Thursday, January 28, 2010

How not to look ridiculous

If you are thinking about a career in professional football, don't decide to call yourself Pele. Especially if you end up playing (or not) for Falkirk.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Tragic Muse

This year's Costa Prize has been won by Christopher Reid for A Scattering, a volume of poems in memory of his late wife.

He is only the sixth poet to have won the prize (Seamus Heaney was the last, back in the days when it was still the Whitbread Prize). Here's a curious thing, two other winning volumes have also been about the poets' late wives (Douglas Dunn with Elegies in 1985 and Ted Hughes with The Birthday Letters in 1998). Moreover, two of the other winning volumes have been translations - Hughes with Tales from Ovid and Heaney's Beowulf. (Heaney has also won it for The Spirit Level).

I'm not sure whether this says something about the type of poetry that resonates with a wider audience (or at least the judges of literary awards ceremonies) - big, universal themes, be it bereavement or the classics - or is pure coincidence.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Know Thyself

It's hardly a trade secret that a successful newspaper (or any sort of publication) is one that has a clear idea of who reads and gives them suitable fare. So what are we to make of the Guardian's view of its readers judging from its lowdown on tax returns?

Questions include:

I'm a teacher on PAYE. I earned about £1,000 in additional income last year from private tuition. About half was in cash. If I "forget" about that money, what are the chances I'll be caught?

A very Guardian-readery scenario that, I'll grant you, if not wholly complimentary about its reader's ethical standards. But what about?

How many tax returns are looked into or audited? I don't imagine more than one in 100, so the risk of being caught must be low.

Surely they wouldn't even think it? Not that bastion of right-thinking liberalism.

I've just started renting out my buy-to-let property. The tenant pays cash. Surely we'll never be found out?

Bloody hell, they think the Graun is read by a bunch of swindlers. No wonder they don't think there's any chance of getting people to pay for it in future.

Questions do not include: Why is this so bloody complicated? Am I right in thinking Gordon Brown is to blame? If I overpay, will these bloody bits of paper go away? Why do I leave this until the last minute every year? Where the hell did I put last year's stuff? and Sod this for a game of soldiers, can I get someone to do it for me and claim it on expenses?*

Poor show, Guardian.

* A: Only if you're the sodding Chancellor of the bloody buggering Exchequer.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Sins of the father

Hugo Rifkind's column in the Times made me laugh out loud today. Unfortunately for him, this was the bit that did it.

Apologies to readers who read this article before 8am GMT which incorrectly had the byline Malcolm Rifkind, former Foreign Secretary, instead of Hugo Rifkind.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Trollied Tuesday: Method Acting

I had been wondering whether or not to write something about the latest distressing outbreak in which Labour and the Tories compete to find ways to make life disagreeable for drinkers, the drinks industry in the folorn hope that it would somehow pursuade a hardcore bolus of yobboes to change their ways. I did not feel inspired, so imagine my delight when the following story dropped into my lap. (Thanks, Dominic).

Briefly, it concerns a group of German actors who found a way of performing one of the greatest literary works of the last century in the proper fashion.

Actors at a Frankfurt theater in Germany have had their “15 minutes of fame” after they fell off the stage in the middle of a performance based on Venedikt Erofeyev's “Moscow-Petushki” postmodern Soviet masterpiece.

According to Bild, authentic vodka was used as a stage set and the four German actors got progressively drunk as the performance continued.

Read more

.. The public was unaware of what was really going on applauding the drunk actors, thinking their behavior was all part of the act.

The true reason became clear only after one of the actors fell off the stage and another found himself under the table.

(NB: news source is Russian, so the linguistic quirks idiomatic infelicities can be put down to that. Or vodka. Or both.)

Anyway, a purist might complain that vodka is put a small part of the full Venichka retinue of booze. Why no Zighuli beer? Why, indeed no Sadko the Wealthy Guest Shampoo or indeed the full Dog's Giblets? But these are small quibbles. I can only say bravo. And encore. What price a stage version of Withnail & I in which the actors match the characters' consumption? It would annoy all the right people. Or even a dramatisation of some of Michel Houellebecq's works. It could even be enlivened further with the introduction of real-life [stop right there].


A brief note on attempts to enforce clean living. The most ludicrous scare story concerns that claim that the average Scot drinks 46 bottle of vodka a year. A 75cl bottle of vodka contains 26.5 units of alcohol. At a rate of less than one bottle a week, I calculate the average Scots man is under the safe limit and women only a little over. As ever, it's the ones drinking lots and lots that are the problem. Not the average drinker who is, unfortunately, far easier to bash when politicians or the health authorities seek a convenient scapegoat in lieu of effective action.

