Monday, May 26, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Found Ons

Non-Irish readers may well be unaware of Con Houlihan, the grand old man of Irish journalism – sports writers supreme, one-time scourge of the IRA in Kerry and lover of good writing, conviviality, drink, pubs and other fine things. You may also be unaware of the old Irish tradition of 'found ons', whereby people who were found on licensed premises, drinking after hours, were named and shamed in the local press.

If so, as a two for the price of one promotion, permit me to I direct you to the man himself writing recently in the Irish Independent about the 'Strange stigma of being "found on".'

There was an unwritten rule in The Kerryman: names of "found ons" cannot be kept out of the paper, except in the case of a Garda or a clergyman. Too well I know: in my days on that great paper I was pestered -- and blamed for not having done -- "small favours". Such little court cases are fodder for the circulation. People take wicked delight in their neighbours' minor misfortunes -- it is all harmless fun…

Being "found on" seemed to carry a strange stigma: nobody ever asked me to keep out his name because he had no light on his bike or no licence for his dog. I can only surmise that it reflects our attitude to drink.

It's a phenomenon redolent of a vanishing world, that of sealed rural communities, which many left and which few entered, where the twin pillars of the GAA and the Catholic Church held sway and their guiding principles of conservative, parochial puritanism had settled like the sheeting rain. And yet there was always a cat-and-mouse between respectability and rebellion being played out in the Irish soul.

The battleground has shifted now. I cannot say to what extent the shame of the 'found ons' still lingers in rural Ireland, but my own experience of being caught thus was rather disappointing.

It was a couple of years ago in a pub in Cork city. The gardaí who caught us (red-handed no less, drink was being bought as they walked in) did not take our names – this was the real disappointment, around half the night staff of the Irish Examiner were present at the time; it would have been interesting to see how the papers handled that had we been dragged up in court – and confined themselves to giving the landlord a stern talking to and asking him to be more careful in future.

Not that anyone there would have felt much shame, and the cops nowdays have better things to worry about, even in the countryside. Besides, the pious tut-tutting that was attached to that vast minority who do not appreciate being told when they may or not have a drink still persists, but it is nothing compared with the puritans' modern cause célèbre: smoking.

Ireland's smoking ban has settled a form of joyless comformity that would have brought a wintery smile to the lips of Archbishop McQuaid himself upon the land. One of its main victims is the Irish pub itself. Soon there may be so few premises on which one might be found that they will be carefully preserved as special game reserves, with tourists brought on to gawp at their inhabitants and the DNA of the genuine 'found ons' carefully preserved so that future generations may, one day, have the scientific know-how to bring them back from the dead.

According to another Irish Independent writer, Kevin Myers, 1,000 pubs in Ireland have shut their doors since the smoking ban was introduced four years ago. As he warns, in typically restrained terms: "A social calamity is befalling one of the great staples of Irish life, with worse to come."

All is not yet lost, though. The old cat-and-mouse that I mentioned continues. In some rural areas it is possible to spot shadowy knots of smokers gathered like phantoms outside pubs that, surely, had closed hours earlier. And, in certain urban areas, I do know of places where, after a certain time, the doors will be locked, the window blinds drawn down and the ashtrays are brought out from under the counter… But I'd have to keep their names secret.

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People doing jobs they shouldn't be doing; it's not that uncommon

One commentator who is worth listening to, though, is Mike Smithson of Political Betting. Yesterday he asked Why are so many MPs such useless talent spotters? In other words why do the parties keep picking losers? Why is it that for every Blair there is a Brown, every Thatcher a Major and so on? Why do people whose job depends on understanding what appeals to the public seem so out of tune with public opinion?

It shouldn't really be a surprise, though. In every walk of life a fair proportion of people in the top jobs - let's say half as a conservative estimate - shouldn't be doing them. We've all seen them, haven't we?: the bullies, the shits, the creeps, the toadies, the timeservers the yes-men, the plotters, the pushy, the venial and - oh dear, yes - the well-connected crowding out their more scrupulous and able cohorts. It's not that talent doesn't have a part to play, but often enough it needs a hefty slice of luck - being in the right place, having the chance to display your mettle - and quite possibly some of the other attributes mentioned here.

Think too of the professional pontificators who have nothing worth saying, financial speculators who can only follow the herd, the writers who can't bleeding write, the managers who can't manage, business people whose greed is matched only by their incompetence; why should politicians be any different?

