Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thoughts too deep for tears

Maybe London mayoral politics is better expressed in verse. The laconic beauty of the haiku might do it better than what's below.

Ken Livingstone, go
fuck yourself; Boris Johnson,
same applies to you.


Prediction time

In a few hours that minority of Londoners who can be arsed will be heading to the polls to decide which of two untrustworthy scoundrels will be entrusted with the stewardship of the city for the next four years. While I ponder the least humiliating combination of futile protest Xs I could make, let me make my prediction now so you can point and laugh if I'm wrong.

Boris Johnson to win by around 4%.

This is, as Peter Snow would say when waving his swingometer around, just for fun. I derive a certain anoraky amusement from politics and I do like a bit of a bet, so here are my reasons. If you don't share these interests, you will probably have stopped reading already; if you do, remember – this is what I think will happen, not necessarily what I want to happen.

1. Labour isn't too popular, which will drag Livingstone's support down just because he's the representative of the ruling party, no matter how much he downplays the fact.

2. Then think of all the people Ken has pissed off (too long to list here), his rather dodgy associates and the blind eye he's turned to their activities. Plus, and this always works against the incumbent, he's done things that people don't like (I mean doing things will always cost you some votes, irrespective of their merits). Now remember that for all those people who voted for him in the past and are now voting for someone else, he has to attract new voters. Where will they come from? There will be some who get off their backsides and vote because they can't abide Boris. But enough to win? Surely not.

My feeling is that whatever doubts people have about Boris, it's a suspicion. Whereas those who think Ken's actions have made him unsuited to the job are deciding on the basis of a certainty. When it comes to a suspicion vs a certainty, the latter is going to win out.

3. The bizarre way Ken and his supporters have been fighting their corner. Rather than focussing on experience and competence (his two strongest suits), they've been arguing about virtually everything but. Polly Toynbee's column from yesterday is a classic of the how-not-to-make your case genre, containing as it does virtually all the reasons why Livingstone will lose.

Complaints about Boris the ('effette and frivolous') toff and other things no one gives a toss about; arguments that all the money that's gone missing is scarely worth worrying your little heads about (what's a few million between taxpayers?) and even if it was knowingly misappropriated, Ken didn't benefit personally so don't blame him for the supporting the people responsible; claims that greedy idiots in the City like Ken (they should, given his indulgence of them) so hurrah for him.

4. Snarling and whinging. Then thereare the sneers and jibes at anyone who crosses the Lizard King, even pollsters whose reputation and long-term viability depends on being impartial are biased, you see. (Strangely, this reminds me of nothing so much as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove): the claim that if Boris wins it's only the wrong sort of Londoners who are voting - "Boris Johnson campaigns mainly in the rich white suburbs" - as opposed to inner city areas like Westminster and Notting Hill where oppressed, poor, minority types like Polly Toynbee live. And, in any case, even if the inner cities fail to vote in sufficient numbers for Ken, it's only because the Evening Standard has been running hostile stories.

The irony of complaining about a partisan campaign by a newspaper in a column in a newspaper which has been running a series of save the Newt articles is glaring enough to be rather annoying. But more annoying by far is the idea that if St Ken somehow loses it will be a martyrdom at the hands of the Evil Standard.

I've mentioned before that media types tend to vastly over-estimate their own importance. In this case Toynbee even tries to have it both ways (arguing that the Standard isn't that important but will still cause vulnerable and impressionable Londoners to make the wrong decision). Clearly the Standard is out to get Ken. Clearly it's for Johnson. (Clearly, it is also utter shite, though that's scarcely relevant here). However, I doubt very much that a paper which is losing sales massively to the freesheets is going to swing the election. Rather, if the Standard does for Ken, it's because it's picked up on things he should be held to account for and stuff that real voters - even the horrid middle-class, non-inner city-dwelling whites – care about. (Remember too that stuff about possible corruption has been widely picked up on, weak stuff like some bloke you've never heard of doesn't like Ken, stays firmly between the largely unread pages of the Standard). Newspapers are more likely to reflect public opinion than to shape it.

But this whinging that the debate is being conducted on terms you don't like has characterised the Livingstone camp from the off. And I think, ultimately, it will cost him. Ah well.

So, if I'm right, my dismay at this insufferable charlatan's victory will be matched only by my delight that this ghastly little man has been handed his cards. If I'm wrong, then vice versa.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: I can't believe it's not Pimm's

It may be raining as I type this, but there is the proper springlike freshness to the air which turns one's thoughts to sunny afternoons and all the things that go with them. But before you all rush out to buy a bottle of Pimm's and all the accompaniments, I would like to urge you all to consider the merits of making your own.

Although the makers of this gin-based cocktail have colonised the English summer entirely, making your own is incredibly simple and there is an infinite reward in performing the alchemical process by which the ingredients are transmuted into the essence of sunshine, freshly cut grass and languid grace. The fact that the resulting mixture is somewhat stronger than that which you will buy in the shops may well help matters. (Of course, you can dilute it if you see fit).

