Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Drinking then writing, or writing and drinking? Just don't kid yourself. And then there's Wikileaks...

Just home from work after a drink with a friend who had persuaded me that as the weather was cold and miserable, we should treat ourselves to a whisky. I had a one to one whisky and Drambuie (officially a Rusty Nail, unofficially a Drambuies Shandy) and as that first went down well, I treated myself to two more. I don’t have far to walk home, and I had written at least three quite brilliant novels by the time I arrived there. Alan Bennett was once asked whether he ‘wrote when he drank’. No, he said, he didn’t, but he often ‘drank when he wrote’. This might sound as though the chap were being disingenuous, but there is a difference. In a way it’s related to ‘the urge to be creative’ and the ‘ability to be creative’. And the distinction between the latter two is probably a little clearer than that between ‘drinking and writing’ and ‘writing and drinking’. How often have you, dear reader (and forgive that rather arch address, but I am encouraged that bit by bit rather more people are reading this blog and I do prefer to address you directly) – how often have you walked home from the pub (the bar in Med countries), your belly full of booze and your heart full of optimism and faith in your talents and ability, and felt moved to create? You pick up your guitar and start strumming, you sit down at your desk and take out a pen and paper or you switch on your PC or laptop (as I have just done) and start writing, you find a pencil and start doodling or perhaps you even haul out your oils and start painting. And all because the booze has rather raddled your judgment and led you to believe that what you are now appreciating – the stars, the city lights, a woman’s beauty, the sounds, whatever it is must be immortalised, or at the very least, recorded. And how often have you read what you wrote, listen to what you recorded (something I have done far too often since computers and software made it all so easy) or look at what you drew and though: Lord what crap. Incidentally, as a former fan and long-term user of cannabis I should add that what I write here applies just as much to smoking, sniffing or, I suppose, though I have never tried it, injecting as boozing. The result is the same: if you are only in the slightest bit honest, you are obliged to admit that what you produced was unadulterated crap. But that is ‘writing while drinking’. ‘Drinking while writing’ might not necessarily be so unproductive, although there always comes a point where you are obliged to call it a day – or, more probably, a night – because the quality of what is being produced is becoming pretty dire.
I should imagine everyone reading this has, as I described above, had a skinful or two and persuaded him or herself that as far as artists go, they have the right stuff. But appreciation does not amount to a creatively ability and nor does a desire to be creative mean that you have what it takes. Any teen who has attempted verse and poetry will be all too familiar with the illusion that intense feeling equals high art. But no, it doesn’t. Intense feeling can lead to the creation of high art, but is by no means the same thing. As for booze, or cannabis or, I should imagine cocaine or heroin, the one thing they most definitely do is to cloud your judgment. That is why one of the best pieces of advice given to a writer is to write, then put aside what he or she has written for a day or two, and then to read it with a dispassionate and critical eye. You'll soon edit it down and might throw it out entirely. One of the best pieces of advice that one can take to heart is that it doesn’t necessarily matter who you bullshit as long as you never, ever bullshit yourself. Unfortunately, that is something all of us do all too often. I know I do, even though I know full well I shouldn’t. It’s at its worst when I think, as I tell myself, as I sometimes do, ‘you’re a pretty down-to-earth sort of chap, Patrick.’ It’s at the moment if thinking as much that I realise that I’m not and have quite a long way to go before I am. And even writing that last bit doesn’t change a thing. Or even that last bit. Or even that bit. Or even that. If you’ve been there, which I suspect you have, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. If not, this blog isn’t for you. Oh, Lord.
. . .
By way of drawing breath, I should tell those who might not know who Alan Bennett is who he is. He is a playwright and writer who first came to prominence as one of the four Cambridge graduates who wrote and performed a revue called Beyond The Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival. All four – the other three are Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – all went on to have successful careers of one kind or another. Cook and Moore are now dead, Cook ending his life as an alcoholic, and Moore having made several bad marriages. Miller went on to direct theatre and opera and has become a darling of the cultural London establishment (and, as far as I’m concerned, seems to take himself just a little too seriously). I have just looked up the history of Beyond The Fringe and learny a little more. The show was, in fact, put together by an impresario specifically to perform at the Festival. It didn’t actually do too well, but found success when it transferred to London. Bennett has become something of a grande dame in Britain about whom no one has a bad word to say. And he is remarkably unpretentious, with a very dry wit which is usually a delight. I have not seen any of his plays, but I have seen one or two of the films for which he wrote the screenplay, most notably The History Boys, which was based on his play of the same name. It was OK, and I suspect the – longer – play upon which is based was rather better. The film almost seems to proselytise for homosexuality, and I found that theme rather odd and a tad hamfisted at that. Bennett has in recent years come out as gay, although it is not quite as clear-cut in that as he was also linked to a woman for many years although quite what the nature of their relationship was I don’t know. Anyway, that is Alan Bennett. But back to ‘creating’ and the fact that boozing can make us think we are far better at doing what we want to do than we really are.