Put it this way: it's not especially outrageous to suggest that there are a lot of politicians who have the capability to climb the greasy poll, but that that capability doesn't equip them for the job they are supposed to do: assist in the government of the country in the best interests of its people – and it certainly doesn't equip them to spot and support the best people to lead said government. If anything the nature of politics is such that it exacerbates this problem

The surprise should be that people sometimes get it right and that talent gets its due reward.

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There is more joy in heaven over one Brownite that repenteth

It would take a heart of stone not to enjoy Jackie Ashley's latest where-did-it-all-go-wrong:

The art of the political column seems to include always being wise after the event, a pretence that political mistakes are obvious, and that journalists saw through them long before mere politicians. Well, I confess that I am still a little baffled about what precisely has gone wrong with what we might call "best Brown" - the serious, clever, often funny and surprisingly graceful private man who has failed to translate himself into a popular public figurehead.

It does indeed seem wise after the event, when what we really want is wise before the event. Which is why I have repeatedly argued that most pundits are a waste of time and money. A really valuable contribution to the debate would not have fallen swooning before Gordon's feet and asked what exactly he was doing to warrant such gushing coverage back in the summer.

If someone like me does it for free, it's not asking too much for some of the over-paid, over-indulged columnists to do so too, is it? It's one reason why Matthew Parris is so well-paid by the Times.

The problem is newspapers often like to tell their readers what they want to hear rather than challenge their views. In the case of the Graun the daily piece of Brownite fluffing has given way to anguished hand-wringing (if there's one thing the paper's good at, it's hand-wringing).

Rather than that, it would be a much a greater service to the Guardian's readers if the likes of Jackie Ashley, Polly Toynbee, Martin Kettle, Jonathan Freedland and others were to devote their considerable talents to suggesting fresh ideas and strategies by which Labour can haul itself out of the abyss (some people at least are debating this). Without these, airly speculating about who'll next get a kicking at the ballot box in Brown's stead isn't really enough.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

It could be worse, Gordon II

It is possible to run a more delusionally insane campaign than the Crewe and Nantwich one, look at Hillary Clinton.

I can't really beat this headline, so I won't even try

Hillary Clinton: Why would I drop out before Barack Obama is assassinated?

She is also denying reports that she has asked Obama to make her vice-president. That's probably wise under the circumstances.

It while standing at the roulette tables at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that I first became convinced that Obama could win the presidency.

I'll explain further in due course.

UPDATE: The Quentin Davis award for impeccable timing goes to Janice Turner for her column about why Hillary Clinton is disliked mainly for her gender. (As if there was nothing else to dislike about her). The standfirst (presumably written by someone else, but still) is particularly unfortunate:

It's dangerous for an outspoken woman in public. They'll be shot down from all angles


Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's for your own good

It would be unfair to claim that the Labour party is the only one which will attempt to micro-manage those aspects of our lives we can't be trusted to conduct correctly. Boris Johnson, for instance, has decreed that drunken yobbery will cease if no one is allowed to drink on the underground, while the Scottish National Party, for instance, has just unveiled a plan to ban the display of cigarettes. The latter, especially, seems an eminently sensible measure. If there's one thing you can say for certain about nicotine cravings, after all, it's that they are essentially visual in nature. So let no cigarette offend the gaze, and soon no one will ever want to smoke again.

I've no doubt that these 'tough but sensible' measures will prove inspirational to politicians of all stripes across the UK. I predict that we can expect some of the following policy initiatives in the months to come.
  • All lads' magazines will be urged sign up to a voluntary code whereby all issues featuring more than one female model in her underwear will carry a double-page picture of Harriet Harman wagging her finger and delivering a message warning of the dangers of objectifying women. Harman insists the move is a compromise which, if accepted, will stave off the need for legislation.

  • In a bid to tackle obesity, lottery funds will be earmarked to buy up discounted chocolate bars to keep them out of the hands of the nation's fatties. The bars will instead, be melted down to form a giant sculpture spelling out the words 'Thou Shalt Not' which is to be placed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Months of constant rain eventually see the project abandoned.

  • Following the launch of a Tory policy document entitled 'Somebody Should Do Something About This', Labour announces plans to add the DNA of all teenagers caught smoking, drinking or engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour to a Potential Drain on NHS Resources Database.

