Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: the experts' view

Apparently there is some sort of public holiday later this week. Some of you may, therefore, be more inclined than usual to enjoy a breakfast time drink such as champagne, special brew or the bloody mary.

It is with regard to the last of these that I wish to pass on a tip I picked up. I do not propose to get into the philosophical wranglings about the ideal manner in which this vodka and tomato juice combination should be pepped up. We all have our ideas and preferences - I like mine well spiced - however, there is always room to experiment.

I should say that my source on this one is well-night unimpeachable, for it is no less an authority than Kingsley Amis in Everyday Drinking. The man writes with authority (the introduction by another world-class drunkard, Christopher Hitchens, lends weight to the volume too); it would therefore be a fool who disregards any advice given in his book.

So imagine my reaction when flicking through this invaluable guide and discovering his advice for making a bloody mary: add a dash of ketchup. How trashy, I thought, vulgar too: a lazy short cut that is quite probably improper and immoral besides. I tried it at the first opportunity.

As the man himself noted, the ketchup makes a profound difference to the drink in ways that are difficult to explain unless you have tried it. I am not sure I can much to this advice, except to say that it is true. It is not so much that it gives the other flavours greater weight, though it does, but a more profound process is at work too. Perhaps it is best explained as a sort of alchemical process that transforms a vigorous pick-me-up into something that spreads warmth and joy - both physical and spiritual - through the system.

It transforms the other ingredients: the tomatos are more tomatoey; the alcohol more stimulating, the spices more invigorating. One feels that it provokes a greater wit, benevolence and intellect in oneself. Try it, I urge you.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sometimes you really do have to tell the customer he is wrong

Someday, if I can formulate a suitably entertaining way of expressing it, I might offer my thoughts on why the old print media's desperate rush to embrace all manner of interactivity with their readers – even the comments that, in the past, would have been binned and then burned by the letters editor – is such arrant folly.

In the meantime, let's amuse ourselves with a practical demonstration from an online publication (Yank of course) that knows how to produce something readable and financially viable from the web. It's Slate's "questions we never answered". Quite apart from their inherent comedy value you can discern the subtlety of Slate's own editorial policy. Whereas, say, Comment is Free, or the Telegraph's own web mnokeys (semi-in joke, sorry) would rush over themselves to encourage this degree of reader interactivity, you may spot a certain discernment in Slate's own policy. It's the difference between spotting the friendly cove who wants a chat at the bar and the dangerous nutter whom one should back away from at all costs.

Admittedly, Slate sugar-coats the laughing at our loopiest readers game that all journalists enjoy by asking which of the questions are most deserving of an answer. So in that spirit, here are my favourites (with added comment):

Why don't humans have a mating season?
(I believe there is an actual biological answer to this. Never mind that: we have a wonderful capacity for prolonging our own misery and frustration).

If one gets a personal e-mail from a very famous or important person, such as the president, or the queen of England, or the Pope, or Paul McCartney, can that e-mail have monetary value? I guess not. It's just an electronic transmission on a screen. There's no original. There's no way to buy or sell it. Seems a shame tho.
Note the use of capitals there. And the order of precedence. Whoever asked that question really ought to be living in Liverpool, willingly or not.

If someone with DNA from the Stone Age were born today, would they be normal?
In Somerset, yes.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Loving not nature more but man the less

What is it about jihadists and outdoor pursuits in north Wales? First we had the whitewater rafting London bombers, and now we learn that failed London and Glasgow airport bomber Bilal Abdulla and his friends used to enjoy hiking across Snowdonia.

My own childhood memories of holidaying in north Wales are ones of rain, unremitting dreariness, bleak prospects and tawdry amusement parks (oh, okay and walking up Mount Snowdon; it was a cloudy day and I couldn't see much at the top); had the jihadists been subjected to this I could understand (if not condone, you know) their violent hatred of humanity. But what they were doing sounds a lot more fun than huddling behind a windbreak on a pebble-strewn beach during a squall.

However, it so happens that outdoor pursuits are also beloved of financial institutions (or at least they were, I'm not sure whether they can still afford that sort of thing) for precisely the same reason that jihadists seem so fond of them: as team-building exercises. The slightly alarming implication of it all is that if you can get people to forge a esprit de corps with a bit of good clean fun outdoors then you can get them to almost anything together.

It has been noted elsewhere that jihadists are rather adept at adopting some of the techniques of western corporate capitalism: branding, franchising (al-Qaeda in Iraq is the best known example of this phenomenon), internet marketing techniques and so on. I need hardly add, though, that western corporate capitalism has been far more effective at destroying itself than jihadism ever has.

