidently doesn't know what 'subprime' means writes a newspaper column on it, and it doesn't get spiked – a degree of confusion is understandable.

There is something of interest in Frostrup's article, however. It's the underlying belief that the media as a whole plays a vital role in shaping people's views. I'm sceptical as to the extent to which this is true. Put it this way, I don't think that anyone has ever put down a copy of the Daily Mail and said to them themselves: "You know, I thought foreigners were generally good sorts, but I now realise they are rapacious, blood thristy villains who are here to steal my job, leech on the benefits system and commit a range of shockingly newsworthy crimes."

Nor, I think, do the brains behind the Mail*. It's raison d'etre, after all, to play on and reflect its reader's fears about the wide, scary world ("a paper written by office boys, for office boys"). Smart editors know they have to give their readers something which reflects their interests and attitudes.

This could easily spin off into a philosophical cycle about how those interests and attitudes are formed and the role the media plays in forming them, so I'll go no further. Save to add this comforting thought: that it's quite possible Richard Littlejohn, Polly Toynbee and the rest of the commentariat – Mariella Frostrup included - are not going to change many people's minds about anything.

*Well done, Google. Even if Northcliffe's "daily hate" quote is probably a fabrication.