Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Trollied Tuesday: on not being a saloon bar bore

Here's some advice on that on avoiding that fate (or the worse one of people feeling sorry for you): don't make bluff jokes about rules for drinkings; and don't come up with a silly catchphrase when it comes to ordering a refill.

Once noon arrives, though, he brightens up, proposing the first scotch of the day with one of those bluff jokes about rules for drinking so dear to saloon bar bores the world over.

There's more of that in an (unintentionally) entertaining encounter between Decca Aitkenhead and Christopher Hitchens.

One school of thought has it that that "inside Hitchens the revolutionary, a home counties golf club bore is wildly signalling to be let out." Andrew M Brown goes on to argue that Hitchens's family background, naval, conservative and - damningly - minor public school is too heavily engrained on the character.

There's a danger of turning this into a nature vs nurture argument, isn't there? Still it is just as reasonable to argue that a full awareness of the horrors of a minor public school background would be enough to drive anyone into the arms of Bacchus.

Let's get back to that Guardian interview, shall we?, for there are a couple of other details worth noting. One the prissy, self righteous, perpetually disapproving tone adopted throughout by the interviewer that surely says as much about her as Hitchens's inner home counties bore says about him. (One notes also the tone is especially jarring from one who wrote a book about slumming it around the world while taking ecstasy).

One might argue that in the face of such purse-lipped prigishness one has a positive duty to make a drunken disgrace of oneself. In doing so, Hitchens manages a purely Gainsbourgian moment.

Poetry, he does volunteer, always played an important part in his impressive sexual success. "You're disarming yourself in an important struggle if you can't produce a fucking sonnet. What if I had to try on my own merits? You've got to have some sort of reserve arsenal." He looks incredulous when the photographer, a very beautiful young woman, expresses doubt about the efficacy of this seduction technique.

"Oh no, not if it's done right," he says knowingly. Go on then, I say. Give us a demonstration. "Maybe at lunch?" he suggests, cheering up immediately. "Let's have lunch, and make a day of it." And so, inevitably, we adjourn to the pub.


We pass a highly enjoyable few hours in a pub garden, during which he tries out successive renditions of a Shakespearean sonnet, Being Your Slave, What Should I Do But Tend, on the photographer.

"Well?", I ask her.

"Give her time to let it sink in!" he objects.

"Um," she ventures. "I'm feeling something like blind panic."

"Really? No!" And he's off again. "Being your slave what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire?"

"My feeling," she reports kindly after he finishes, "is that I would be more seduced by argument."

It's not easy combining tragedy and comedy: if it requires a lifetime's drinking to do that, then pour the man another one.

Oh and as for the jokey attitude towards rules for drinking being the hallmark of the saloon bar bore; it's simpler than that. It's the having the rules themselves that are the problem.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bullshit's coming home

Reasons to believe England will not win the World Cup (part 99). A bunch of geeks employed by a load of chancers predict they will.

Analysts Matthew Burgess and Marco Dion took data on Fifa rankings, previous football results and bookmakers' odds, then used them in a quantitative analysis model - or Quant Model - designed for assessing the value of stocks.

The JP Morgan pair freely admit that their predictions should be taken "with a pinch of salt", but viewed the World Cup as "an ideal opportunity to light-heartedly explain quantitative techniques and demystify the typical Quant framework".

Now I am not really qualified to discuss JP Morgan's quantative model in any great detail; it may well be an excellent predictive tool and not at all something that has filtered out the fact that England are a one-man team with no goalkeeper worth speaking of in order to pander to a the national propensity towards over-optimism for the sake of a bit of cheap publicity.

Then again, my instincts may well be justified.

A serious point lurks here, however: the belief that you can construct a mathematical model that can account for the vagaries and falibilities that govern human behaviour was one of the causes of the recent financial crisis. Whether some banks' quantitative models ignored, or chose to ignore, the fact that lending money to people who couldn't pay it back to buy overpriced houses was a bad idea doesn't matter in this context. It went wrong. So it will be with the football.

Besides, you just know the Germans are going to win.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Still no government then

This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last -
Oscar Wilde

And so it came to pass that all three parties managed to lose the election (some of the smaller parties too, if it comes to that). Good news for journalists, of course, no worse than anything else for the public. Frankly, who needs PR when you can get this sort of instability and uncertainty under good old first-past-the-post?

Anyone who thinks there is some automatic rule that we will go back to the days of big majorities after the next election (in less than 12 months, I suppose) is kidding themselves. When the country is divided, elections often reflect that. Between 1910 and 1950 single party majorities were very much the exception rather than the rule.

While we're waiting to see which party manages to play a weak hand the least badly, I would like to highlight one option no one is considering: a Labour-Conservative coalition. After all, the two parties have as much in common with each other as they do with the Lib Dems; they could unite against their common enemies, defend first past the post, continue to grease up to their super-rich friends and give full vent to their shared authoritarian streak.

Better still, given the widely held belief that the next government will be obliged to take deeply unpopular decisions, both parties have plenty of suitable personnel for a government of national disunity. Harriet Harman as PM, George Osborne as Chancellor, Ed Balls in a sort of Peter Mandelson role as all round lightening rod for public odium, and so forth. Given no one is going to be satisfied with what emerges, this could well prove satisfactory all round.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Here we go again

Election day. Just think, that in 24 hours' time Ed Balls could be prime minister and trying to think of a plausible way of explaining all the cuts he's only just realised he has to make to public services. Or the news channels may be replaying images of him standing blinking in front of a jeering mob as the obsequies for his political career are read out by the returning officer. I am not sure which would be better.


A chaotic, uncertain result, one that disappoints all the main parties, is to be preferred for all sorts of reasons. A painful and humiliating loss for Labour (including, of course, by the sacking of Mr Balls); coupled with no majority as punishment for the Tories' belief that they somehow are entitled to power this time round. As for the Lib Dems, it may be best for the voters not to take them too seriously this time. (Maybe then they will take the opportunity to come up with a credible programme for government).

That said, there is one advantage to the Lib Dems doing far better than expected (apart from the obvious chance of getting a better voting system). It would catapult a whole bunch of people who had no particular wish or expectation of becoming MPs into Westminster. Imagine for instance Anna Arrowsmith, porn director turned politician, becoming the MP for Gravesham; I cannot think of a better successor to Harriet Harman as minister for women and equality.