Monday, June 30, 2008

Forward to disaster

Two leaders losing the plot and support. One is the Telegraph on Chavez, one is the Guardian on Brown.

Under [name] government has become a one-man show. He takes almost every decision himself, working into the early hours, scrawling his signature on official papers. His ministers are powerless...

Former admirers are increasingly concerned. [One former minister] said: "The person who's in charge of the destiny of our nation has become focused on one aim: to perpetuate himself in power even when this damages the country. Actually, damaging the country favours his aim, because each day we depend more upon the government."

Can you guess which is which?

Those close to him say that [his] response has been to bury himself in work, hunching over the detail: "[He]'s just keeping very busy." Will he go of his own volition? According to one person at the heart of the machine: "Never. He still believes the economy will turn round in time. He's been playing a long game all his life."

Although both have that aura of creeping disaster that surrounds a captain who insists on going full speed ahead towards the iceberg, I don't really mean to compare Brown to Chavez (cheap laughs aside, of course). Chavez has, after all, a base of genuinely loyal supporters, a couple of election wins under his belt and a genuine presence on the international stage.

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Down with grammer skools

One of the many benefits of not having children is that the collective, ongoing national failure to educate all but a small minority of children properly is that it's a somewhat theoretical problem for me. Nor do I feel especially bad about the fact that I don't really know what should be done about it given that no one else - certainly not the politicians or experts - seems to have a clue either.

But sometimes someone makes a contribution to this debate that is so pertinent that it would be a crime not to share it. Such a contribution is that made by Scot McDonald of Essex, Southend here.

I passed my 11 plus back in '99, but I took my exam at a local non grammar school, which i wanted to attend due to my friends and family all going their. I remember it being quite scary and I felt slightly pressured by my parents to do well. My parents were also disappointed that I didn't want to attend a grammar school. But I have no regrets, I done well at school and am doing well in my job. The main reason I didn't want to attend a grammar school because they are all same sex, maybe if their are mixed grammar schools this would of gave me the incentive to take my exam at one of them.


A few years ago a book called What's
The Matter With Kansas? (Published here as What's The Matter With America?) asked – among other things – why so many blue collar workers supported tax cuts for the very rich which were, looked at dispassionately, not in their own interests. One suggestion is that people support them because they one day hoped to be in a position to benefit.

My guess is that a book What's The Matter With England? (note to self, worse topics for a book) should include a section on grammar schools and the belief of their supporters – especially among the aspirant classes and working class (ie middle class in all but name) – that, naturally, their children will one day benefit from them.

Hat tip to Dominic.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

EDW: Mareva

You might think that a former Miss France (so at least she does the wearing clothes well bit of EDW) turning herself into a singer and producing an album of 1960s French pop staples, with plenty of ukeleles, would be a recipe for disaster.

You'd be wrong. For the former Miss France is Mareva Galanter, the record is Ukuyéyé and I will not have a word said against her.

I've featured her on this blog before, and I've had the original version of this song up before too. But this version is considerably enhanced by the presence of right-minded fellow who prefers the pleasures of a dry martini and a good book to anything else.

There's a rake of good stuff featuring her on YouTube (I particularly like this video in which she lives out everyone's fantasy by attempting to kill a David Cameron-lookalike in a duel) many in the same Scopitone-style.

In all, she is a good thing.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Dylan and Caitlin Thomas

The pissed-up writers seam is always a reliable one to mine for something like Trollied Tuesday. When the writer in question's other half was someone he met in the pub (the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia, in fact) it seems a bonus.

Apparently there is also some sort of film coming out about this pair, a fact that had pretty much passed me by until I came across this highly entertaining piece in the Mail (no, really) written by Caitlin's great-nephew. So with that in mind, let's have this pair of bohemian boozers this week.

I hope, but do not expect, that the film will include incidents such as the one with Caitlin knocking her hostess to the ground in an attempt to break into the drinks cabinet which had been specifically locked to stop her getting at the booze (this seems an appropriate response to such pointedly inhospitable behaviour, if you ask me). However, what's striking is that depsite such fine anecdotes, and this gem:

Caitlin herself was remarkably free of such bourgeois restraints. After all, when Caitlin and Nicolette's father walked out on the family, they were taken in by the notoriously promiscuous artist Augustus John. He became the children's unofficial stepfather - the other 'flamboyant father' in my grandmother's memoir - and had an affair with Caitlin when she was just 15.

From then on, Caitlin rarely seemed to pass up any sexual opportunity. Apparently she once had sex with 12 Irish labourers, one after the other, in the back room of a pub.