  • Three months later ministers are forced to apologise for 'errors' in the database which mean that every parent in the country is sent details of their childs' drinking, smoking and sexual habits. Unexpectedly positive coverage of this development in the Daily Mail prompts Gordon Brown to announce that he will ignore an expert review concluding that the policy breaches human rights legislation and instead give parents regular updates about what their offspring are up to.

  • Schools secretary Ed Balls unveils anti-childhood obesity strategy in which schools will be encouraged to hold special assemblies in which overweight children will be questioned about their dietary and exercise habits in front of their classmates in the hope the other children will encourage them to lose weight.

  • Two weeks later a hastily drafted anti-bullying strategy is unveiled in an emergency Commons debate. Gordon Brown tours the nation's TV studios to insist the strategy had been planned all along.

  • Brown marks his first anniversary in power by announcing a 'Review of Reviews' which concludes that plans to force all foreigners to carry ID cards before buying alcohol will cost £2.5bn. The resulting furore over the decision to fund the measure with a 10p tax on the price of alcohol sees chancellor Alistair Darling announce emergency measures to buy every British adult in the country a pint as compensation.


There's always someone somewhere with a big nose who knows

Compare and contrast the following:

Patrick Wintour, Guardian political editor, Thursday May 22.

Analysis undertaken by political betting websites suggests that since the war there has been a regular swing back to governments in general elections in comparison with byelections.

The swing-back is defined as the difference between the average swing to the opposition in by-elections and the swing to the opposition at the subsequent general election.

So, for example, the average swing from Labour to the Tories in byelections from 2001 to 2005 was 7.9%. The swing the Tories got in the general election was 3.1%. Thus the swing-back to Labour in 2005 was 4.8%. For John Major's last term the equivalent figures were 13.6% and 10.2% - a swing-back of 3.4% to the Tories.

Remarkably, this swing-back to government has been highly consistent since at least 1974, irrespective of party in power, government term, parliament length, number of byelections, turnout, and the relative strength of the Liberals. It has ranged between 3% and 5%. It thus has all the appearance of an "iron law".

With this:

From Political Betting back in 2006.

So, for example the average Butler swing from Labour to the Tories in by-elections 2001-2005 was 7.9%. The swing the Tories obtained in the General Election was 3.1%. Thus the Swing-Back to Labour in 2005 was 4.8%. For John Major’s last term the equivalent figures were 13.6% and 10.2% - a Swing-Back of 3.4% to the Tories.

The remarkable feature of this graph is that the Swing-Back to government has been highly consistent since at least 1974, irrespective of party in power, government term, parliament length, number of by-elections, turnout, and the relative strength of the Liberals in either by-elections or General Elections.

    It has ranged between 3% and 5% with a very stable average of almost exactly 4%. It thus has all the appearance of an “Iron Law.”
Now, the language in a newspaper piece will often be tweaked by the editors and subs for various reasons, but the essence is pretty much the same.

Via (where else?)


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

EDW: Their Satanic Majesties

It's the Rolling Stones at Altamont in 1969. You probably know what happened. Mick Jagger might look a bit of a prat, but a whiff of sulphur certainly helps offset his get up.

I suggest you keep watching the crowd, it is rather instructive.


Monday, May 19, 2008

God strikes again

Well that was quick. No sooner had I dared question the divine than retribution swiftly followed. I went on out a bike I'd only bought a couple of weeks ago and firstly I suffered a spill then, about 40 minutes and, more pertinently, a few miles later the gears shredded themselves in a spectacular fashion. (I do not know whether the two are linked). It took several minutes of wrestling with the mangled gears and rear wheel, a couple of cuts and (aptly in the context, me taking the Lord's name in vain) before I could even get it in a state so that I could push it back homewards.

Swift, effective vengeance from the Lord: definitely a bloke.

After all, if God were a woman She would suddenly bring up my misdeeds several years after the event (long after I'd forgotten them) and never give me a moment's peace from that time henceforth.

* Being strictly honest, I think the damn bike is cursed. I've already suffered a burst tyre. If you enjoy walking for miles through the by-ways and streets of London, my advice is: get a bike. It's unbeatable.

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Does God have a penis?

Three quarters of Christians think so, but only half the general population does, according to a new survey.

It's an age-old problem in European/Judeo-Christian culture: how do you represent God, or should the Almighty be represented at all. Partly the problem is that essential unknowableness of such a superhuman concept. By far the weakest part (to modern sensibilities at least) of Dante's Divine Comedy is Paradiso. He struggled to convey the idea of the divine, and the best he could come up with is the image of a point of light in perpetual motion.