A little more more sensible is this report on Buckfast, perceived source of so many of central Scotland's woes. At least it accepts that the alcohol content per se is not the problem (albeit it ignores the telling fact that the Scottish "government's" minimum pricing policies do not affect Buckie); rather it's the mix of caffeine and alcohol seems to have such an unfortunate effect on the people who drink it.

That may be the case, although I am not aware of any major problems caused by the excessive consumption of rum and cokes or Irish coffees (bar nausea, perhaps); as ever it is how people drink and how they respond to it that is the problem, not the drink itself. In other words, is Buckfast bad, or is it the people who drink it that are to blame?

The other figure from the Buckfast report is that the drink is responsible for three crimes a day.
It's worth thinking about that. Drink-fuelled violence is disagreeable to be sure. I've been on the receiving end myself (always in Scotland, perhaps not coincidentally); but it is not as big a problem as some like to make out.

Is it a problem on such a scale to justify the constant attempts at petty harassment aimed at drinkers and the drinks trade? I think not.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

I was against Iraq war before I backed it to the hilt, says Straw

That is pretty much the import of a letter - leaked by whom one wonders? - in which it emerges that he told Tony Blair about all sorts of misgivings about the venture that he somehow managed to still in public.

Of course, the bare Sunday Times report does not really convey the full extent of the legalistic arse-covering and evasive circumlocutions involved; it is language contorted in an attempt to make sure his arse is covered at all times. You can read it in full, if you can bear it. Otherwise here's a taster:

(i) regime change per se is no justification for military action; it could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal. Of course, we may want credibly to assert that regime change is an essential part of the strategy by which we have to achieve our ends — that of the elimination of Iraq’s WMD capacity; but the latter has to be the goal;

Yes, Jack. But what do you think? Is it a good idea or not to attack? Right or wrong? A noble cause or a squalid piece of aggression? You're foreign secretary after all, surely you wouldn't want your name associated with something that you fear is illegal and could backfire disastrously? No?

I should say at this point that if any of you feel like launching into a passionate screed about the rights or wrongs of the invasion of Iraq nearly seven years ago, please don't do it here. There's no shortage of places on the web where you can do that.

However, one would like to think that whoever leaked this letter did so to make Straw look bad; the idea that he (or his "friends") might have done so in the expectation that he might get credit for weakly, evasively opposing something he later actively supported would be an insult to the intelligence.

Still, let's wait and see whether Gordon Brown tries the "I had no idea this was going to happen and if I had done I would have stopped it even though I wrote the cheques for it" defence when he eventually gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. It would not wholly surprise were he to do so.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

A playground spat

For the new year, a new hero. He is the, as yet, unnamed 12-year-old neighbour of Giles Coren. Coren, 40, has been driven to this young fellow who has, thanks to the help of his parents, has been tormenting the Times hack with a constant onslaught of tedious, repetitious banging – finally giving him some insight into the effect his columns have on so many of us.

Anyhow, after this promising start one hopes this young fellow will not be deterred by any slight unpleasantness that may ensue. To this end may I urge all readers of this blog to dig deep and send the boy more instruments; whistles, gongs, flugelhorns, kazoos – anything loud and irritating. In World Cup year a vuvuzela would be perfect. Thousands of Times readers are counting on you.

Note: left over instruments will be dispatched to Tanya Gold's neighbours.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Ulster says 'whooah'

A request from a reader materialises, asking that I share my views on the Iris Robinson scandal. To be honest, I am not certain that I have much original to contribute. One might paraphrase Dr Johnson and say that it is not so much that the Democratic Unionist Party needs be embroiled in a first-rate scandal, but that it should be done at all. And yet, what a scandal. It meets all the criteria laid out by Conor Cruise O'Brien in that it is Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented (for more on the phrase Gubu, see here).

By tradition, scandals in Britain were neatly divvied up between the main parties: Tory ones were about sex, Labour ones were about money, Liberal ones were about both. That distinction no longer holds, at least since the era of Aitken and Hamilton (one might see this as evidence of the dilution of the parties' respective identities) - but here is an affair that combines both these elements. It might not quite be on a scale of the Profumo Affair or, my favourite scandal of all, the Jeremy Thorpe Affair (gay sex, a suggestion of blackmail, allegations of attempted murder, chequebook journalism, suspicions of a judicial fix and - most damningly of all in the eyes of the public - a dead dog).

The DUP might feel reassured that Iris is being thoroughly British in combining both sex and money in the scandal. (In the Republic political scandals are almost invariably about money; sex is generally left to the Roman Catholic Church) - and yet there is so much more to this scandal - the fact that we have a 59-year-old woman sleeping with a 19-year-old man, attempted suicide, the strong whiff of religious hypocrisy, even the limitless possibility of Mrs Robinson gags.