However, I wonder whether the fact that al-Qaeda and its followers (Abdulla himself was trying to expand the brand in Britain, on a freelance basis if you like) have also adopted the bullshitting elements of capitalism contains the seeds of its own failure. If you can buy into the nonsense of team-building exercises and the like, you end up institutionalising group think.

And the problem with getting everyone thinking in the same way is that when you get things wrong, no one is willing to question it. In the case of capitalism, it means no one questions the wisdom of lending lots of money to people who can't afford to pay it back and then selling on the debt in deliberately opaque ways which means no one knows who owes what to whom; whereas in the case of jihadism means no one wants to question the fact that indescriminate slaughter tends to make most of your fellow Muslims hate you.

I like to think that in the dark recesses of the caves on the Afghan/Pakistani frontier there hang dozens of motivational posters, with suitably platinitudinous messages of religious inspiration and encouragement. Anyone foolish enough to buy into that sort of thing, to be motivated by them, indeed, deserves everything they get.

Here are some more demotivational posters, let us cultivate an air of healthy cynicism: σκεπτομαι.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: drink - the agent of progress

If you are planning a trip to Indonesia, it might be time to reconsider. According to the BBC the country is being afflicted by serious shortages of booze.

On the shiny tables of the capital's five star hotels, little cards have appeared next to the silver dishes of peanuts, delicately warning guests of an embarrassing lack of alcohol.

Menus at some of the best-known cocktail bars on the tourist island of Bali have shrunk to a single page. And the country's top Japanese restaurants are reported to have run out of sake.

Indonesia is facing a nationwide alcohol shortage. As the bar manager of one international hotel put it: "We'll be dry by the weekend."

It seems there is something of a culture war going on here, albeit under the guise of a crackdown on the black market. "Government officials admit they want to discourage consumption; that they are worried about Indonesians drinking more; that it needs strict regulation." It's the dream of our own domestic "puritans"; but the context is considerably more baleful in Indonesia as it is being driven by genuine religious extremism.

I should stress that I do not regard drink itself as the sole mark of civilisation (unless you mean in the historic sense of stopping hunter gathering to spend time brewing and wine making); I do not think not drinking is itself barbaric and most especially do not think that Muslims who choose not to drink are backward and uncivilised.

However, my caveats do not apply to those with strong religious views who seek to impose them on others. In this instance foreign visitors to Indonesia, bars in Bali (a primarily Hindu island) and businesses may suffer if the zealots have their way. But the BBC piece focuses on one Indonesian Muslim woman, Miranti, as the symbolic heart of the struggle.

She is 34, single, an architect. Like her friends, she knows how to run a business, deal with jet-lag, and how to mix a margarita.

What she does not know is that she is at the heart of a battle being fought here in Jakarta - over alcohol.

Does it seem such an outrageous leap in logic to suggest that a large number of people who object to the consumption of alcohol in Indonesia also object to the existence of educated women, who run their own businesses and remaining unmarried and childless into their thirties? I suspect not and get the strong sense here that allowing the fundamentalists a victory in this little cultural battle will set up more profound conflicts in years to come. Should the more open-minded, urbane variety of Islam, one that permits Miranti and her friends to continue doing what they're doing, win out, it will be better all round.

Personally the only thing I can see to object to about Miranti and her friends is their fondness for chocolate martinis (what an abomination) and the overly close embrace of the glossy, aspirational TV shows about incredibly annoying American women lifestyle. The point is that my trivial objections should carry no more weight than those of the average religious fundamentalist.

Incidentally, if you were planning a trip to Indonesia and this piece has put you off, then you might want to visit southern Sudan instead. They're opening a brewery there; needless to say it is a symbol of freedom from an especially vicious fundamentalist regime.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EDW: John Milton

Coming slightly late to the great man's 400th birthday party, but there has been a superfluity of comment on his works – with commentators across the board, from Theo Hobson and Terry Eagleton in the Guardian, through Boyd Tonkin in the Independent to AN Wilson (since disembowelled) and Simon Heffer (sounding a little surprisingly sympathetic towards what Marxists used to call the English Revolution) in the Telegraph – all eager to claim the man for their own worldview.

I don't wish to add to this babel. Not least because if you don't appreciate his importance, I doubt I'll be the one to change your minds, and if you do then there's no point in boring you with it. Besides, the best line about him remains Blake's observation that he was of the Devil's party, but did not know it.

Satan is key to it all, of course, the defiance of the perpetual tyrannies of existence, the unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspirations (the perpetual fate of revolutionaries that; Milton was no great lover of the Cromwellian oppression that replaced the Stuart one), are all there – along with the Charles I-like over-inflation of one's own importance and powers, the unreasonable self-righteousness. It's the human condition captured in the supposed arch-enemy of man.

