Thursday, April 30, 2009


The news that a couple was arrested for getting drunk and shagging in front of Windsor Castle (and an audience of camera clicking Japanese tourists) prompts more amusement rather than disgust. I was struck though by this:

Witness Mark Robinson, 44, said: “One window from the guardroom opened up and when a soldier saw what was going on he told his mates — and lots of windows opened.

“The couple did not care who was looking and just kept going as if they were in their own bedroom.

“They even ignored the Please Keep Off The Grass signs. [Italics as published]

Could there be a more damning indictment of their behaviour?

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Archduke Found Alive: World War a Hoax

What's the secret of a good headline? It's both art and craft you see; the craft comes in telling you what the story's about, but there's poetry too. (I've lazily stolen a famous spoof from the 1920s that nicely illustrates the way it works, largely because I can't think of a suitable one to go at the top of this piece).

Don't believe me? Why not have a read of Prof Stanley Fish on the matter. In his praise of New York Post style headlines (eg Headless Body Found in Topless Bar), he observes that beneath a pithy gag there can be layers of meaning expressed with an economy and precision equal to the best of modern poetry.

How ironic, though, that it appeared on the New York Times website. If there is one thing the NYT is bad at it's writing headlines: leaden, pompous, portentous and dull, dull, dull.

It says something that the most memorable one produced by the Gray Lady was a comical howler (which, incidentally, highlights the gratuitous use of commas to add needless sub-clauses.)

The headline announced that US soccer captain John Harkes was joining what was, at the time, one of England's top teams:

Harkes To Sign For Sheffield, Wednesday.

Some of laconic wit and brevity that you will find even at the higher end of the British media would go down well in the headlines of America's most august journals. A little art to make the functional task of telling the reader what a story is about does, in a small and subtle way, enhance the readers' appreciation.

On the other hand: the tabloid need for constant gags and puns can become wearing and somewhat infantile. Or, in the case of this effort, you end up with a contender for worst headline of the year.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Desperate times

Ed Balls as next Labour leader? While something that would unite Labour and Tory supporters in horror might have something to commend it, it won't happen. Let me suggest the following law.

For Labour to even contemplate doing such a thing, it would have to have suffered such an electoral drubbing that Balls himself would have lost his seat.

A poor man's Portillo.

PS: With Mike Smithson bragging about getting 3/1 on Balls losing in Morley, may I just state I got the even better odds of 7/2. Albeit with a somewhat smaller stake than Mr Smithson's £100.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Cultural cringe

When looking for the world's worst pundit, it's so easy to be parochial and stick to all the obvious British candidates. But it's a salutary and sobering thought that Her Majesty's Press is often forced to look across the Atlantic should it wish to provide its readers with a truly magisterial dose of wrongness.

One newspaper even employs on a regular basis a barkingly mad American woman who somehow manages to out-crazy its stable of homegrown eccentrics and nutjobs. But the Guardian now surpasses itself with the latest offering by the Canadian Naomi Klein

In it she employs her remarkable talent for stating the bleeding obvious, affecting shock at it and then drawing precisely the wrong conclusions to observe that the presidency is a difficult job that often involves messy compromises and the current president will not, in fact, stick it to The Man.

Klein is one of the most valuable intellectual figures of age. I am not sure that she doesn't deserve to be regarded in the same light as figures like Noam Chomsky or Ayn Rand, with whom you know infallibly that you can disregard the opinions of anyone who cites them in support of their views.

At the risk of developing a cultural cringe, why is it that our own homegrown pundits don't achieve the same level of ineffable error?

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Solidity and Transcendence

Tomorrow marks the 250th anniversary of Handel's death. To explain his appeal I really cannot do better than Beethoven's formulation about great effects by simple means.

However, by way of a tribute here is a superb anecdote about Fela Kuti:

In January 1984, when I first met Fela, at the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury, central London, I asked him which musician he most respected. The answer was unexpected. 'Handel. George Frederick Handel.' I told him my father was a Handel freak and we discussed, amid the dope smoke, Dixit Dominus and the Concerto Grossi.

Thinking about it, I decided a comparison wasn't improbable. In Fela's music there is the same mix of solidity and transcendence, and I thought I could detect echoes of the composer in Fela's organ lines. He told me he thought he was writing 'African classical music'.

Quite. Let's have a bit of Dixit Dominus then. If you have a joint to hand, now's the time to light it; the version I've linked to is pure skunk.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Worse than a crime, a mistake

There is one thing to be said for smear tactics, spin and the other political black arts: they can be extremely effective. What Derek Draper and Damian McBride were plotting was straight out of the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove play book. (Especially the stuff about Frances Osborne's mental health and the suggestion that the Cameron family would be targeted).

The downside is, of course, that people will hate you for using these tactics. And they only work if you're smart enough not to get caught. As it is: I refer you to my comments about there being nothing worse than looking sleazy and ridiculous. I was not quite right: looking malevolently vile and simultaneously displaying the astuteness of Frs Ted and Dougal takes quite a lot of beating.