Here's how to make it, anyhow.

1 part gin (a quality, but clear tasting gin is what you need here. Plymouth Gin is ideal).
1 part red vermouth (Martini's version will be fine).
Half measure of either Cointreau or Orange Curacao.

And there you have it. Then mix one part of this with three parts (four if you like it weaker) with either lemonade or ginger ale. Personally I like to use both lemonade and ginger ale in roughly equal measures.

Serve in a jug with ice. As for the trimmings, again it's a matter of taste. I think some mint leaves are a must, and would include some sliced cucumber and orange. Some also like to add sliced lemons and strawberries. This smacks of overkill to me, but there is no denying that a strawberry soaked in this mixture has a particular magic to it.

Some of you may remember a previous discussion about the Pimm's Royale. Try this with champagne and tell me you're not impressed.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 28, 2008

No such thing as bad publicity?

Apparently retailers are sensitive to a thing called "the Delia effect": ie, if a product is featured on Delia Smith's TV programmes, it will start to fly off the shelves. I can well believe it, but I think that, if anything, it underestimates the value of publicity. If you cast your minds back to last week's story about John Prescott's bulimia, you might remember that his confessions included the following line.

I could sup a whole tin of Carnation condensed milk, just for the taste, stupid things like that. Marks & Spencer trifles, I still love them, one of my favourites. I can eat them for ever.

I was in a Marks & Spencer store over the weekend and couldn't help but look out for their trifles. They were on special offer and had nearly sold out. (I bought the last carton of three individual trifles, naturally. As pre-prepared puddings go, they're not bad). Can we now talk of a "Prescott effect" hitting the grocery market?

If only I'd thought to check on sales of Carnation condensed milk, that might have sealed it.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

If you must write prose or poems

In David Lodge's Changing Places at one point the characters play a game called Humiliation, a form of intellectual strip poker in which the participants name literary classics they haven't read; the winner is an English professor who hasn't read Hamlet. Appropriately, I haven't read Lodge's novel, but it makes a good starting point to my follow-up of this literary A-Z of works I have read.

Thanks to those of you who posted your own lists (and well done for Driss for having read a book by an author whose name begins with 'Q', I've shamelessly appropriated it for this list.) Feel free to out yourselves this time round.

Same rules apply to the last list, so I've restricted it to novelists. If I've never read a word by them, I've listed the complete works. If the books are classics or modern day classics, so much the better. A few international stars also make the list. If the writer's obscure, you can guess I was stumped.

NB: I have a degree in English literature so there are some particularly glaring gaps in my reading here; that's what I get for wasting my time at college reading things like The Prelude and Troilus and Criesyde.

Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart
Balzac, Honore de: Complete Works
Colette: Complete Works
Dickens, Charles: Hard Times, Oliver Twist, Bleak House
Eliot, George: Complete Works
France, Anatole: Complete Works
Grass, Gunter: Complete Works
Heller, Joseph: Catch 22
Ishiguro, Kuzuo: Complete Works. (I did like that film, too)
James, Henry: Portrait of a Lady
Kafka, Franz: Complete Works
Lermontov, Mikhail: A Hero of Our Time
Mahfouz, Naguib: Complete Works
Naipaul, VS: Complete Works
Oe, Kenzaburo: Complete Works
Pater, Walter: Marius the Epicurian
Queneau, Raymond: Complete Works
Richardson, Samuel: Clairssa
Stendhal: Le Rouge et Le Noir
Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
Updike, John: Complete Works
Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaughterhouse 5
Wolfe, Tom: Bonfire of the Vanities
Xu Xi: Complete Works
Yates, Richard: Complete Works
Zamyatin, Yevgenny: We

I should also add that Edith Wharton, Orhan Pamuk and Jeffrey Archer very nearly made the list.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 24, 2008

If we must

Locker, damn his impertinence, has tagged me with a request to reveal six random facts about myself. Here goes then:

1. I dislike revealing things about myself intensely, but don't mind sharing ideas. And I enjoy arguing with people.

2. I would urge people not to take sides if at all possible. People who are "pro-Israeli" or "pro-Palestinian" who have never been to the Middle East (or who go there to help "their side") fill me with alarm. People who cheer for their political party as if it were a football team depress me (though Labour supporters seem far more passive and forgiving when led by a disastrously inept numpty compared with, say, England football supporters).

By way of illustration, I was born in England of predominately Ulster Protestant and Irish Catholic antecedents; just what is "my side" in Irish matters? (It's worth adding, too, that the Ulster Prod side includes, among others, Irish-speaking Catholic clerics who switched sides to keep their ill-gotten cash and leaders of the United Irishmen.)

3. I don't take most things seriously because most things are, frankly, laughable. The trick is knowing what to take seriously; and recognising that serious matters are often absurd.

4. In my experience of women from three continents, the problem with them (or me, depending on your perspective) is they tend to like me, and want to be friends with me. Arguing with them (see No 1) and trashing their deeply held views is surprisingly effective in remedying the situation.