On hearing the news, one sanguine relative remarked: 'At least it wasn't 12 Welshmen.'

the two of them generally seem to have been a pain in the arse. It's true of most so-called 'hell-raisers', really, isn't it?; the fact that the hell they raise will be one of infinite boredom and egotism (more Huis Clos than Paradise Lost, in fact). The other problem with boorish and obnoxious behaviour from literary drunks is that it in all but a tiny handful of cases the drunken part inhibits or overshadows the writing part.

In the case of Dylan Thomas, this is partly his own fault. He was rather prone to self-aggrandising claims about his drinking. There is the legend that his last words, following an evening in the White Horse in Manhattan, were "I've just had 18 straight whiskys. It think that must be the record."


Oh and the story isn't true – certainly they weren't his last words – and it's quite possible he had drunk less than the amount he claimed on the night in question. However the fact that so many people know it shows te dangerous of Thomas's brand of braggardly myth-making. In truth, Thomas probably wasn't really cut out for being a top-class drunk.* It's pretty obvious from looking at the photo that Caitlin could hold her drink far better than Dylan could – a fact which might explain many of their problems.

Anyway, far be it for me to pass judgment on someone who likes to pass the time in boozers in the company of drunken Irish girls with the morals of alley cats, but he might have been better off putting his genius into his art rather than his life.

For Dylan Thomas might make a list of great literary drunks, but he never quite developed his youthful promise as a poet to make it on the list of the 20th century's greatest poets.

Not quite, but it would be a shame to allow the boozing yarns to overshadow his writing entirely. There's definitely something there. Try reciting one his poems next time you are being ejected from a boozer. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night would be perhaps too obvious. Try something like this, rich with the cadances of the chapel, instead:

And death shall have no dominion
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone

They shall have stars at elbow and foot

Though they go mad they shall be sane

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
Though lovers be lost love shall not

And death shall have no dominion.

After the first drink there is no other.

* Another literary lush, Anthony Burgess, used to claim that the Welsh weren't really into drink – far preferring sex as their vice of choice – whereas with the Irish it was the other way round. This Hiberno-Welsh couple pretty much reverse the stereotype, however. Perhaps that what was what caused all the trouble. In truth, though, whatever validity there is in this stereotype – and there is some – it is generally applicable only to the men. (Burgess should have known that: his first wife was Welsh and drank herself to death).

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Rīgas Melnais balzams

That's Riga Black Balsam to you and me - a distinctive Latvian drink. When you find yourself in the Baltic, when it's always raining in a manner that - for me at least - reminds one the soft and gentle melancholy of the Irish coast, then a glass of the black stuff is your only man.

This is not a gentle, warming drink like stout, however. So far I have had just one glass of it, straight. It has a bitter taste, like that of wormwood (I suspect that consumed in great quantities it would be as lethal as absinth); yet it is a clear, purifying drink - bracing as the Baltic sea air; it is an acerbic drink, with touches of sweetness. It has in it, too that distinctive northern European quality of seeking oblivion by means of drink. (Next time you hear some idiot asking why the Brits – or Irish, indeed – can't drink more like the continentals, ask them if they have the Norwegians or the Finns in mind).

Its blackness mimics that of night and of perpetual winter, yet through it alcoholic qualities it evades these by providing a sort of dream world in which one can escape. If it were a song, it would be – of course – The Man in Black. In short, it is a melancholic drink as befits Latvia's history; yet it commands respect. Drink and your soul shall taste the sadness of her might and be among her cloudy trophies hung. Balsam for the soul indeed.

The balsam's Wikipedia entry (from which I have copied the image) suggests mixing it with a variety of fruit juices or soft drinks to make a cocktail – I'm not sure about this, but I bet it goes well with coffee. It is also possible, I gather, to mix it with schnapps, vodka or some such spirit. Now that's more like it.

UPDATE: In light of the above, it's little surprise that I've just been reminded of the following fact.

Latvia has the dubious honour of holding the record for the world’s drunkest person. A few years ago an unnamed vagrant was found unconscious by police and rushed to hospital where his blood test revealed an astounding 7.22 parts per million of alcohol.

As the BBC reported at the time:

He said he had got drunk because his wife left him - and his wife left him because he drank too much.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mwav hab woo' canaw

The lighter side of root canal surgery. Take it from me though, you don't want to have it. Especially if it is emergency surgery carried out on a Sunday having smashed a tooth when tripping after racing to catch a bus. You will after all have to undergo this expensive and uncomfortable (and extremely painful when you have a large Hungarian injecting something into the nerve when the anaesthetic has not taken). It is the only way to end a week in which some fucker started things off by stealing your bicycle.