I've long suspected that because of this there is a tendency to make God in the image of man: it says much about the way society has developed that for the past 2,000-plus years the idea of God has been strongly male. It might be even more revealing of where we are now that we get conclusions such as this:

Six out of ten people believe that all religion is fundamentally sexist, but more than two out of three people think that there is still a place for religion in modern life.

Its reassuring to know there is still a place for sexism in modern life. So in that spirit let's look at the question of whether God is a bird or a bloke. It's a tricky one, isn't it?

One the one hand we have a domineering figure who is, by the admission in the 10 Commandments, jealous; a touchy deity, who demands constant praise and deference; an almighty who likes making stuff, but also loves smashing things up; a God who will use violence to settle matters and a self-aggrandising supreme being who will not stand for being questioned, criticised or undermined by anyone.

On the other we are talking about a creator who is constantly setting rules that we don't know exist until we've broken them; one who is sending out mixed signals and hints that are impossible to understand; a God whose mind apparently changes without our noticing and whose affections are transferred from one man to another without warning and who is constantly seeking praise and approval.

Mysterious, arbitrary, changeable and almost impossible to understand, then. Is this more typically male or female?

I think I'll stand with Alexander Pope on this.

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The clot thickens

A quick update to what's below. The Mail's headline: "Labour's Tory-baiting 'toff' exposed... as a toff" pretty much sums it up.

Alex Norris, 23, one of two Labour supporters who posed in "toff" gear, went to Manchester Grammar, a £9,000-a-year private school that has some of the best academic results in the country.

He has been the public face of a Labour drive to portray Tory candidate Edward Timpson, 34, as privileged because of his wealth and his education at Uppingham public school in Rutland.

However, Mr Norris's own private school – founded in 1515 – is older than Uppingham (1584) and ranks substantially higher in academic league tables.

(Ah, how I appreciate the Mail's effortless talent for gleeful malevolence as shown in that final paragraph).

If you wish to read the full story be warned that you will see deeply unpleasant pictures of a rather smug-looking public school boy in a cheap and nasty shirt and a tie of almost indescribable tastelessness (insert own connection between that and Labour's sub-BNP tactics here). I would suggest this stunt is letting the old school down somewhat, but there is also something about young Norris's consciously unfastened collar, carefully dishevelled tie (you'll note he is careful to avoid the distressingly commonplace "footballer's Windsor knot) and cocksure expression that evokes (rather too strongly for my tastes) the eternal public school sixth former.

I suspect we'll be hearing from this fellow again in the future.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

EDW: Politicians in morning dress

Have you seen the two twerps who have been following the 'Tory toff' Edward Timpson around Crewe in tail coats in a bid to undermine his attempt to convince the electors that the Conservative party is less contemptible than Labour? Their attempts to embarrass the Tory are horribly undermined by the fact that they can not carry off the outfits they have affected: cheap, button-down shirts, ill-fitting, off-the-peg clothes and grey top hats, all of which make them look very foolish indeed.

In truth, Timpson doesn't quite cut it as a toff. It was with some amusement mingled with horror that I learned he attended Uppingham school for a time; while I was there in fact. He would have been a year or two above me, but I cannot for the life of me remember him. I don't think he would have displayed any interest in politics*, anyhow, which makes him an ideal fit for the Cameron Conservatives.

In any case, Uppingham is not an especially grand or prestigious school. It prides itself in helping the more bovine members of the middle classes to succeed in their exams, making sure the bright ones aren't too full of themselves and in turning out dutiful, dull and decent types (again, perfect for the Cameron Conservatives), rather than the type who has the insouciance, certitude and born-to-rule manner which morning dress demands.

It is a form of clothing which makes particular demands on the wearer. You have to make yourself worthy of it. It's not simply a matter of class - as this picture of the aristocratic Churchill and the lower middle class, Welsh-speaking Lloyd George shows. They do, however, have the command of the conventions and clothing of the Edwardian ruling elite.

You need not approve of many of their views or actions (I don't, although I hope you share my view that standing up to Hitler was a good thing), but both these great statesmen of the last century offer a sartorial example to today's politicians.

Few modern politicians could carry it off. Regardless of their social background, they tend - with honourable exceptions - to have the souls of management consultants, spivs, solicitors and PR 'executives'; as such they dress accordingly.