If a shower of contemporary hacks can reflect these contradictions, then so can some of the great poets who followed Milton: without Milton I doubt we should have Byron's Vision of Judgment or Baudelaire's Litanies de Satan. No Blake either, of course. Even if one dismisses the preposterous notion that Milton was better than Shakespeare, this range of influence does support the case for regarding Paradise Lost as the true English national epic (then again, why do the English need one?).

Although I most often use the term puritan as one of abuse, Milton represents another, better side to that complex skein of non-conformist thought – independent-minded, inquiring, free-thinking, unbending and unwilling to put conscience to one side. In other words, a libertarian if not a libertine. Besides that, one cannot wholly dislike a man who spent several years travelling, studying at university and a further six doing little except reading books in preparation for his career as a poet. That's the sort of work ethic I admire.

As for the poetry itself: he might go on a little for modern tastes (that's what you get copying Roman epics rather than the Greek lyricists and epigrammists) but there's a grandeur matched with a sinuous subtlety in those mighty lines.

Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable,
Doing or suffering: but of this be sure--
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which ofttimes may succeed so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destined aim.
But see! the angry Victor hath recalled
His ministers of vengeance and pursuit
Back to the gates of Heaven: the sulphurous hail,
Shot after us in storm, o'erblown hath laid
The fiery surge that from the precipice
Of Heaven received us falling; and the thunder,
Winged with red lightning and impetuous rage,
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th' occasion, whether scorn
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary plain, forlorn and wild,
The seat of desolation, void of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves;
There rest, if any rest can harbour there;
And, re-assembling our afflicted powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair

Just don't, for goodness sake, bother with Samson Agonistes.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Context is everything

Lost your job, lost your home? Life becoming intolerable? Well there's always the option of joining the French Foreign Legion. Neil Tweedie, writing in the Telegraph, has the run down of what you need to know if you're considering taking this option. (You'd best learn to swear in French, you've got to be physically fit and not too worried about the fact that an inordinate number of Germans want to join to do proper military stuff.)

The article concludes:

Improved conditions and greater professionalism have in recent years resulted in more middle-class recruits.

Cpl Buys Francois, 43, a South African legionnaire who joined 11 years ago, says: "We call the new entrants Generation PlayStation because they’re so soft. Now we’re taking the ex-husbands running from alimony, and all these guys with university degrees."

Which is just as well. As it looks like some of the people most likely to be thinking about joining up are the Telegraph's current and former employees. They'd probably be treated better in the legion. Personally speaking, the German army sounds more like my sort of thing. Is it possible for foreigners to join that?

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

The debate about whether you call India's commercial capital Bombay or Mumbai is, in the scheme of things, not that important. Moreover, it's something of a minefield and you can't really blame the many news organisations that have just decided to do what everyone else is doing and follow the desires of the city's rulers and call it Mumbai.

Sticking to Bombay, though, isn't necessarily a sign of a hopelessly colonial and archaic mindset. Here's Christopher Hitchens on the topic:

When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that "those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay," he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay's hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its "B.")

Anyway, as long as you avoid something ridiculous, like the Telegraph's policy of calling it Bombay (Mumbai) at first mention in print and, it appears, Mumbai on the web - it seems that Sir Heffer's desire to stick to traditional proprieties and the management's desire to maximise web traffic are in conflict – it's just a question of making a choice.

An aside in the Bomaby/Mumbai debate set of a more parochial train of thoughts, though. There is the argument that a city's name dates back to its colonial founders is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider this, from Kevin Myers:

You can equally give London some fancy cod-Anglo-Saxon name that does not derive from the Latin 'Londinium' -- yet it remains a city founded by the Roman empire.

Actually he is not quite right there. The name is probably Brythonic in origin (though there's no consensus there) and a cod-Welsh name would be more authentic still. Then again, Bombay is probably an English corruption of a local name so the general point still stands.

Anyway, I mention this simply because its been a while since there was any debate about renaming London. However, in the late Middle Ages and the Tudor era there was a serious discussion about whether the capital should be renamed Troy-Novant. Like the renaming of Mumbai the suggestion was motivated by over-romanticised myth-making: in this case the belief that the Britons were descendants of the Trojans and that the island itself owed its name to one Brutus.

It's all in Geoffrey of Monmouth if you want the full story and - one may reasonably infer - it's also mixed up with the actual history of the area and the Trinovantes. The trick of claiming descent from the Trojans was one the Romans themselves had developed (you don't need to tell me that it's in Vergil, do you?) – it's possible the ancient Britons pinched it for themselves.

Personally, I find this antiquarian stuff pretty entertaining – if you're interested Peter Ackroyd has plenty in his London: the Biography – and like the idea of a dreamy otherworld of Troy-Novant, a city watched over by Celtic gods, a repository of ancient lore in which myth becomes reality. But renaming London Troy-Novant, even in an age in which the belief in witches and magic remained dominant, would have given it all far more potency that it would have warranted.

