Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fits nicely in the Oval Office

I'm afraid that the following post contains nothing that can even aspire towards taste or decency.

Probably the most absurd Obama-related thing yet. The Head O State:"the official Obama pleasure toy". It is, I am afraid to say, a sex toy that looks a bit like the 44th president of the United States (so you might want to be cautious if clicking that link at work). Yours for only $34.95.

The Head O State will stand upright and last all night.

While trying not to think too much about who may buy such a thing (for a joke, right?), I can't help but wonder whether this sort of marketing would translate to other leaders.

Presumably had John McCain won the US elections it would have been possible to buy a device that could survive five years crammed in a foetid, unlit Vietnamese hole before emerging even more stiff and unyielding than before. The French president might plausibly inspire a similar device: the Super Sark-O - surprisingly small, but packed with energy and able to keep going like the Duracell Bunny. The ideal leaving present for Rachida Dati, perhaps?

But then the whole thing falls down when it comes to our own dear leader. For Gordon is, you see, an authentic cock. Incapable of functioning without Balls, one-eyed, spouting the most unpalatable guff and prone to collapsing in a heap of limp, quivering uselessness at most inopportune moments. But you'd be surprised at just what [for legal reasons this sentence must remain unfinished].


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Severe Burns unit

Poor old Robert Burns. It's bad enough that in his lifetime that "heaven taught ploughman" was patronised and sentimentalised in the drawing rooms of Edinburgh – the kind of treatment that dulled his creative edge. It is, however, a particular misfortune that he's suffered from a similar fate in death too.

Much of his legacy - in the Anglophone world at least - has always been locked in the prison of kitsch nationalism, bound with tartan fetters and caged with bars of shortbread. This year, the 250th anniversary of his birth, has caused an especially severe outbreak since this anniversary forms the centrepiece of the Homecoming -

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is an events programme celebrating Scotland's great contributions to the world. In 2009 join us to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth, Scottish contributions to golf & whisky, plus our great minds and innovations and rich culture and heritage. [all bits in bold sic]

Just give me the whisky and let me blot out the rest of it please. It's a sorry fate for any poet to become the focal point of some type of vainglorious national branding effort. Burns suppers, which should be reaching their apogee tonight, are fair enough if you like that sort of thing (I can't really criticise anything that's mainly an excuse to knock back the single malts, though if people are foolish enough to eat haggis just because Burns wrote a poem about it then that's their look out); but it can all so easily become overly sentimentalised.

It's not that Burns is Scotland's only, or even its pre-eminent poet. (After all, one could make a decent case for Byron, born just three decades later, as being a type of Scotsman. Certainly he was the superior writer, though no one really holds Bryon suppers in which people drink wine from monks' skulls and fornicate wildly, do they? Nor for that matter does anyone think to commemorate Burns's peers like Blake or Coleridge by sitting naked in the garden seeing visions of angels or lounging around in an opium-induced paralysis of existential despair). As for other unquestionably Scottish poets, the anonymous balladeers who wrote the likes of The Daemon Lover, Sir Patrick Spens and the Twa Corbies are, to my mind, the country's greatest.

But that's hardly the point. Of course there is an overt patriotism to some of Burns's poems, although it's pretty anachronistic to use an 18th century writer as a vehicle for modern-day nationalism. It's little wonder that for some the temptation to sneer becomes overwhelming: whether it be Simon Heffer's cartoonish Jock-bashing (although all credit to him for spotting the merits of Dunbar and Henrysoun) or Michael Fry's recent complaint that Burns was a drunken, racist philanderer and is no role model for the Scots. Fry's mistake, confusing the worth of man with that of his art, is a common enough one but it's no less annoying for that. Worse, it is akin to the pernicious idea that Burns's contemporaries held that his humble origins gave his lyrics a sort of authenticity or realness that gave them an especial merit.