. . .

I hadn’t actually been drinking last night when I decided to write about the Wikileaks revelations, but on reflection I thought my views were rather crap and didn’t add my two ha’porth to this blog after all. But the whole affair still does make me wonder. First of all, how on earth can the Americans be so stupid as to have a system which reportedly allows something like two and a half million of their employees around the world – from enlisted men to I don’t know who else – access to the database of emails from diplomatic staff? It is breathtaking in its naivety. They have made themselves look remarkably silly, although I can’t really see that a great deal of damage has been done. What I find far more interesting is Julian Assange, his merry gang of leakers at Wikileaks and his motives. Why is he doing it? The obvious answer that it is all in the interests of ‘openness’ doesn’t convince me for one second. Just how ‘empowered’ are we for knowing what we know? Rather less than we might think. Of course, for the media this is a great story, but in all honesty there is not a great deal to it. I’m sure the Saudis are rather peeved that their private thoughts about the Iranians have been aired, but I would be very surprised if the Iranians were fully aware of those thoughts and have been for some time. Likening Russia’s president Medvedev as Robin to prime minister Putin’s Batman won’t exactly massage his ego but I can’t see anyone in the Kremlin losing any sleep over the matter. As far as Russia is concerned no one in the West has the faintest clue as to what is going on. In these past few days I have heard both that there is a growing ‘rift’ between Medvedev and Putin and that they are still the same double act that they always were. Both claims can’t be true, and I am more inclined to go with the Mutt and Jeff routine. But whatever the ture explanation is, Wikileaks revelations will do very little to alter the course of the river. As for the claim that U.S. diplomats were allegedly urged ‘to spy’ on Ban Ki Moon and other UN officials, the former British ambassador to the UN rather devalued it this morning on the radio. He pointed out that the diplimats were urged to do whatever ‘was possible’ and that they all knew full well that any outright spying and similar skulduggery was pretty much ‘impossible’ if they wanted to remain effective as diplomats. These revelations have most certainly caused the U.S. a certain amount of embarrassment, but they can live with that, and know they can live with that. What could be going on? Will we ever find out? You know, I don’t think we ever will.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Brits are in a class of their own (though no compliment is intended). Where does this obsession come from?

Courtesy of Google Blogger’s stats facility, I know that although the number of those who read this blog can be counted in the tens rather than the thousands, they come from countries around the world. Each of those countries will have its own preoccupations and hang-ups, but the British obsession with ‘class’ must be unique.
It is a multi-lateral obesession: self-styled (I almost wrote ‘self-appointed’) ‘working class’ folk claim to loathe the ‘middle-class’ and ‘upper class’, ‘middle-class’ folk really do look down on those they regard as being ‘working class’, and some snobbish ‘middle-class’ folk who, for various reasons, do not like to be lumped in with other ‘middle-class’, will often describe themselves as ‘upper-middle’ class. That, of course, tells you nothing except that those who describe themselves thus are simply crass snobs. Finally, we come to the ‘upper class’, which, as far as I am concerned, is even more amorphous than any of the other ‘class’ groupings. Who are they?