For noble Britons sprong from Trojans bold,
And Troy-novant was built of old Troyes ashes cold.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Events, dear boy, events

A post that resonates from Norm Geras in which he argues, I crudely paraphrase, that if you owe the circumstances of your birth to malign events (an example of someone whose parents met in a Nazi concentration camp is quoted) that that is no reason to regret your own existence.

He's right about that, I think (he gets quite a few things right), but the reason it resonates is that I owe my own existence to Britain's rather tangled history in Malaysia. My parents, you see, met in a British military hospital sometime in the Sixties. (It seems there was a jammed window which none of the nurses could open, my father attempted to fix it and managed to break it. Endearing uselessness, it's one way to get chicks I suppose).

Anyway, anecdotage aside, they were both there in their capacity as British army medics. The history of the time is somewhat complex - I'm not really best placed to give a proper overview of what the Brits were doing post Malaysian independence – but there were various conflicts with the Indonesians, with communist agitators and sundry other bits of unpleasantness.

I mention all this because, in the context of Norm's question (it's not his initially, but you know what I mean), I would struggle to even answer the basic premise on which it is based: was the British presence (to which I owe my existence) in Malaysia a good or a bad thing?

The full question of Britain's own colonial legacy is probably too recent, too contentious to give assess objectively. Let's just say, at least, that there were some pretty unpleasant aspects to the Empire that we would not want to see repeated, including this interesting claim from Kenya. (If you really want to over-complicate matters, I might add my parents' own presence in the British forces is not without its historic paradoxes: both were of Irish stock - one Ulster Proddy, one Southern Catholic, but that's enough of that). Then there were the specific acts of violence and conflict in south-east Asia in which the British were entangled.

So far, so bleak. But then there are many who will argue that the British empire brought benefits and virtues to the world too. It might also be argued that the British in helping to suppress communism in a more benign and effective way than the Americans did in Vietnam and helping to support the newly independent states and to stabilise the region deserve some credit, a paying off of the colonial debt if you like.

Plus, of course, it has given me one fine anecdote about the mess boy in my mother's hospital who doubled up as the local communist agitator. He was never sacked because he was too good and his job and always tipped the Brits off whenever he was planning an anti-British riot in the town.

Anyway, the point is: what is the point?

To say that most things in history are morally ambiguous to some degree is stating the bleeding obvious, a bit. (So too would the observation that I am not especially well-informed about Malaysian history).

And yet, combine the two factors together. Does it really matter that I can't even say whether or not the circumstances to which I owe my existence are a good thing or not? Should we not all attempt to discover more about the historic cross currents, the events and ambiguities that contribute to our making? Besides that question, there's a certain pleasure to be had from random events such as my parents' meeting and learning more about somewhat obscure events is not a bad thing (I think I might read up on Malaysia a bit). And at least asking the question about whether or not the context behind our personal and family histories is benign or malign is, I think, a good starting point to understanding the world in which we now inhabit and, possibly, what things from the past we should seek to avoid and learn from. (For one thing, if ever I learn of a group of nurses having trouble with their windows, I'll know what to do).

But I think also its worth remembering that if random events can bring about our existence, they can also shape the course of history in more profound ways. I like the line from Flashman: "In my experience the course of history is as often settled by someone having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside."

So all that questioning and story-telling and you end up with a why history matters post. Sorry about that. Still, one thing I can say for certain. I do wish I had been born in Singapore rather than in Sheffield. It would add, unfairly no doubt, a certain air of exoticism.

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Trollied Tuesday: thank goodness for that

The Government has realised that bullying drinkers isn't the wisest move when it is becoming increasing unpopular and the economy is looking so parlous.

Happy hours will not be banned and there are some other sources for cheer.

Plans to put health warnings on alcohol labels, to raise the minimum age children can drink at home and proposed rules for supermarkets to have specific check-outs for alcohol sales have all also been shelved..

Instead pubs and supermarkets will be barred from "irresponsible" promotions such as all you can drink for a set price or offers aimed at specific customers such as women under a new mandatory code for the licensed trade.

It emerged yesterday that ministers have dropped plans for a minimum price for alcohol and retailers will not be stopped from running so-called loss leaders on drink sales.

The Government is concerned that responsible, taxpaying drinkers will object to increasing costs at a time when their living expenses are already hit by the recession.

You reckon they might? Still, not being treated like idiots (apart from, you know, the whole Britain is well-placed to deal with the economic crisis which is all America's fault shtick). We should get drunk to celebrate.

Only the feckers have already gone ahead with a petty and pointless tax on beer and wine to pay for the petty and pointless VAT cut. Arse and double arse. Not a good way to win popularity.

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