And yet, it should really come as no surprise. Preposterousness and the DUP have long been bedfellows. The Robinsons themselves have previous in this area, whether it was their baroquely greedy expenses, or hubby Peter's "invasion" of the Irish Republic in the Eighties. Moreover, the party has already had its own rather tawdry scandals involving, separately, gay sex and, thanks to Baby Doc Paisley, money. But what makes Mrs Robinson's doings so very special is the religious dimension.

It is not simply the flagrant double standard of quoting the Bible to attack homosexuality whilst engaging in something that is condemned in equally strong terms by the Mosaic Laws. Rather, and again the DUP's bedrock of Bible-thumping bigots should take pride in this, it is a triumph of the Calvinistic temperament. Catholics have long liked to kid themselves that they have a monopoly on understanding such matters as sin, guilt, redemption and so on (they've long kidded themselves about other things too, but we'll let that pass for now); and yet if you really want to thoroughly explore the moral complexity and uncertainty of the human condition, nothing beats a Calvinist who has experienced the great and terrible liberation of throwing away their self-imposed (or are they God-given?) moral constraints.

One need only compare Calvinist writers like Byron and Hogg (even Walter Scott, who did a nice line in religiously conflicted villains) with the likes of Waugh and Greene to see what I mean. These lines might apply nicely to Iris's predicament:

to thee the strife was given

Between the suffering and the will,

Which torture where they cannot kill;

And the inexorable Heaven,

And the deaf tyranny of Fate,

The ruling principle of Hate,

Which for its pleasure doth create

The things it may annihilate,

Refus'd thee even the boon to die:
[from Prometheus]

The thing that fascinates is that Iris has managed to encapsulate two great cultural archetypes - the Mrs Robinson type, the religious zealot exposed as a hypocrite, the crooked politician - and behind these lies a greater archetype: the justified sinner who has strayed far from the path of righteousness into the abyss of sensuality. I suggest that only a Calvinist could manage it quite so rigorously or so well.

How will it play out? I'd counsel against the easy assumption that Peter Robinson is done for and that this will see the DUP losing seats. This may well happen, of course, but the Calvinist sense of righteousness is a funny thing. (Actually this should not be a surprise to anyone on this side of the Irish Sea; just look at Gordon Brown in full on self-justifying mode).

UPDATE: [I've changed the ending of this in light of the latest information.] Any suggestion that the repentant sinner might be easily forgiven seem wide of the mark, though. Iris is anathematised, expelled from the body of the kirk DUP. Peter Robinson may well be knifed in the back, all for the good of the party of course. That's politics, of course, with an added layer of religious fervour.


Since I mentioned the Thorpe Affair earlier, I should note an intriguing coda from couple of weeks ago. When the last wodge of official files from 1979 were released under the 30-year rule (mainly showing that Margaret Thatcher was, well, Margaret Thatcher); by far the most interesting detail was the files that were still withheld. These included those pertaining to Airey Neave, Sir Anthony Blunt and Jeremy Thorpe. No reason was given, of course, but one wonders if the decision with relation to Rinkagate might have something to do with this:

In 2002, questions were asked on the BBC programme Newsnight about Jack Straw's involvement in "Rinkagate", after a tape-recording surfaced of Harold Wilson discussing the scandal and saying: "Look, I saw Jack Straw, he's very worried if he were mentioned in this context, he thinks he'll be finished". According to the diary of Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Social Security, Wilson had asked her to examine Norman Scott's security file to see if it contained any indications that he was working as part of a conspiracy against Thorpe. Straw informed Castle that when he went to examine Scott's file, he found it was missing. The journalist Barrie Penrose has alleged that Straw subsequently leaked information from the file to the media. Straw remains silent on that matter but has denied accusations from Joe Haines, that Wilson asked him to read the files in order to gather information that could be used to smear Thorpe.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Your only man

Night Nurse is truly the drink of the gods: Asclepius, Morpheus, bright Apollo.

They should build a statue to whoever invented it.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Spurious comparisons

For Caesar and Circero, read Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson.

It is no coincidence that Robert Harris’s latest novel Lustrum is dedicated “to Peter”. The historic battle between Cicero and Caesar, portrayed in the book, is remarkably similar to the present struggle between Lord Mandelson and Ed Balls.

On one side is a brilliant political strategist whose greatest weapon is words, a new Labour patrician who loves the company of wealthy men. On the other is a ruthless political fighter, a populist class warrior who wants to redistribute resources from rich to poor. High politics, low guile, personal ambition, ideological clashes — in modern Westminster, as in Ancient Rome, they are all there.