5. Places I have never visited and would like to have done so: Cornwall; the northern and western Highlands of Scotland, the islands too; Australia; Ireland's western coast - from Dingle to Donegal; Australia; Latin America and India. I have, however, lived in Dundee and Sheffield. (In fact, I was born in the latter).

6. The title of this blog comes from the time I was Paxmanned on University Challenge after buzzing in prematurely and then suffering a mental blank. (For the record we lost – fairly narrowly, but it was a loss nonetheless – to the eventual winners. They were all postgrads, which isn't quite cricket).

I'm not going to tag anyone; but if you have a blog and feel like responding, consider this an open invitation.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Champagne socialism (up to a point)

A few days ago the first expansion of the Champagne region – that magic circle inside which grape growers and vinters may give the name of the area to their sparkling wines – in decades was announced. For the winners, the announcement spells glory and riches:

Marchais-en-Brie has struck liquid gold by becoming the only village in its county to be added to the list.

Local farmers have won a remarkable agricultural jackpot, with the price of their land expected to increase from less than 8,000 euros per hectare to more than a million.

The village didn't even grow grapes; that's going to change pretty quickly now. Predictably, the losers are none too happy.

[Frans] Labilloy tends a few vineyards outside the village of Serval, enough to produce around 600 bottles per year. "We carry on the tradition, but we have absolutely no right to call it champagne or sell it. It's just for the family," he said.

As ever, if you want lessons from life, you should look to the bottom of a glass. In this case the Champagne expansion tells us plenty. (Not least, the influence of China and India on the modern-day economy).

1. The power of branding. There are other, excellent, sparkling wines (even English ones) but nothing has quite the hold over us that champagne does. In one sense, more fool us for paying over the odds for the label. On the other hand, in contrast to the trite, over-simplistic Naomi Klein school of thought, branding appeals to something deep in the human soul. We want the ease, the reassurance of knowing that the label acts as a certain guarantee. There is also the undeniable snob appeal attached to the cost and the exclusive cachet the champagne has over the likes of cava.

2. Never mind trite, over-simplistic free marketeers. By giving legal protection to the name champagne, the chances of utter cowboys trying to exploit the brand are limited. Producers are guaranteed certain protections, which in turn gives them, collectively, a powerful incentive not to rip off the public and damage the image of the product.

3. Life's not fair, though. Though consumers and producers win, there are still losers (eg the villagers who make sparkling wine they can't sell). You can ameliorate the utter arbitary, capricious and cruel nature of existence in various ways (by swallowing a small fridge, if needs be), but you can't change this. Sorry.

4. All art aspires the condition of booze. You can grow the grapes, turn them into fizz, slap a label on them and sell them. But there is still the alchemy of making a champagne worthy of the name, which truly commands awe, respect (and high prices) which can't be easily explained.

BONUS (TANGENTIALLY RELEVANT) FACT: Winston Churchill had two drinks made in his honour. Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill and Carlsberg Special Brew.



Here's a fun, if slightly anoraky game. Take all the letters of the alphabet and give the name of a novelist and one of their novels which you have read for each letter. Here's mine.

Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim
Buchan, John: Greenmantle
Camus, Albert: The Plague
Dostoevsky, Feodor: The Brothers Karamazov
Elroy, James: American Tabloid
Fitzgerald, F Scott: The Great Gatsby
Grossmith, George and Weedon: Diary of a Nobody
Houellebecq, Michel: Platform
I -
Joyce, James: Ulysses
Kurkov, Andrey: The Case of the General's Thumb
Lawrence, DH: Sons and Lovers
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: 100 Years of Solitude
Nabakov, Vladimir: Lolita
O'Brien, Flann: The Third Policeman
Peacock, Thomas Love: Nightmare Abbey
Q -
Rankin, Ian: Black and Blue
Sade, Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de: Justine
Trollope, Anthony: Phineas Phinn
U -
Voltaire, Francois-Marie: Candide
Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray
X -
Yerofeev, Venedikt: Moskva-Petushki
Zola, Emile: Nana

From this you may deduce that I have never read anything by Ishiguro or Isherwood, Updike or – well, I can't even think of any Xs (anonymous works don't count, do they?) or Qs.

It might be more fun, and more revealing to do the same with a group of writers whose works I have missed out on. Or, failing that, books. Watch this space.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fat bloke has problem with food shock

The trouble with John Prescott's bulimia is that it falls into the category of things which are funny if they happen to someone else; rather like having a man like Prescott spending 10 years in high ministerial office is funny if it happens to another country.

The man himself recognised the black comedic elements to his condition with his rueful comments.

Mr Prescott… said people would never suspect he suffered from the disorder and that some could accuse him of not being "a very successful bulimic" because his weight did not drop.

Pretty on a par with his ministerial record, then.