It was probably his misfortune to coincide with the first flowerings of the Romantic movement; it was an era when works like the Lyrical Ballads attempted to simulate the type of earthy, natural qualities that were seen as being innate to Burns. It was nonsense, of course, the effect and not the origin is the important thing.

The same applies, especially so, to Burns. That his poems are the work of a humble Scots ploughman writing in a form dialect are incidental to his true worth as a poet. It is the power and directness of his lyrics, an artform that requires simplicity and directness, that make his poems live in the imagination of the reader. That it was what won the hearts of his early readers, it is why his poems are still worth bothering with today.

Oh wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee;
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desart were a paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there.
Or were I monarch o' the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, wi' thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.

In that spirit, if people wish to dress all this up with the tartanry, the sentimentality and petty nationalism then fair enough, even if the man o' independent mind looks and laughs at a' that. However, I think we can all agree that the bright idea someone had 100 years ago – of holding a teetotal Burns supper – is the worst of all possible worlds.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Do you think...

In Washington DC are the tramps and pandhandlers (and there are many) asking the crowds if they can 'spare some change you can believe in'?


John Bunyan on the 238

For a long while, I will concede, I had decided the atheist bus campaign - you know the one, There's Probably No God – was unworthy of attention. The slogan was feeble (albeit at the insistence of the Advertising Standards Authority), trite and unlikely to provoke much in the way of thought or debate. The outraged whining by certain Christian groups, who have no problem with Biblical slogans on buses, was beyond pathetic. Another one to file under the heading of "You're Offended? So what?"

But the recent news that a driver had refused to drive a bus with the slogan collided with my consciousness with another piece of news and, amazingly, it actually did provoke thought. The other thing you see, was a string of old television programmes being remade - Minder, the Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin etc etc etc.

It occurred to me that the atheist buses would be the ideal hook on which to hang a remake of the On the Buses. Admittedly, a plot line in which the Reg Varney character was a Bible-basher with an extremely thin skin would not make for a very funny programme (quite in keeping with the spirit of the original I should add. I only know one person who finds that show funny, he is quite insane).

But why not aspire to that rarest of things, a superior remake. We'd have to reverse the real-life situation somewhat. We could make Butler a secular everyman - the embodiment of the independent minded man, striving for the right to live and think as he sees best. Opposed to this would be the petty authoritarianism and self aggrandising nature of the religious authorities, as embodied by Blakey, who is constantly trying to bring him back under control. Okay, it would be something of an allegory but Christians have always liked those.

We could even bring the thing bang up to date by transforming poor, frowsty Olive into a convert to the puritanical, hijab-wearing form of Islam. (Offensive? Only if done properly. Besides, as I already said, there's far too much taking of offence already).


Trollied Tuesday: Too much alcohol?

How much is too much? Here's a Corkman who eventually drank himself to death, which suggests you can overdo it. Still a local hero along the Leeside, though.

Whiskey make me drowsy,
And gin can make you think,
The common cold can kill ya,
But a woman tell me to drink.

However, two recently deceased drinkers - Dai Llewellyn and John Mortimer - expose the ultimate futility of abstinence. Both were bon viveurs (a nice euphemism for 'raging pisshead', either that or convivial) but crucially they were also bon vivants.

If you haven't read Llewellyn's splendid obituary, I do urge you to read it in full.

His seduction methods were direct and somewhat lacking in refinement: “I am not one of these oily Italian method-pullers,” he said. “Thirty years, and I still can’t undo a bra. The only trick is that I do not waver. I know what I want and so do they.”

Stories of Llewellyn’s priapic exploits, mostly gleefully retailed by the Don Juan himself, proved irresistible to the tabloid press. The journalist Peter McKay, who became a friend, was once having lunch with him at San Lorenzo when Llewellyn suddenly leapt from the table and disappeared for half an hour. “What happened?” asked McKay when his host returned, looking flushed. “Oh, I just remembered,” said Llewellyn. “I left my secretary tied up in the bath.”