* I do remember Jenny Willott, now a Lib Dem MP. She struck me as earnest, well-intentioned and rather dull. Ideal for being a prefect or a Lib Dem. Although, to be honest, her only memorable contribution to the 6th form debating society was to begin a speech with the phrase 'I'd like to expand on Mr Dornan's point.' The rest was lost in the puerile, public school sniggering that followed. Good training, for the Commons.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Grown Up Drinking

Raise a glass, if you will, to Bath University for its conclusion that infantilising people with regards to alcohol is a waste of time.

Shock adverts used by the government to highlight the dangers of excess drinking have little effect on young people, a new study says.

Policy makers should accept that young people sometimes go out to get drunk and will exceed guidelines on daily alcohol intake, say researchers at the University of Bath.

That it takes a two-year study to point out what should be obvious to everyone show just how divorced from reality the puritans are.

What was even more noteworthy, however, was that the media outlets which reported this rare example of common sense did not generally stop to ask whether trite, hysterical stories about binge-drinking might also be counterproductive.

I suppose there will be some Daily Mail and Guardian readers who enjoy piously tut-tutting about the moral failings of others, but in general I doubt that this type of stuff puts on sales. Journalists know people like a drink (often from personal experience) and they don't all turn into cirrhosis-ridden, pyschopathic yobs as a consequence. As do most of the people who buy newspapers. So if the nation's editors could stop treating their readers like idiots, that would be a start.

If they were to assume that their readers would rather have stories about beer that is specially designed for dogs so you can plastered with your pet (actually, dogs will drink normal beer given half the chance, they love it) or stories with headlines like 'Aussie straps in beer, not child', then things would be better still.

UPDATE: Quink in the comments has something even better. Japanese beer for kids.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

It could be worse, Gordon

It would be superfluous for me to observe that Gordon Brown is not terribly popular. Every other day seemingly brings another story charting his continued descent from trough to pit to slough of despond to nadir; he is less popular the Neville Chamberlain after the invasion of Norway, his party openly debates his removal, he is at an 'all-time' low - and it's only likely to get worse. Once a prime minister becomes an object of pity, he is finished.

I do not intend to join the pack. Instead, in the, admittedly, remote contingency anyone from Downing Street is reading this, let me offer the following words of comfort and support. Gordon is a long-way from being the most unpopular man in English history, as a few examples will easily demonstrate.

Admittedly the art of polling was not so developed a few centuries ago, so we can't make exact parallels. However, even the worst aspects of Brown's government seem light in comparison with the outright tyranny some of these characters managed. However, note well that these are people who became hated because of their continued encroachment upon the rights and liberties of the people (so stop doing things like trying to bring in ID cards, extend detention without trial and end the flirtation with insane authoritarian bullying such as the suggestion that children whose parents are idiots should be punished by being kicked out of school.)

The Marquis of Bute: Gordon is not even the most unpopular Scotsman to become Prime Minister. (See, already things are looking better). I'm focusing on England here (there are plenty of disastrous Scottish leaders), partly because, like Brown, Bute was unpopular partly on account of anti-Scottish sentiment. However, this prejudice was dwarfed by the man's personal failings.

Bute's unpopularity can more precisely be attributed to the fact that he had been imposed on the people of England (by George III rather than the Labour party) without their consent, that his administration was characterised by financial incompetence (including new taxes, the implications of which had not been properly thought through, including - a small, but telling detail - unpopular taxes on alcohol.) Given all this, it's little surprise Bute only lasted a year in the job before the constant personal attacks forced him out of the job.

The hostility towards Bute was best expressed by John Wilkes in the North Briton. My analogy falls down somewhat in that there are no Wilkes-like figures in contemporary politics (there are some similarities with Ken Livingston, I suppose; Wilkes was something of a scoundrel too and held his supporters in contempt) but that's beside the point here. Bute still provides a cautionary tale against high-handed, arbitrary and capricious government and perceived contempt for the views of the electorate.

King John: He spent years plotting and scheming to undermine his predecessor, a charismatic leader with a propensity for causing trouble in the Middle East. When he finally achieved the top job he turned out to be a total disaster. His capricious nature, constant meddling in people's affairs, his high-handed treatment of his underlings and his unpleasant personality alienated pretty much everyone. John made a fool of himself on the continent, England was placed under a papal interdict (effectively casting the land out of the Christian communion), he carelessly lost vast amounts of gold and at the time of his death he had effectively been deposed (the barons had offered the throne to the French heir). His attempts to undermine people's civil rights led, of course, to Magna Carta. (I don't need to labour the point about civil liberties any further, do I?)