And yet, and yet, it's hard not to have some sympathy for the man. And the attempts to politicise this story seem both low and silly. For instance, the Telegraph asks "Did Tony Blair know of John Prescott's bulimia?" in tones of breathless, sub-Daily Mail hysteria as if there were some ghastly deceit perpetrated on the public. Assuming that it is not being seriously suggested that Prescott might have sold state secrets for a bag of chips or accidentally started a war whilst on a sugar high after gorging on M&S trifles, I would imagine that had Blair known, his response would have been "so what"?

However, buried within the story is the most ridiculous comment of all. The fact that it comes form the TaxPayers' Alliance – a rentaquote mob whose sole point is that spending public money is a bad thing (I'm half- waiting for one of their spokespeople to start complaining that solider are being given expensive kit when they could make do with swords or bows and arrows). In this case the comment is:

Mark Wallace, the campaign director for the TaxPayers' Alliance, said he should have disclosed his condition, especially as he had claimed £4,000 in food expenses a year.

It's hard to look both ridiculous, sanctimonious and vindictive at the same time, but Mark Wallace manages it with ease. This is the type of thing that makes me want to vomit.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

EDW: Nell Gwynn

It was recently suggested that changes to the Act of Settlement would see the crown revert to the Stewarts. (Or more precisely their German heir). A more disastrous and unsuccessful royal dynasty it would be hard to think of. Apart from Charles I's remarkable achievement in getting himself executed, several other members of the family lost their thrones (Mary Queen of Scots, James II and VII) and many others managed to get themselves killed in unfortunate circumstances. (James I of Scotland, for instance, was murdered in a sewer which he'd blocked up to stop his tennis balls rolling away).

Against that: Charles II at least managed to get back on the throne and managed to enjoy himself while he was on it. I could, I suppose, use this for a series discussion on his reign, but those of you who are interested in that sort of thing, let me instead direct you to a book I've been reading: Restoration by Tim Harris.

Instead, let's talk about the fun stuff. In reaction to the puritanism of the Cromwell era, Restoration England was a time of unbridled libertineage. Pepys's diaries give a flavour of the age, as do some of the ballads of the times and the Earl of Rochester's bawdy verses. Charles enthusiastically reflected the spirit of the times with his string of mistresses. As Rochester put it (in a poem which led to his banishment from court).

Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.
Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,

Nell Gwynn is the best-remembered of these royal mistresses. Rightly so. She was, unlike many of the royal paramours, popular with the common people. Stories like the following indicate her wit and spirit.

Nell Gwynn was one day passing through the streets of Oxford in her coach, when the mob mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, commenced hooting and loading her with every opprobrious epithet. Putting her head out of the coach window, "Good people", she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.

Hard not to like someone like that.(The fact that unlike most of Charles's mistresses she wasn't a particular drain on the public purse probably helped). Should any of our current crop of royals be looking for a mistress, they could do worse than go for one like her.

Pretty, witty Nell had also started from rather humble origins. Her mother ran a brothel and the young Nell started by serving drinks in the establishment before becoming, variously, an orange seller, an actress, and kept women. These all may be euphemisms to various degrees, but given the miserable nature of life for the vast majority of people - the poor especially, she showed considerable astuteness in advancing her own interests.

It was her wit, as much as her good looks and lack of hang-ups which helped her rise. You could even, if you were so minded, make a case for her being a feminist pioneer; she was one of the first women to act on the English stage ( female roles had been played by boys prior to this) and was one of the first female 'celebrities' (okay, that's a bad precedent to set) in her own right. More than that, though, she was able to hold her own among the wittiest and most spirited characters at the royal court.

Rochester may have paid her several backhanded tributes, but in his Satire on the King (from which I've quoted above), he bemoans the fact that the king seemed to prefer Carwell (ie Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth) and the resulting "pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly/Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs/ Ere she can raise the member she enjoys."

Still, poor laborious Nelly's memory endures. There is a horse race named after her, at least one pub, and as the pictures show, whether dressed or undressed she had style, she had panache and a certain sort of elegance.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Evelyn Waugh

If you're ever looking to write something about drink, chose someone who writes as your topic. Literary types are often inveterate lushes, and few were more inveterate, or more of a lush than Evelyn Waugh. There is the story that, in his later years, Waugh's doctor was foolish enough to ask him how much he drank. After listing prodigious quantities of wine etc, which left the doctor struggling to find something positive to say - 'well I suppose there are people who drink more every month' - Waugh administered the coup de grace by pointing out that was actually talking about his weekly consumption.

So a drinker then. And even by the standards of drink-sodden writers, Waugh was a phenomenally rude and unpleasant man. (The story about the time he ate his children's post-war bananas tells you all you need to know about him as a person). The point is, that it doesn't matter how much of a shit he was, he was also a damn fine writer. And, as this recently released BBC tape of the "the most ill-natured interview ever" shows*, his abrasive nature didn't preclude him from making some especially astute observations.

Waugh is pushed on whether he interacts with real people and is asked: "Do you find it easy to get on with the man in the street?" "I've never met such a person." What about on buses or trains? "I've never travelled in a bus and I've never addressed a stranger on a train," he says, testily. The interviewer says surely Waugh cannot go about in a Trappist condition. "The prospect of just being introduced to somebody as just a person, a man as you might say in the street, is entirely repugnant."