I hope to be able to use that excuse myself one day. I mean, I certainly will use it; but it would be good to be able to use it without stretching the truth too far. As for Llewellyn, his womanising was in no way compromised by his prodigious boozing.

The Old Etonian was open about his love of living the high life, which included consuming large amounts of alcohol, claiming to have drunk eight bottles of wine, a bottle of rum, a bottle of port and a bottle of vodka in one night.

Although cirrhosis of the liver and cancer confined the boulevardier to a hospice Sir Dai still relished a glass of wine a day to the very end of his life.

Okay, that is rather a lot. Perhaps its no surprise that he contracted cirrhosis. Note this, however, that it was the cancer that killed (counter-intuitively he blamed the booze for his contracting it, I'm not sure medical science would back him up). A good argument to keep drinking then (as Llewellyn did, until the end).

Oh what a joy, what a pleasure alcohol can bring you. It can be one of life's great pleasures, but it can also cause great downfalls.

Perhaps Mortimer provides a better role model for the drinker. (In fact, someone who resumed smoking in protest at the ban is an example to us all). He started each day with a glass of champagne (the best time to drink the stuff) and carried on with a constant and steady stream from then on in. It hardly inhibited him from having a rich and varied life - but you probably don't need me to spell that bit out. Remember his dictum: "There is no pleasure worth foregoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward." Quite.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Man must strive and striving he must, er...

What a couple of demotivaters from the past week of course you do.

First up: twitchers spend hours lying in the mud waiting for a view a rare bird. Eventually it appears, just in time to be eaten by a buzzard.

“The funny thing is, neither of us had seen a buzzard make a kill before either, so from a bird-spotting point of view it was two birds with one stone.” That's the spirit.

Second: man spends 26 years trying to solve a Rubik's cube. Graham Parker said:

I have missed important events to stay in and solve it and I would lie awake at night thinking about it. I have had wrist and back problems from spending hours on it but it was all worth it.

Persistence is often claimed as a virtue; oftentimes it is one of the deadly virtues however. It can all to easily become a form of mania. Literary characters as varied as Widmerpool, Mr Pooter and Captain Ahab were all persistent after all. I am beginning to think that learning when to give up is an essential quality, an inability to admit defeat in the face of overwhelming odds is a form of madness, after all.

Remember: The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Bloody Labour

Even by Gordon Brown's admittedly high standards, his attempts to appear like an everyday person make him appear astonishingly strange, creepy and maladroit.

His latest such effort, talking about his supposed fondness for the robot superhero Optimus Prime (a Transformer – "Robots in Disguise" as I recall – has the usual effect). It's not such an unlikely role model for Brown though.

Behold his alter-ego: Optimus Subprime, a clunking robotic figure who transforms the British economy, motor vehicles and all, into a heap of smouldering junk.

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Bloody Tories

Is anyone, bar Madeline McCann's immediate family that concerned that a bunch of young Tories make poor taste jokes and are idiotic enough to put the evidence online? Is it going to change anyone's vote at the next election? Does anyone really think Caroline "Nannygate" Spelman is the best person to decide what is and is not embarrassing to the Tory Party? Spare us the crocodile tears.

Admittedly the Young Conservatives themselves are a perpetual embarrassment - Conservative Future as I should call them after the Thatcher Youth were disbanded for being a bit too embarrassing and right-wing - but the really disturbing thing is that youthful pratishness should be seen as some sort of great political scandal.

The implication being that student politicians should always be on the alert to see how their antics affect their party in the wider world. The problem with this is that some of the most ghastly people one could possibly encounter at an institute of higher education are student politicians. The obnoxious, tribal, yobbish types - like young Lewis - are bad enough; but the very worst are the goody-goody careerists, hacks and toadies.

I can think of a few university contemporaries of mine who have risen through the ranks in their respective parties. Generally the less impressive they are, the better they do. The reaction to the Madeline McCann stunt will only encourage their like in student unions throughout the country.