On the plus side, I shall be much more respectful of the touching a raw nerve metaphor in future.

I'm off to Riga tomorrow. I trust that the waters of the Baltic shall act as a sort of nepenthe or a balsam for the soul.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Old jokes revisited

Everytime the English thought they'd found an answer to the Irish Question, the Irish changed the question, as Sellars and Yeatman put it.

Now, with the referendum results in (Yerra, Sure, Go On: 46.6% but Down With This Sort of Thing on 53.4%). The Irish present us with a new European Question in which the correct answer changes according to whatever answer has been given previously.

Soon the European Question will become like the Schleswig-Holstein Question which, as Palmerston said:

"Only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein Question. The first was Albert, the Prince consort and he is dead; the second is a German professor, and he is in an asylum: and the third was myself - and I have forgotten it."

Curiously, the problem was solved quite easily when the people were allowed the final say and it was accepted as binding by the great powers of the day.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A question of trust

There will doubtless be much comment on the fact that a top secret intelligence document was left on a commuter train. However, there is one reassuring fact we've learned from all this.

Just seven pages long but classified as "UK Top Secret", the latest government intelligence assessment on al-Qaeda is so sensitive that every document is numbered and marked "for UK/US/Canadian and Australian eyes only".

Britain's spooks might be stupid enough to lose this sort of thing, but they aren't stupid enough to share it with the French.


EDW: Christopher Marlowe

One of those small details which caught my eye was this line from DavidT on the fulminations of religious extremists: "In English, as part of GCSE, they must study Shakespeare, whose books are full of homosexuality, fornication and adultery, each of which are great sins in Islam.”

There isn't that much homosexuality in Shakespeare - a bit of cross-dressing and the ambiguity of the sonnets aside - but Marlowe is a very different creature. The fact that he would annoy religious loons may be a spurious one, but that plus the melancholy elegance of Elizabethean dress are good enough for me to make him a candidate for Elegantly Dressed Wednesday.

As for Marlowe, the blank verse beast, himself: alleged to be an atheist, a heretic, a blasphemer and a homosexualist ('all they that love not boies and tobacco were fools') and spy who was stabbed to death in a tavern brawl in murky circumstances; his life was colourful enough. He was, however, the onlie begetter of the mighty line.

Admittedly the Jew of Malta might hold an unfortunate attraction for a hardcore jihadist, although the play is as much a satire on religious hypocrisy as anything. Then there is Edward II, which really does have plenty of homosexuality.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I'll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring;
Add to that the diabolic genius of Dr Faustus (one can appreciate his desire to see the face that burned the topless towers of Illium) and Tamberlaine - a play glorifying the 'scourge of God', a character who burns a copy of the Koran (another attack on religion in general, of course) and who devoted his life invading places like Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan– and one can just imagine the impact he'd have on the GCSE syllabus. His valedictories are rather more eloquent than anything George Bush is likely to manage, to boot.

Farewell, farewell, divine Zenocrate –
Is it not passing brave to be a king
And ride in triumph through Persepolis!

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EU drinking in the last chance salon

Recently I wrote about the curious Irish phenomenon of the found-ons, and noted that they captured a peculiar struggle between the desire for conformity and the desire to rebel in the Irish soul. You will find this same battle played out on a more trivial scale tomorrow in the referendum on the Lisbon I Can't Believe It's Not A Constitution Treaty.

Do they do the responsible, dutiful thing and allow the EU project to continue smoothly, or do they give two fingers to their rulers in Dublin and in Brussels?

Europe is not an issue on which too much heat should be generated, I think. Its enthusiasts tend to be the most over-eager bores, geeks and bureaucrats imaginable, while its opponents tend to be frothing lunatics (the Irish no-voter who has taken out advertisements denouncing it as ‘God-excluding foolish Freemason determined’ is a good example and provides a reminder of the dark days of John Charles McQuaid besides).

However, I think we can all agree that if the European Union was run by people who displayed greater empathy towards that corner of the human soul which understands the appeal of drinking illicitly in a bar in rural Ireland it would be much more popular.

PS: Here's a real irony for you. The Democratic Unionist Party betrays a fundamental element of the British constitution, by seeking to extend the state's power to detain people without charge.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Put a Tiger in your Tank

I've never quite felt that Tiger Beer lived up to its name. It's not bad at all, and goes down pretty well with Thai or Chinese food and hits the spot nicely on a hot day, but it lacks the savage potency and nobility that the name demands.

No such problems for Tiger Wine which, according to this BBC report, is made from tiger carcasses soaked in rice wine. The resulting mixture is sold in certain wildlife parks in China as a health tonic to treat conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism.