There have been other disastrous rulers, some of whom lost their thrones and some of whom made violent ends - Edward II, Richard II and Charles I. However, there was a residual deference surrounding the monarch (still is, to be honest) and more often that not the popular venom was reserved for unpopular ministers. The last even-less-popular-than-Gordon is drawn from their ranks.

Hugh Despenser the Younger:
these historical comparisons should not be take too far, of course. Whatever Brown's flaws, he is never going to be as vile, nor as hated, as Despenser. Apart from his sidelines in piracy and torture (there is a story that he imprisoned one noble woman and repeatedly broke her limbs until she was drive insane), he became despised through his association with Edward II and its attendant maladministration, corruption and ruthlessness. He eventually received his comeuppance and was hanged drawn and quartered. His end makes gruesome, yet instructive reading.

He was stripped naked, and biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were written on his skin. He was then hanged from a gallows 50 ft (15 m) high, but cut down before he could choke to death, and was tied to a ladder, in full view of the crowd. The executioner climbed up beside him, and sliced off his penis and testicles which were then burnt before him, while he was still alive and conscious. [Actually, accounts vary on this. Some say they were shoved into his mouth as a gag.] Subsequently, the executioner plunged his knife into his abdomen, and slowly pulled out, and cut out, his entrails and heart, which were likewise burnt before the ecstatic crowd. Just before he died, it is recorded that he let out a "low inhuman howl," much to the delight and merriment of the spectators. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, and his body cut into four pieces, and his head was mounted on the gates of London.

Note the delight of the watching crowd. The reason I dwell on this is that I very much fear that Gordon Brown will undergo a political version of this protracted and very public agony - all to the delight of the baying mob.

It would be kinder for Brown, and much better for the country and the Labour party, if he was instead given a quick and ruthless exit: the political equivalent of Edward II's (reputed) exit, in fact. Get the pokers heated up in time for the party conference.


Zoe Williams: Why I should not be doing the job I get paid to do

I don't want to reheat the charred corpse of the Evening Standard vs Guardian London mayoral stuff, but there is a truly astonishing justification in the Guardian for its Boris-bashing.

The basic defence: 'it's a polemic. If you don't like it, tough' - would be reasonable enough (and the additional claim that the articles were intended mainly to reflect how a lot of the readers think is a welcome bit of common sense.) However, the reader's editor then makes the paper look rather wet and disingenuous by floundering around between a defence of vigorous commentary and hang-wringing over whether or not newspapers should try and influence how people vote. (Why not just take the view that they are welcome to try, but should expect to fail unless they unearth something which significantly changes the situation).

However, the jaw-dropping bit comes from Zoe Williams in her defence of her vitriolic attack on Boris Johnson.

"I'm not a reporter," Williams points out. "I write comment. I tell people what to do all the time. I don't expect them to take me seriously."

In other words: I have nothing to say and I will say it loudly. I can see why she might take the money and the ego-boost that being a bully pulpit in a national newspaper offers, but does she never stop and think why she is doing this?

Not that seriousness is, in itself, a virtue. In fact, I'd far rather read something by Craig Brown or Charlie Brooker than something by Simon Heffer or Polly Toynbee, but if somebody is writing 'not serious' pieces about politics then there should be a basic demand that they are funny or entertaining. At the very least they should offer something beyond views that turn out to be commonplace platitudes laced with rather unpleasant personal abuse. As it turns out, Zoe Williams was trying to mix humour and incisive comment. It just transpires that she's useless at both and ends up merely wittering then sneering.

The remarks, at the beginning of the article, about Johnson's hair and cycling were meant to be funny Williams told me. "Maybe I didn't demarcate my tones clearly enough," she said. "I went from joking into quite a trenchant attack."

Does the Guardian never stop and think why it is asking people who, by their own admission, have nothing to offer to fill their pages? (Let me guess, they want a young-ish, modern woman's perspective. And Zoe's the one they've got one to hand; and it's far too much effort to find one who might reasonably expect to be taken seriously.)