Acting like a twat at university should not be a bar to high office in later life. But the mere fact of having been a student politician should.

Afterthough: It occurs to me now that the Tory boy's most grievous offence was the sheer lack of effort that went into his "bad taste" outfit. The oh-so predictable race to be "shocking" and "offensive" is rather stale. In my day, and I am aware this is making sound like even more of a choleric old git, the whole point of bad taste parties was to be imaginative or witty in a bid to see how badly dressed one could be.

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Finally. Someone speaks sense.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

All morality is quite useless

An addendum to the previous. There is one especially corrosive and long-established form of idiocy: the desire to impose one's moral views on everyone. Lamentably it has always been popular. Of course, the people who do this sort of thing usually fail to distinguish between morals and ethics, and they are usually wrong about whatever it is that they wish to moralise about, but these are mere details beside the fact that such sanctimoniousness is unutterably annoying.

Take, if you like, this week's news that some people in Worthing are seeking to remove a plaque commemorating Oscar Wilde.

Chris Hare... points out that Wilde, a homosexual man married with children, had a documented taste for seducing teenage boys. At least one of his victims, a 14-year-old newspaper delivery boy named Alphonso, had to flee Worthing when the scandal of his relationship with Wilde became public knowledge. "This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education - I don't think that would be regarded as heroic today."

This is the perfect type of a perfect preposterousness. It is exquisite and leaves one wanting more. And, of course, it encapsulates the trouble with moralisers in one anecdote. One would not regard that sort of thing as heroic today, of course, but Wilde lived in a different age when sexual mores were rather different to our own. The age of consent for girls was 13, there was no age of consent at all for homosexual sex and lesbianism was not illegal because, the story goes, Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed.

Besides: Wilde is not honoured for being a fat old queen. Sex with teenagers was not what bothered the Victorians at all: it was the homosexuality. That no one would really expect to be taken seriously if, today, they objected to honouring Wilde on the grounds he was posing as a somdomite highlights the folly of trying to impose contemporary moral values on the past. Were Hare's argument to be taken to its extreme, we should revile Plato and a host of other Greeks for their advocacy of pederasty. (Admittedly there has been the odd prep school classics teacher who has taken Grecian mores rather too much to heart, but that hardly detracts from the main point).

News of Wilde's sexual inclinations
came as a great shock to the Victorians

More lamentably, the inability to distinguish between the artistic work and the person who produced it shows a woefully distorted set of perspectives. It is wrong-headed, it is philistine and shows an inability to distinguish the valuable from mere dross. One could see this, to an extent, in some of the responses to Harold Pinter's death. It is not that people criticised his political views (which were admittedly asinine) nor that they were a factor in considering the man as a whole. For that matter there was nothing wrong with criticising those political views immediately after his death: it's the inability to judge his plays as plays that disturbs.

Admittedly, Pinter's is a fairly trivial example. But the attitude is, I think, a dangerous one too. The fact that Wilde's work was ignored for decades because of the desire to allow moral considerations to trump everything else should cause the modern day moralists to pause before we head down the path of ignoring work by people of whom we do not approve. Totalitarians, both political and religious, have always been rather keen on this after all, and taste and decency are but staging posts along the road of silence, censorship and suppression.

Let's let Oscar sum up:

I never came across in anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts. I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue. It is unnatural virtue that makes the world, for those who suffer, such a premature Hell.

PS: Is this effort by a contemporary pederast so terribly wrong because of the values espoused, or is it the fact that such a terrible-looking old roué singing a bloody awful song presents such an unpleasant spectacle? I shall have to listen to some music by that vile anti-Semite Wagner to recover.

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Experts, what do they know?

Fools are my theme, let satire be song -
Byron: English Bards and Scotch Finance Ministers

It's fashionable, sort of, to look for silver linings in the storm clouds gathering over our heads (continues for several paragraphs of purple prose intended to convey the message 'we're all fucked'). You know the sort of thing: people will be healthier, spend more time with their families (whether or not they want to) and learn what's really important in life.