What also emerges is Waugh's razor sharp wit. Asked what failings in others he could most readily excuse Waugh replies quickly: "Drunkenness." Any others? "Em [long pause] ... anger. Lust. Dishonouring their father and mother. Coveting their neighbour's ox, ass, wife. Killing. I think there's almost nothing I can't excuse except perhaps worshipping graven images. That seems to be idiotic."

You'll note that drunkeness is the first - the main – failing he thinks worthy of forgiveness.

After drink, Waugh was best known for his Catholicism, so theoretically forgiveness should have had a particular attraction for him. However, like many selfish, cruel, bigotted people he was attracted to religion as a way of rationalising his behaviour (there is a paradox in that many kind, selfless, noble people also find a similar attraction in the supernatural); in Waugh's case he once said something to the effect that he would have been a much worse person had it not been for his religious beliefs.

I've long thought that an unconvincing statement, but it was only while searching out links for this piece that I discovered that his son, Auberon, was of a similar mind. Geoffrey Wheatcroft expresses it this: "Bron shrewdly said that this was untrue, and that without his obsessive religious faith, his father would have been less strictly charitable but a much nicer man to know."

My own suggestion is that it was the drinking that gave Waugh his more compassionate side; his insight into human fallibility, weakness and vulnerability. Consider, if you care to, one of his best-known novels: Brideshead Revisted. We'll put the fact that Waugh himself was dissatisfied with it to one side for the moment. It might be the fault of the TV adaptation, I suppose, but the novel is entirely over-shadowed by Sebastian Flyte**, a particularly fine archetype of the loveable, doomed drunk.

Except, of course, the book isn't supposed to be about that: it's about the decline of the artistocracy, the difficulty of living up to the demands of the Catholic faith and the author/narrator's trust in that religion's eternal verities. It's just that, and this is where Waugh's dissatisfaction is pertinent, the novel's true beauty and resonance come from the fleeting joys of youth, the beauty of living for the moment, not unsatisfactory relationships doomed by hopeless attempts to construct a way of living which accommodates one's own metaphysical hang-ups. As generations of students who attended an infinitely superior university to Oxford could tell you: Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus.

It's folly to speculate as to how true to an author his works are, but it does seem to me that Brideshead's sadness comes its triumph of the worshippers of graven images over the drunks.

*Thanks to Locker, for drawing it to my attention.

** Like many of you, whilst at university I knew several types who'd taken the early part of the book too much to heart. One fellow even had a teddy bear called Aloysius. He is now a priest.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 14, 2008

Travel they say improves the mind, an irritating platitude

News that one of the Lonely Planet's writers has admitted to making up large sections of the travel guides, in one case writing about a country he'd never visited, is generally being seen as a blow to the publisher's credibility.

Not so. Quite apart from the winning simplicity of Thomas Kohnstamm's explanation – "They didn't pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern at the Colombian consulate" – and the Lonely Planet's response that it had reviewed his guides and "not found any inaccuracies", the whole thing exposes the fallacy peddled by the modern tourist industry that you can, in some way, grasp the essence of a place by dropping in for a few days, weeks or months and feeding off carefully packaged and processed chunks of its history and culture.

In a just world Kohnstamm would be celebrated as the most astute travel writer of our age for he, at least, has grasped the essential fact that the best journeys all take place in the imagination, where sordid reality cannot spoil the experience. It is a philosophy best expressed in Huysmans's À Rebours. There is a fine section in which Des Esseintes decides to visit England, preparing the way by reading English fiction, eating English food and wearing English clothing until, en route to the Chanel, he finds himself amongst English travellers who help to crystalise all his ideas about the country. Then comes the revelation.

In his sedentary life, only two countries had ever attracted him: Holland and England.

He had satisfied the first of his desires. Unable to keep away, one fine day he had left Paris and visited the towns of the Low Lands, one by one.

In short, nothing but cruel disillusions had resulted from this trip… He had to admit that the Dutch paintings at the Louvre had misled him. They had simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions, unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all, on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly.

Decidedly nothing of all this was visible. Holland was a country just like any other country, and what was more, a country in no wise primitive, not at all simple, for the Protestant religion with its formal hypocricies and solemn rigidness held sway here.

Recalling this, Des Esseintes decides to abandon his intention of travelling to London. In a memorable passage he concludes:

In fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!

Just so. And when you consider that travel today is almost guaranteed to show you the worst side of human nature – the cattle-like treatment of air passengers; the yobbish behaviour of British tourists abroad; the German, American and Japanese tourists who will live down to every national stereotype going; the greedy locals who will rob you blind in exchange for serving up a vulgarised, ersatz version of their cultures and cuisines – the wisdom of this approach becomes every more apparent.