Rachel Sylvester, The Times

Erm no. They might just about be like the characters in a novel, but I'm not sure that the conquest of Gaul, the defeat of Pompey, shagging Cleopatra and the attainment of supreme power in the Republic quite compare with setting up New Labour, trying to sort out the squabbling tribes in Ulster for a bit (okay, that is sort of Roman), doing something or other in Brussels and then propping up Brown as a sort of grand vizier. (In any case, the comparison with Caesar doesn't really work if Mandelson is only the power behind the throne. I'd be tempted to say he's much more like Crassus.)

The showbiz for ugly people
jibe worked 2000 years ago too

As for Balls as Cicero; well Brown's henchman might have an even more over-inflated sense of his own abilities than old chickpea. Having to translate his bleeding letters put me off Latin for good; that's Cicero's letters, obviously, but Balls may possibly have a similar effect on me with regard to the Labour party. But although he was from humbler origins than the Nottingham High School boy, Cicero, and almost all the Roman elite would have thought the idea of redistributing wealth from rich to poor was preposterous, and rousing the lower orders unthinkable. The idea of Roman politics was to become rich, powerful and part of the elite who kept the plebs in their place.

After working through all those letters to Atticus, one bit of Latin translation I did enjoy doing was the account of the death of Cicero. You may recall they cut his tongue out, and stuck it up on display with his head and the hand he'd used to write the Philippics against Antony. I doubt Ed Balls will suffer a similar fate - although I suspect that should his influence on the Labour party endure, it will end in a similarly brutal retribution at the polls.

In any case, if you want to use classical comparisons to discuss the politics of the day, you will struggle to top Georges Clemenceau's magnificent quip after President Faure died, so rumour had it, whilst receiving a blowjob from his mistress:

Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée.

[He wanted to be Caesar, he ended up being Pompey/pumped - oh you work it out]

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Trollied Tuesday: A Brief History of Handwringing

I am indebted to my friend Ross for drawing my attention to this article, which also features on the front cover of History Today, Drink: The British Disease?

The standfirst pretty much sums up the subject matter.

Britain has had a long and sometimes problematic relationship with alcohol. James Nicholls looks back over five centuries to examine the many, often unsuccessful, attempts to reform the nation's drinking habits.

Sure enough, the article gives a trawl through five centuries' worth of people complaining about the British love of boozing and how we are far worse than other countries. It should, perhaps, be little surprise that puritans and sundry other tiresome moralisers were especially prone to making these complaints. They are also, and again this should be little surprise, prone to talking utter tosh.

Consider the following:

In 1635 the playwright Thomas Heywood blamed the Danes for first bringing their ‘elbow-deep healths into this land’, but ruefully observed that while north Europeans all seemed ‘addicted to strong and toxing drinks’, it was the English who were ‘most forward to commit this grievous and abominable sin of drunkenness’.

The idea that the Brits (or the English, people elide these two still, which is foolish given that the Scots are also involved) are the worst drunkards of the lot has a long tradition; but Heywood's comments about the Danes almost give the game away. Have none of the people spouting off in this fashion ever met a Norwegian or a Russian? Have they even been to Ireland?

If I have one criticism of Nicholls's articles it is that it only stretches back five centuries. As early as Anglo-Saxon times the authorities were taking measures (literally) to control people's drinking by putting pegs in shared drinking vessels with the hope that people would only drink down to the next one. (I've mentioned this before, but it's worth reminding ourselves that it was completely counterproductive.) Although the evidence is scant, it's probably a reasonable assumption that the ancient Britons were also hopeless dipsomaniacs (certainly their Gaullish cousins were – at least if you believe the Romans).

Doubtless as long as there is drink there will be tiresome prigs moralising about people who drink too much of it, and fantasising about ways they can ensure their fellow citizens behave in a manner of which they approve. I can not say for sure whether the British are particularly afflicted with such people, it strikes me as a valuable area of historical inquiry, however.

One can almost see the standfirst:

Britain has had a long and sometimes problematic relationship with puritanism. Some academic or other looks back over five centuries to examine the many, often unsuccessful, attempts to reform the nation's love of self-righteous meddling.

There is one other striking fact in the History Today article. Consumption of strong drink dropped dramatically in the wake of the First World War. The cause might have been the severe economic recession that followed the war, the heavy loss of life in the conflict or the government's measures to suppress heavy drinking.*

The message, however, should be clear: it's when people aren't drinking that you really want to start worrying.

* Lloyd George, the prime minister of the day, may have been a lecher and deeply corrupt, and he may have destroyed his own party and made things far worse than they had to be in Ireland; but let no one accuse him of underestimating the perils of alcohol. To quote History Today, again:

In March, after meeting a deputation of shipyard owners calling for national prohibition, he stated that not only was Britain fighting Germany, Austria and drink, but that ‘the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’ (after which a Times leader writer was moved to observe that things were ‘getting a little out of perspective’).

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