Zoe Williams also has a line in churning out light features-type stuff for the Guardian and Sunday Telegraph, possibly a few other publications, so I don't think it's going to throw her on the poor heap if she sticks to that in future and if the Guardian takes her words at face value and stops employing her to do a job she's ill-suited to do.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tagged again

Locker requests that I

Pick up the nearest book
Open it at page 123
Find the fifth sentence
Post the next three sentences

Here's what happened.

When love once enters into the breast of one who has any sparks of generosity, it stirs the heart up to the most noble actions; in this dilemma, she showed, that she cared more for his life than she did for her own; for she took a resolution of quarreling with this fellow herself, and having challenged him ashore, she appointed the time two hours sooner than that when he was to meet her lover, when she fought him at sword and pistol and killed him on the spot.

It is true she had fought before, when she'd been insulted by some of those fellows, but now it was altogether in her lover's cause, she stood as it were between him and death, as if she could not live without him. If he had no regard for her before, this action would have bound him to her for ever; but there was no occasion for ties or obligations, his inclination toward her was sufficient; in fine, they applied their troth to each other, which Mary Read said she looked on as a marriage in conscience, as if it had been done by a minister in church; and to this was owing her great belly, which she pleaded to save her life.

Damnably long 17th century sentences, aren't they? Anyhow, it's taken from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson (who may or not have been Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym). The section quoted concerns the life of Mary Read.

I would not be so ungentlemanly as to importune anyone to follow this game. However, I know that some of the commentators here do not have their own blogs. Consider the comments here an open invitation to follow suit. Other comments are, as ever, welcome.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Trollied Tuesday II: The drunk's thinking man

It was part of the Jeffrey Bernard legend that his weekly column would sometimes fail to appear, with readers greeted by a terse, euphemistic "Jeffrey Bernard is unwell".

Most irresponsible of him, really. If your sole selling point is that you are a professional drunk, the least you can do is be professional enough make sure you are able to tell people about your drunken exploits. Otherwise people might suspect you are bunking off to have a cup a tea in the vicarage when you should be picking a fight with the man standing next to you at the bar in the Coach and Horses.

No wonder many an idle, dissolute hack (and maybe blogger too) reveres the man. If you can become a legend for writing about drinking, and don't even have to do the writing part if you're too drunk, well, what's not to admire?

However, there is some dim recess of my soul which wonders whether becoming celebrated for consuming enough booze to put a lion to sleep, and being able to churn out witty, erudite and sharp copy about a range of topics. Such a man is Christopher Hitchens.

You can say what you like about the man – even that he is a drink-sodden, former Trotskyist popinjay, if you are an utter scoundrel with an undoubted rhetorical talent – but he does the business when it comes to the actual writing stuff that is worth reading.

He doesn't seem to write about drink much, preferring an impressive stream of articles on history, politics, religion, art and other ephemera. Still, he is always entertaining with it. Here's an interview with the great man in this month's Prospect, which sheds some light upon his exemplary balance between booze and verbosity.

There is little art on the walls, few travel mementos; just bookshelves, a spacious living room, a modest kitchen and an annex for the alcohol. The aesthetic is not so much utilitarian as uncluttered of anything that would distract from the essentials of his life: reading, meeting people, drinking, laughing, arguing, writing.

A fine sense of priorities. Drink is not everything, after all. Merely the glue for much of its finest things. There's also a reference to his amusing habit when eating at his favourite restaurants in DC of holding up his glass and shouting "Xerox" when he wants a refill.

But the thing that really struck me is this comment about religion, but which could equally be applied to drink.

In God Is Not Great, he declares himself a "Protestant" atheist.

It's the work ethic, see, and the Protestant drunk has that sense of higher purpose for which drinking, thinking and talking are the holy trinity guiding and directing him. Here's an earlier interview even if you don't want to read it, click on for the picture) in which he discusses, along with a lot of other things, the relationship between drink and writing.

Articles get written at any time of day or night, with extraordinary speed and fluency—however much he has drunk. He turns out a couple of pieces in the intervals while I'm taking a breather from merely talking.

Hitchens frequently says that he believes he's won an argument whenever his opponent brings up his drinking; he regards it as a sign they can't counter his ideas. That may well be so, but the drink is certainly part of what makes him what he is.

His views and methods are another. They might be completely unrelated to his drinking, but the interview does suggest to me that without the drinking Mr Hitchens might well be insufferable, or at the very least more like his brother.


Trollied Tuesday I: Whitley Neill

It's not quite a stout watcher of the skies when some new planet swims into ken moment, but the discovery of a new gin always adds joy to the world.