Mostly wishful thinking, of course. But as the full economic horror show unravels over the next few months my one prediction is that the less than wholly delusional might start to realise one important fact about life: no power on earth can withstand the force of human folly. Were I not such a feckless idler, I might promise to develop this argument with regards to politics and economics or even, God help us all, international relations (Exhibit A: the Middle East). But for now I'll just stick to scientific rubbish.

Two surveys here. One warning that even 'third-hand smoke' contains tiny particles that might be harmful to babies. Obviously were there any babies who were never exposed to say, second hand traffic fumes (or in places where there is no traffic a range of horrible and life-threatening illnesses) it might be something worth worrying about. But I doubt this is a hypothesis that will ever have much practical application.

The second: where you sit on the bus determines your personality. Even if you didn't spot that the study was the work of a Salford University hackademic, a Londoner would spot instantly that it was the work of a northerner. In the capital you don't need a study to tell you who sits where. Life is so much simpler here:

Bottom front: pensioners, nutters.
Bottom middle: mother with oversized push-chair and more than usually squalling and snotty infant. (Sometimes accompanied by husand looking on with horror at what he wrought).
Bottom back: incredibly annoying and LOUD teenagers, innit, who are too lazy to walk upstairs.
Top back: psychos. More energetic and even more annoying teenagers.
Top middle: someone who never quite understood the jokes 15 years ago about how annoying people who shout down their mobile phones are.
Top front: Someone who wants to be near the stairs in case of needing to make a quick getaway.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: Ice in the heart

Here's that rarest of things, an article in the Telegraph I whole-heartedly commend. It's Christopher Howse on the joys of cold, properly cold weather. Here's just a sample:

But a walk in the winter woods is more than health therapy or a chance to stock up on firewood. At best it is an opportunity to discover that sharp, stark weather is not bad weather. It is the way things are, and should be made the best of. That is what the Book of Common Prayer implies by its biblical canticle of comic praise: "O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever. O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever."

Just so, there is something invigorating, life-affirming about feeling the smart of an icy blast on one's skin, to starting the blood with a walk through the snow. In similar fashion, when it gets very cold I start to yearn for extremely cold drinks.

It might be an ice cold lager - German for preference; a good dry white; maybe even, now that Christmas and New Year are safely past, a fizz. Best of all though is to copy the Russians. Now they do now how to drink in cold weather (if one ignores the whole getting so paralytically drunk that you fall down in the snow and freeze to death thing). I always like to keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer, now is the time to remove it.

A quite shot of the stuff neat will chill and then thrill. When drunk in the outdoors its effect is enhanced, by embracing the cold (internalising one might say were it not a little too literal) you'll come alive in a vivid, bright winter's day.

Really, the closer to freezing the drink the better (Absolut Zero, if you like). Ideally you should clutch in a gloved hand a glass made of ice from which to down a shot or two of pepper vodka (NB it also goes well in bloody mary). No better combination of ice and fire exists. It is an element combination worthy of the frost-bound sensuality of Keats's The Eve of St Agnes.

Soon, trembling in her soft and chilly nest, 235
In sort of wakeful swoon, perplex’d she lay,
Until the poppied warmth of sleep oppress’d
Her soothed limbs, and soul fatigued away;
Flown, like a thought, until the morrow-day;
Blissfully haven’d both from joy and pain; 240
Clasp’d like a missal where swart Paynims pray;
Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain,
As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again.

NB: St Agnes Eve is Jan 20. I have no doubt that, in a couple of weeks, if I were to go breaking into girls' bedrooms bedrooms to watch them as they sleep, the police will readily appreciate the aesthetic intention behind my actions.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

The consolations of idleness

Happy new, you know to you all. Hope you enjoyed a proper break. I didn't, but rather than moan I've just decided to write anything for a while. Every bit as good as a holiday, as I keep telling myself.