There are certain objections to this, of course. Although the staff selling the stuff insist that the only tiger corpses used are those of animals killed in fights (do tigers really fight each other very often?), the suspicion is that the animals used died of natural causes and would, therefore, be less than ideal to use in health products. There is also cause to worry that these exceedingly rare animals are being killed to fund the trade in something which, one fears, tastes rather like an oriental Buckfast.

Clearly this is a sorry end for such magnificent creatures. One might respect someone who enjoyed the staggeringly decadent thrill of using tiger bile to attain a state of intense, sulphurous intoxication, but to use the animals for something as base as healthy living – or pandering to superstitious nonsense – is beneath contempt.

In general though, tiger wine is best left as a philosophical ideal. A state of intoxication that is both beautiful, fierce and rare. An iron-hearted, man-slaying drink that will not live long, if you like. I'd use something better than rice wine as the basis of it, too.

Would anyone care to suggest what should go in to such a drink, or shall I allow my own imagination to form it?


Friday, June 06, 2008

The impurity of the turf

In honour of tomorrow's Derby, here's one of the more agreeably louche openings of a novel.

"I'll take the odds against Caravan."

"In poneys?"
And Lord Milford , a young noble , entered in his book the bet which he had just made with Mr. Latour , a grey-headed member of the Jockey Club.

It was the eve of the Derby of 1837. In a vast and golden saloon , that in its decorations would have become , and in its splendour would not have disgraced , Versailles in the days of the grand monarch , were assembled many whose hearts beat at the thought of the morrow , and whose brains still laboured to control its fortunes to their advantage.
They say that Caravan looks puffy," lisped in a low voice a young man, lounging on the edge of a buhl table that had once belonged to a Mortemart, and dangling a rich cane with affectad indifference in order to conceal his anxiety from all , except the person whom he addressed.
"They are taking seven to two against him freely over the way," was the reply. " I believe it 's all right."

Okay, the Derby doesn't enjoy the prestige - or the sense of being a great national occasion - that it enjoyed in the 19th century. Until recently it was run on a Wednesday, giving it a natural appeal to idlers, skivers, aristocrats, dandies and other ne'er do wells. The pity is that there were not enough of them to sustain it as a weekday event in the modern era.

Then again, our current crop of statesmen don't seem the sort to knock out a novel or two as a sideline. Disraeli was no more an aristocrat than our current Prime Minister, but Gordon Brown does not strike one as the sort to enjoy anything to do with the racing world.

My Derby tip is don't listen to me, listen to people who really know what they're talking about. That said, I like the look of Doctor Freemantle as an each way bet (currently available at around 10/1).

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Elegantly Deceased Wednesday: Lenin

After 84 years, its time to bury Lenin, says Gorbachev. I quite agree, you don't really want dead mass murderers cluttering up your cities. I can see that the question of what is to be done poses something of a dilemma, however. On the one hand he seized power in a coup, ruthlessly crushed any opposition, kept power through intimidation and had millions killed for messing up his theories; one the other even in death he knew how to dress smartly, iconically even.

For me the clincher is this: Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov may have been an aristocrat, but he was not a gentleman.* He also offers a good example of why intellectuals – especially those who espouse fashionably pretentious views - should not be put in charge of things.

If only the Russian embalmers had shared the foresight and selective incompetence of the Czechs the problem would have been solved. When Klement Gottwald, founder of the Czech communist state died, he was given the full Lenin treatment and interred in a mausoleum on a hill overlooking Prague. Unfortunately, the embalming was not entirely successful and when the body started to visibly decompose, they had to remove the body to somewhere more private.

* British left-wing lawyer Dudley Collard QC visited Moscow at the time of the show trials to see what was happening and blithely reported back that there was nothing to worry about, the whole thing was a storm in a teacup and all the people on trial were clearly guilty. As Francis Wheen writes: "As he explained in his book Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others, to say that the confessions were extracted under torture would imply that Comrade Stalin was not a gentleman - a possibility so manifestly absurd and insulting that Collard dismissed it at once."


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Al Fresco Drinking

There's not much to say about the ban on boozing on London's public transport nor the over-the-top booze-up to mark it. The ban was a silly stunt, a fig leaf to disguise the fact that there's no easy solution to the problem of drunken yobbery, which is what really bothers people on public transport. The respone was equally silly - I'm not personally in favour of the ban, pointless authoritarianism does leave me cold – but it wasn't even worth a lame gesture of defiance like that.

Besides, while there is a particular pleasure to be had from underground drinking – a cellar or bunker with a dark, closed atmosphere – the prevalence of annoying students, obnoxious teenagers, tourists, wage slaves and other unsympathetic types make the London underground an entirely uncongenial place to drink. If you can['t have select company and the right sort of ambiance in your cellar, the best place to drink is the open air.