In this case it is Whitley Neill. Ignore the slightly irritating sales pitch on their website about it being a London gin inspired by Africa (marketing people should be locked in a cage and pelted with empties). In fairness it does use a couple of African botanicals, but you don't taste the stuff and think, 'ah yes, Africa'.

What you do taste is a splendid dry gin, with plenty of body which perks you up in an instant. It's pretty good with tonic water, and will doubtless make a superbly refreshing and invigorating martini. Plus, it'll be just the thing for my home-made Pimm's. It's 42% strength, so you get just the right sort of kick. I bet it would be just the thing for a party in the Happy Valley back in the day.

And another African connection is that 5% of the profits go to Tree Aid. Show you care and buy some.


Welsh Assembly 4 - Sheffield Wednesday 1

While rooting around in the Guardian's Comment is Free archive, I noticed this useful guide to the most frequently discussed topics.

You can draw your own conclusions about the world view this indicates, but these are some of the numbers:

United States: 1636
Iraq: 865
Israel: 778
Gordon Brown: 770
US Politics: 217
France: 217:
Lebanon: 182
Africa: 169
Darfur: 162
Scotland: 159

(Other issues you may or may not think important: Northern Ireland 100, Zimbabwe 70, Sri Lanka 11, Welsh Assembly 4, Sheffield Wednesday 1.)

PS: It would be remiss not to mention that in real life, Sheffield Wednesday actually managed a 4-1 win against a team that is probably a bit better than the Welsh Assembly's XI.

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Calm down, it's only a local election

My prediction, as even people who really don't care now know, was pretty much right, I'm not certain about the exact percentages, but think Boris won by a bit more than 4%. Still a couple more predictions and observations before we move on.

However good or bad Boris is as mayor, civilisation will not collapse because he's won. His plans to convince the RMT not to strike on the tube looks pretty unlikely to succeed. Ditto the decision to scrap Ken's vague pledge to set targets for affordable homes in favour of an equally vague plan convincing developers to build more. Then again, this problem goes way beyond the mayor's remit, any mayoral policy here is a question of deciding which direction of the wind you're going to piss into. You could say the same about his plans to stop kids killing each other, but I suspect his focus on this is intended to be a taster for a future Tory government.

The divide between the suburbs and central London is not a great sign of things to come. The idea, by some of the Livingstone supporters, that outer Londoners are the wrong kind of Londoners is foolish; people who work in and pay for the capital are Londoners. Barking is as much part of London as Battersea; Richmond as much as Hackney. The idea that London is a large and complex place with an ever varied character is a part of its charm, only when party politics intrudes do you have to make such a statement of the obvious.

That said, the capital works best when run from the centre. If Johnson neglects inner London in favour of his voters in the suburbs, everyone will be the poorer for it. He needs to live up to his own words.

Finally, can we please lay to bed the idea that the Evening Standard swung the election? – it'll only encourage them. A tawdry rag it may be, a great former of opinion it is not. The idea It's the Standard Wot Won It seems particularly strong in the Guardian's own little world. The Standard's "poisonous" campaign has been blamed by a few more Ken fans (all links just from the Graun, I can't face digging out all the lip quivering stuff I've read). The irony, of course, is that the Guardian itself ran a string of vigorous, if somewhat hysterical articles (only vulgar rags like the Standard run actual campaigns you see) against Boris: the effete and frivilous Tory, the racist, the evil, baby-eating Tory bigot etc.

The fact that one newspaper "succeeded" and one "failed" might indicate the uselessness of the idea of the press swinging elections. In as much as the media does influence elections (rather than indicating which way things are going), it is by uncovering facts which do not show one of the parties in a good light. As an example, consider an election the Guardian did influence, the 1997 general election. It uncovered and exposed wrong-doing by the likes of Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton and fought its corner against those yelling about a biased and disgraceful media campaign. Then it was landing real blows on the Tories, this time round it was feebly beating its fists against Boris's chest shrieking "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you".

The Standard ran a lot of stupid scare stories about Livingstone, it also unearthed allegations which, at least, were worthy of investigation. Here is the source of those allegations, Andrew Gilligan, with more reasons why blaming the Standard for the decisions people take at the ballot box is utter tripe.

In commentary I make no secret of my views, so readers can take them into account as part of deciding how seriously to take my news reports.

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