To journey with high expectations is to invite disappointment. Few will have travelled with such high expectations as the Italian artist Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, who decided to hitch-hike to the Middle East dressed as a bride to promote world peace. As the BBC puts it: "She had said she wanted to show that she could put her trust in the kindness of local people."

Unfortunately, and those of you who take a somewhat bleak and cynical view of human nature might not be wholly surprised at this, she was found murdered in Turkey.

Labels: , ,

Friday, April 11, 2008

Trot or Not

Unsure who to vote for? Why not let the internet tell you what you really think? Those of you registered to vote in London, for instance, may wish to take the Vote Match quiz, which will tell you who you should be supporting.

In my case, it seems I should vote for Lindsey German of the Left List. You can imagine that my initial reaction was overwhelming despair and a strong urge to kill myself. However, having scoured the blackest recesses of my soul, I think I can reassure you all that I am not Trot who up until now had been denying my true nature.

You see, it appears that Ms German is the candidate who agrees with me on the greatest number of the issues raised in the quiz. While it is gratifying that she shares my views that pigeons and bendy buses are bad things, I somewhat doubt that these are the issues that really motivates her. A quick look at her website confirms the impression; plenty of stuff about the evils of capitalism, US foreign policy and other things which, you get the distinct impression, count for considerably more in forming her world view that flying vermin or public transport. All of which is fair enough, I suppose, but as I don't really consider global revolution to be within the remit of the London mayor, so I'll probably vote for someone else.

The real problem with this quiz, though, is its focus on things I really couldn't care less about (For instance, there is a question about whether inter-racial marriage should be banned something, I strongly hope, which is of no interest to anyone except the BNP candidate) and while managing to be either hopelessly vague or insanely detailed about things such as housing and transport. I'm still puzzling about the question: "Public sector workers should reflect the ethnic diversity of the communities they serve." Well they should, but does this mean they should in a wouldn't it be nice sort of way, or they should in a there will be strict quotas to enforce this manner? Quite a difference, and the fact that most of the candidates agree with the proposition doesn't really clarify matters.

All of this helps muddy the results, I think. It explains why Ken Livingstone does not appear to know whether or not London City Airport should be closed and that Boris Johnson cannot give a straight answer as to whether people should be banned from feeding pigeons. I suppose it is just possible that both leading contenders for mayor are so bedeviled by havering indecision that they make Gordon Brown look like a model of decisive, firm leadership. But on balance I think it more likely that they don't regard these particular issues as priorities.

On the stump both candidates give the distinct impression that they place as much emphasis on such intangibles as character, experience, leadership, competence: all the things most people focus on when deciding how to place their votes (and the personal benefits they will derive from the victory of one or other candidate), in fact.

I've long be sceptical of these things. For instance, virtually everyone who takes the Political Compass quiz ends up in the Libertarian-left quarter (bottom, left-hand) along with such cuddly figures as the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. The fact that you have to be the sort who thinks that the problem with Pinochet was that he was too soft, or that Stalin was just misunderstood, suggests that they might be asking the wrong questions.

But then, as Sir Humphrey Appleby wisely observed: the questions you ask are more important than the answers people give.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

EDW: Carla Bruni

A poll this week shows the French are starting to warm to their first lady, with 90 per cent approving of her performance.

And, as this clip shows, even if she can't sing, she certainly knows how to perform. However, rather than worrying about what she wore to meet the queen, and whether or not she can behave herself in the company of Prince Philip, I'd like to suggest that this performance - a song by Georges Brassens and about soliders standing proudly to attention - indicates clearly that she has all the qualities needed to be a first lady. Ideally, they'd take the hint at the end to make it the national anthem.

Altogether now:

Quand je pense à Fernande
Je bande, je bande
Quand j' pense à Felicie
Je bande aussi...


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Poems about Drinking

 Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach
Who please,—the more because they preach in vain,—
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda-water the day after.

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men, and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.

Ring for your valet—bid him quickly bring
Some hock and soda-water, then you 'll know
A pleasure worthy Xerxes the great king;
For not the bless'd sherbet, sublimed with snow,
Nor the first sparkle of the desert-spring,
Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter,
Vie with that draught of hock and soda-water.

(Byron: from Don Juan Canto II)

Quite so. You can never go wrong with a drink and you can never go wrong with a bit of Byron. This digression (in the middle of a passage about love and landscape, as it happens) proves that the essence of great poetry is the essence of life itself. And the essence of great wine is… you get the point.

You don't get many people drinking hock and soda water these days; I suspect it is too easily assumed to be a white wine spritzer, which is a bit girly. However, if more of us instructed our valets to bring us hock and soda water, the world would be a better place.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

EDW: Taoisigh Past, Present (and Future?)

Patrick Bartholomew Ahern, the "most devious and cunning" of them all (according to Charles Haughey) resigns after his increasing elaborate explanations for his finances started to test the patience of even the average Fianna Fáil politician. A good thing, too, if he was being given thousands of pounds from his friends, the very least he could have done was spend some of it on a bit of decent tailoring.