As ever, if you're going to have a really enjoyable drinking experience it's as well to avoid doing this at a time when everyone else is. (For this reason, a can of beer on the tube would taste far sweeter today than it would have done a week ago). A crowded beer garden on a Saturday afternoon or a beach or park thronged with sunbathers cannot begin to compete with a mountain top or isolated lake as drinking venues. It's as well not to be too dogmatic, of course (I'm planning to go to Epsom for the Derby on Saturday and I imagine I will be doing a spot of al fresco drinking with several thousand others, still...)

To those ideal drinking destinations you can add a wet patch of concrete in Cricklewood on a Tueday afternoon, for it was in such a place that I saw a man whom, one could tell, had just the right idea about drinking. It was pouring with rain, but there he was sitting outside in a "beer garden" – essentially a mini patio with two tables, overlooking a busy and dirty street - with only a glass of beer to keep him company (not even a cigarette in sight). There was something about the look of him – and the anorak and cap he was wearing to keep the rain off him, plus the nature of the pub's clientele – that made me think he was an Irishman. That's of little import, really; what mattered was that he had – despite the rain, the traffic and the busy throng walking past him – found a way to carve out an infinity of space for himself with all the glory, solitude and freedom of nature at its most expansive. He had an immense dignity and style that mayor of London, and the fools who flocked to drink in the underground stations on Saturday night, could never hope to match.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of the Daily Mail

When you think of all the people that the Daily Mail has pissed off – make that anyone with any shred of decency in their souls, and many more besides – it's amazing that it's taken so long for protesters to gather outside the newspaper's offices to protest at its journalism.

This weekend, however, a group of Emo kids - fans of My Chemcial Romance, mainly – took umbrage at the paper's recent coverage of the "suicide cult" of Emo and protested outside the newspaper's offices. (Update: pics of this very unsinister bunch from the Guardian)

In a shameful development that will shock anyone who cares about standards in British journalism (sorry, I just lapsed into Mail-speak there) it seems the offending article did not give an entirely accurate representation of the facts, which were instead somewhat distorted to suit the newspaper's prejudices. As one of the protesters said:

"I've read a couple of the [Mail] articles and they've actually misquoted lyrics and the research was so badly done, it was unbelievable."

Perhaps inevitably for a youth culture based on self-pity for nice middle class kids, the protest seems to have been a rather feeble affair (most of the protesters stayed at Marble Arch to ensure that the protest didn't look like too much of a protest). The fact Saturday is the one day of the week no one from the daily paper will be in the offices didn't help, however. As one security guard told the Guardian: "It's a waste of time, there's no one here today. Look at them - they're eating their lunch and their mums are off shopping."

It would doubtless be very wrong of me to speculate about what a half-decent protest outside the Mail's offices would look like – perhaps a baying mob armed with flaming torches and pitchforks and scythes sealing the place off before storming the reception and dragging out several of the paper's senior editors, stringing them up by the heels and burning down the building before Paul Dacre is flayed alive on Kensington High Street - so I'll confine myself instead to the observation that the Mail deserves an infestation of Emos. The whining defensiveness, the boo-hooing at a big nasty, scary world which is unmoved by their anguish and the constant sense that things simply aren't fair characteries both the youth cult and the newspaper.

One shouldn't get too irate at the Mail, however. The most infuriating thing about it is that people buy it – oh and the fact that this success has driven most of the broadsheets to adopt some of their methods (without actually persuading people to buy their papers; I wonder how long it'll be before they twig that people who want to buy the Mail buy the Mail?). However, complaining about it seems pretty futile so long as people are willing to read it.

For the thing about the Mail is, no one likes it: not its hacks (many suffer twinges of conscience, poor loves) and certainly not its readers – it's the first choice for women who like nothing better than its general air of malovolence towards all women, the ideal read for people who affect morality but who enjoy victimising the weak and vulnerable and the very thing for nationalists who hate their country and their fellow citizens. This self-hatred is what drives it – remember hatred is stronger than love, combine that with narcissism and you've really got something there – but it is, as I said, rather Emo-ish.

Their twin misfortune is that their attention-seeking behaviour attracts ridicule, rather than pity.

If they'd asked me for my advice, the Emo kids would have been better off persuading their favourite band to cover that old Irish rebel song: The Man from the Daily Mail.*

* Just to remind us that belligerent stupidity is not just combined to little Englanders, here's a Provo version of the song (and others) from the an armalite in one hand, and an armalite in the other, wing of the republican movement.

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