But while Draper and McBride receive a richly deserved ordeal by media I don't think it changes much. It does reinforce the impression that Brown and his acolytes are not best suited to lead the country, but I think most people had come to that conclusion already, including the smarter and more principled elements of the Labour party. (For the avoidance of doubt I would include Blair and co in the 'more principled' list; you can decide for yourself how well that reflects on Brown).

However, there is one aspect to this story that has caught my eye. Damian McBride is only 34.

What? He looks about 50, like the sleaziest, clapped out, most corrupt, thuggish and self-important, third-rate west coast of Scotland Labour councillor. A cardiac in need of arrest.

How to do you get to look so seedy, dissipated and unhealthy in such a space of time? God knows, I'm a similar age and I've tried but clearly I have led a life of comparative virtue and clean-living. (I now feel much better about myself for seeing his bloated, bloodshot mug across the papers).

For lovers of literature it has always been fun to imagine how the picture of Dorian Gray would have looked. I think I have an idea now.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Seasonal Booze Ups

It is testament to how far Fleet Street as fallen from its inglory days that I was until now only dimly aware of the old journalistic tradition of Wayzgoosing. In those days newspapers did not publish on Good Friday, allowing printers and, when they cottoned on to the idea, the hacks, to indulge in spectacular piss ups.

Roy Greenslade has a fine overview of the tradition, and also links to some splendid anecdotes from the Gentlemen Ranters (this one is worth a read, not least for the picture). His own stories aren't too shabby either.

I also recall a Sun/Daily Mirror subeditorial wayzgoose that did make it to France, with embarrassing consequences. The good burghers (of Dieppe, I think) had been wrongly informed that a group of important British journalists were due to arrive and duly turned out the mayor and the town band to greet them off the ferry.

Sadly, by the time the wayzgoosers arrived, they had been drinking non-stop for many hours since leaving London and were only able to walk by leaning against each other.

Pity today's hacks – sorry, make that "content providers" – hard at work as usual today and often unaware of this custom.

It's Good Friday tomorrow, when another Easter drinking spectacular is in the offing across the water. You see, it is the one day (bar Christmas) when every pub in Ireland is forced to close. It is one of the last reflexive genuflections made towards the Catholic Church in the country; a ritual devoid of any real meaning or purpose (you may wish to develop this metaphor) and naturally, treated by all right-thinking people as the chance for a monstrous piss-up.

The greater availability of off-sales (closed on the day, of course) has helped greatly. Maundy Thursday is a boom day for retailers; as for their customers, I still recall one Good Friday party in Cork which left me feeling far worse than anyone who partakes of that curious bit of Filipino piety whereby they nail themselves to a cross would. However, in the days before off licences were so common, there were several ingenious ways by which people could get a drink.

Ferries were exempt, so trips to Wales or the Isle of Man were popular. Some people even went to the North, because if ever there was a fun place to be it was Belfast circa 1922-97. Train journeys, too, had no constraints, so many people would spend the day in a diurnal course of journeys with no end in sight and a constant stream of booze (shades of the great Moskva-Petushki there).

But the most curious exemption was the dog show held on Good Friday in the Royal Dublin Society. The bar there was the one place allowed to serve alcohol (one suspects the powers that be thought that only irredeemable West Brits would go to a dog show on that day, a similar mindset to the people who bombed the La Mon, you might note). The event was a great favourite of the likes of Brendan Beehan, Patrick Kavanagh and various other riffish and raffish sorts.

If only the Irish hacks had gone in for wayzgoosing.

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Offensive Names

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urge Pet Shop Boys to change their name to highlight the cruelty in the pet trade. The Pet Shop Boys commendably manage not to tell them to sod off.

What would Peta do if it was made aware of the practice of gerbilling from which, according to a persistent and credible rumour, the Pet Shop Boys took their name?

(NB: The BBC itself says "Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were inspired to call themselves the Pet Shop Boys by friends who worked in a pet shop in west London." and it would be very wrong to assume that anything else was the case).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Trollied Tuesday: a monumental session

If you're ever in Preston, I advise you to get out as soon as you can. But while you are there, consider one curious landmark in the rather more appealing countryside that surrounds the place: Paddy's Pole.

It is a bit of scaffolding erected on a trig point on Fair Snape Fell by, I am assured, an Irish labourer named Paddy. You might guess that his inspiration for carrying it all the way up there was alcohol. And, sure enough, it seems it was the result of a wager struck in a pub that he couldn't take a bit of scaffolding up to the trig point on the fell.

Now it is possible that, as with all such stories, an element of embellishment or even mythologising has crept in to it, but I rather hope this account is true. Apart from the fact it makes a useful landmark for walkers and fell runners, I like to think of it as something of an enduring memorial to the inspiration that can strike any of us during a night at the pub and testament to the formidable powers of booze.

I'm afraid I've only seen the thing at a distance from the nearby fells, but here are some images taken by somebody else should you wish to visualise it.

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