His predecessor and mentor Haughey may have been pretty venial, but at least he knew how to spend the money he was given in the grand style: £700 shirts and the best of tailoring, country houses, fine food and wines. No wonder he was nicknamed the Squire, while Bertie was nicknamed the Anorak.

Whereas Bertie, despite receiving thousands of pounds from his friends in the Nineties and coming up with the sort of preposterously unconvincing explanations as to where it had all come from (and where it had gone) that would not convince a more than usually gullible nine-year-old clearly never spent a penny of it on decent clothing. One might forgive a politician who took money from his wealthy chums and played on the soft-hearted credulity of his supporters to get away with it. One could even stomach his defence that he'd pocketed all the cash but, the ungrateful sponger, did nothing for those who'd given it to him. But it's hard to think kindly of the sort of man who turns up to summit of world leaders dressed like an ice cream waiter.

As for the succession, it's hard to think of any Irish politicians who have any sort of elegance about them (Micheál Martin is about as good as it gets, I'm afraid); and the likely winner of the FF leadership contest is Brian Cowan, a man nicknamed Biffo (Big Ignorant Fucker from Offaly). There are other options, though, if the soldiers of destiny want to eschew the obvious and plump for a man with a particular style of his own.

I was struck by Dave Hill's recent advice on how Ken Livingstone should turn around his mayoral campaign: take the piss more. If there's one thing the Irish are superb at, it's taking the piss, and the choice of a new leader should reflect this. It's probably too much to hope that our particular favourite, Jackie Healy-Rae, will be readmitted to FF's warm embrace to bring his particular talents on the world stage, nor do we have much confidence that his fellow south KerrymanJohn 'The Bull' O'Donoghue will vacant the Ceann Comhairle's chair to lead his party to new glories.

Only one man, then, remains, who can meet our criteria: Willie O'Dea. Not only would his bonsai stature (he's about 5 ft 2) allow him to meet world leaders such as Dmitry Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy on equal terms, the photo on the right shows what a forceful and effective leader he would be. Does he not ooze authority? Does not the reek of power fill the room? Is he not the only possible contender who could match the EDW credentials of the likes of Haughey or Seán Lemass?

UPDATE: Yup, Biffo it is (link includes picture which shows off his keen stylistic sense).

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Would you let your daughter marry a journalist?

Parents are alarmingly ignorant of the danger posed to millions of girls by the Daily Mail, a report reveals.

A study of sites such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace shows children using them can be at great risk from male reporters and editors who spent hours trawling the web for photographs of teenage girls in provocative poses which they then reproduce for the benefit of millions of readers and web users.

Reporter Paul Revoir boasted of tracking down dozens of young girls who had put revealing images of themselves on social networking sites and claimed he could quite easily have tracked them down to their homes or schools; all the while sharing his breathless fantasies about what might befall the 15-year-old girl in a pose which "mimics" one from a pornographic model's repetoire. (Pic reproduced, naturally)

(Are they really in danger from insalubrious hacks, you ask. Surely a truly intrepid reporter would not have been content with braving the dangers of the intertubes and proved that the girls really were in danger – as opposed to, oh I don't know, indulging in a little exhibitionism at a distance – by contacting them and seeing whether or not they were actually likely to agree to meet a stranger posing as a legitimate journalist. He could obviously have made his excuses and left at some point. I'd also love to see support for the claim that a girl whose profile picture featured her breasts rather than her face was at particular risk from predators; how on earth could they find her?)

In other sexual hypocrisy news, how many people have you slept with? Don't answer that, please, I don't want to know. It's the Guardian that's asking, you see. In the wake of Nick Clegg's ill-advised interview with Piers Morgan (something some Graun editors know all about), the paper sent its hacks round the cities of Britain to see if anyone was willing to lie share that information with the paper.

Two things strike me as odd. The progressive paper of choice seems not to have asked any Muslims this question; a most un-multicultural approach one might think. Why Islamic sex should be infra dig is something we can only speculate upon, I'm sure that it isn't the sort of double standard that would have the Guardian fuming if it was deemed appropriate to treat men and women differently when it comes to such a sensitive topic.

The other thing that strikes me is that it does look awfully like a double standard if you invite your readers to share that sort of information with the world at large but decline to do so yourself. I know it's most ungentlemanly to talk about this sort of thing, but on the grounds that working for the Guardian pretty much ends any pretensions anyone might have to being a gentleman, I think we can demand it as our right to know. How many people have felt the full force of Alan Rushbridger's mighty Fleet Street organ? What numbers have breached Polly Toynbee's bastion of left-liberal rectitude? How many have boiled Martin's Kettle?

Stops to throw up.

PS: The Mail really is outdoing itself of late. Today it also managed a lengthy article on Oswald and Max Mosley without once mentioning that one national newspaper had given its enthusiastic support to the former with headlines such as "Hurrah for the Blackshirts!"

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Down the Pub

I'm indebted to the Political Umpire for being the first to alert me to the campaign by various publicans to get Alistair Darling banned from pubs across the land. It's a good example of what the internet does well, allowing us to mock our leaders and let off steam about things we can't do all that much about; and it's pleasing to see that interest in the campaign has led to questions in the House and attracted the interest of the Washington Post (which quotes Jaroslav Hasek as a bonus).

Hasek: more likely to get statues erected in his honour than Darling. The Party of Gradual Progress within the Bounds of Law is also more fun than Labour.

However, were I a publican I doubt I would ban Darling: there is something so pathetic and hapless about the man; something that suggests that he'd be better off getting maudlinly sozzled at the bar while telling a sympathetic barman about how his tyrannical boss is ruining his life. (Quite in the fashion of a Smithers minus the gay crush, I would imagine).

Which is not say that the idiotic stunt of trying to appease the puritans while simultaneously trying to raise cash to weather a very nasty economic storm deserves nothing less than scorn. Old school pubs are suffering so many divergent threats – the rise of the gastropub which actually does not want any drinkers taking up valuable space which could be occupied someone willing to pay £17 for an authentic French dish which almost succeeds in making the most revolting left-over pig bits edible; rising commodity prices which ramp up the price of beer; the smoking ban; and stuff that happens – changing tastes, the fact that drinkers in rural areas either can't grasp the concept of using a taxi after a few drinks or that taxi drivers in rural areas haven't cottoned on to the fact that there are people who don't want to get done for drink-driving but who still want a few pints in their local.

In this atmosphere the loss of 1,409 pubs in the last year is no surprise; and Darling's little squeeze is about as welcome as one from your drunken, creepy uncle in the lift after a boozy family wedding.

Fortunately you can do something far more effective than joining a Facebook group. If you want there to be places where people can go to enjoy conversation, banter and company fuelled by good quality company, whether or not you like beer, whether or not you drink, you can still go to the pub; it's the best way to keep these vital resources open. Rather than laugh at Darling, go to places he will not and cannot. You'll find some good ones here. (Smokers are positively encouraged to go outside and blow smoke rings into the faces of any politicians or Daily Mail journalists they might encouter.)

NB: If you want to support this appeal by proxy, I'm more than happy for readers of this blog to buy me a drink.


Westminster Village people

I was starting to wonder what cosmic joke had ensured that virtually every thing I see in the news today could be added to a compendium of human idiocy. So well done to Harriet Harman for her clever and well-executed stunt of wearing a stab proof vest to tour her constituency.

The Evening Standard quotes her as saying:

"I was going out with my neighbourhood police team. Just as I might wear a hard hat on a building site or an Indian outfit going to meet Indian constituents, it's just about wearing the kit."

Cowboy outfit next? Presumably the leather jacket and cap will be stored up for Peckham gay pride.


2,500 years of oppression is no laughing matter

This is not, apparently, an April Fool. Ireland's Eurovision entry, Dustin the Turkey, has been asked to alter the lyrics of his entry in case his reference to Macedonia upsets the Greeks (via

The EBU reference group have requested that the official name of the country "FYR Macedonia" be used rather than just "Macedonia" in the lyrics of the song Irelande douze pointe for all Eurovision Song Contest related performances.

This does illustrate something which could well be developed into a good rule of international affairs. No matter the causes and length of a dispute, the more people start taking offence at incredibly petty things like this, the harder it will be to resolve.

It's hardly worth bothering with April Fools when you get such glorious absurdity from people who should know better. Two other recent examples:

Exhibit A: Nick "Shagger" Clegg - I've slept with 30 women, and am okay in bed. I was once arrested for setting fire to a collection of rare cacti in Germany. (He's got a long way to go before he lives up to Lloyd George's standards).

Exhibit B: Son of famous fascist caught in five-hour Nazi orgy with five hookers. (Note to journalism students. If you can get "Nazi", "orgy" and/or "hookers" in the headline, it really doesn't matter what else is in the story, people will read it. Throw in whips and some unintentional comedy – "He converses in German with one girl throughout the torture, loving every minute of death camp role-play, while the other girl pleads: 'I don't know what you are saying, so I don't know what to do'." – and you have the perfect tabloid story. ) Ve hav vays of making you torque.

Besides, these pranks rapidly get so complex it would be far easier to arrange a Moseley-style blow-out. Here's an example, involving one my favourite politicians, Jackie Healy-Rae – a man who renders satire redundant – and the formation of the Kerry Independence Party. (Actually, Kerry politicians in the main make satire redundant). That the story was originally 'broken' on a wesbite on March 31 and subsequently lifted and carried without any checks by one of the main independent news stations – scooping Radio Kerry's tongue in cheek variant on the day itself – draws the whole thing into an Alice In Wonderland world.

UPDATE: Another thing which looks like a parody. George Galloway's website which would be the perfect send-up of a meglomaniac who has lost all touch with reality had Craig Brown or the like published it. It includes gems such as this photo, comments like "having shaken up the US Senate, with your help, I can do the same in City Hall", oh and his bank details available for all to read.

Labels: , , ,