Just how bizarre this British obsession is occurred to me again today when I was doing my daily morning online trawl through the newspaper (or at least the Mail, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Sun). For today’s Telegraph carries a piece by Labour leader Ed Miliband on how ‘Labour failed the middle classes’. The piece is notable for several reasons: until the rise of that out-and-out charlatan Tony Blair, who might in many ways been a sandwich short of a picnic but did have a canny streak (he was canny enough to get out while the going was good and is now a multi-millionaire), Labour, on a good day, despised the ‘middle classes’, or rather purported to do so. That all changed when Blair realised that the traditional constituency of ‘old Labour’ — solid, honest, unpretentious working folk engaged in heavy industry boilermaking and living a grimy, but cheerful existence in row upon row of terrace houses — had long disappeared into the realm of myth. In their place, and, ironically, courtesy of the reviled Margaret Thatcher, was a wealthier, ‘more aspirational’ noveau middle class whose support Labour would need if it wanted to regain power. This Blair did successfully by dropping Clause IV of the Labour Party constituency (which stipulated that ‘All enemies of the solid, honest, unpretentious working man and woman must, under standing order One, be lined up against any nearby wall when apprehended and shot without mercy’) and admitting to driving a Ford Mondeo, on the understanding that the Ford Mondeo is the middle-class car of choice. But Blair could not afford to alienate Labour’s core supporters in the process and had somehow to keep them sweet, too, and so to woo those, he sporadically dropped his aitches (‘Hs’) to demonstrate that although he was the barrister son of a barrister who had attended the ‘leading Scottish public school’ Fettes, he could still mix it with the plebs when political expediency demanded it.
Since Blair’s ‘landmark speech’ in 1993 to drop Clause IV, wooing ‘the middle ground’ is now an accepted and quite vital political principle, which both the Left and the Right in Britain ignore at their peril. And this is exactly what young Miliband is doing in his Telegraph piece.
(Note to non-British readers: Ed is the younger brother of David, a former foreign secretary, who also wanted to be Labour’s leader, but who was pipped at the post by young Ed. David was very pissed off, believing the leadership was his by right. He is currently rumoured to be agitating against younger brother Ed in the hope that when and if young Ed fucks up, he might graciously take over the reins).
That 'wooing the middle class should be so important merely underlines how obsessed Britain is with ‘class’. The Daily Mail (who are, to a man and woman, marvellous, marvellous people producing a marvellous, marvellous paper — I know which side my bread is buttered on) has made Britain’s ‘middle classes’ is own and delights in it. Earlier this year it almost parodied itself when it declared there was now definite proof that Jesus Christ was middle class.
The story (if you can't be arsed to follow the link and find out for yourself, is based on a claim that what had previously been translated from the Greek as 'carpenter' should actually be translated as 'architect'. It seems Joseph, Christ's father was, in fact, an architect and, as every Daily Mail reader knows, architect are by definition 'middle class'. Thus, runs the subtext of the Mail story, Christ was 'one of us'. To put the Mail's pretensions into perspective, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister three times at the end of the 19th century, once noted that the Mail 'was written by office boys for office boys'. No great fan of the Mail, then.
Then, last week, a day after Prince William announced his engagement to Kate Middleton, the Mail's op-ed page rejoyced that finally — finally — a member of the middle class would be Queen and ‘save the monarchy’ (not that I knew it was in any imminent danger — no one tells me anything). In publishing these stories, the Mail is most definitely parodying itself, but, to be fair (as I say, I know which side my bread is buttered on) it is only providing its readers with what it feels its readers want. And if one thing is certain, Mail readers are desperate to be middle class and desperate to be reassured that the middle class are the salt of the earth. Desperate. It is one reason why they read the Mail.
All the other papers, of course, play exactly the same game: the Sun plays up its rough and ready credentials, because is calculates that is what will go down well with its readers; the Mirror still — still after all these years — bangs the working-class man drum; the Telegraph does the same as the Mail, with the added precaution that it pretends all its readers wear uniform (Telegraphy readers like to be seen as 'military men' or the wives of 'military men' or if not that, they like it to be acknowledged that, by Jove, they know one end of a rifle from the other). The Guardian portrays itself as being on the side of the angels because it knows its readers like to see themselves as intelligent, discerning people with a conscience who care ('Well, someone's got to'); the Independent attempts the same kind of thing but also plays, subtly, the middle class card, and The Times — well, as far I am concerned The Times gives the term ‘middle-brow’ and even worse name than it already has.
But I have gone off track: I was talking (ranting? rambling?) about the British obsession with class. I have a theory, admittedly not based on any research at all, that it all started with the Norman Conquest in 1006 when the indigenous Anglo-Saxons were treated as sub-human by the Norman invaders and a real hatred grew. And make not mistake, there is still something akin to that real hatred of ‘the other side’ abroad in this country today. There is, and always, will be a lot of loose talk about Britain these days being ‘classless’ Oh really?
There are in Britain something like five different middle classes, and none particularly likes the others. They will all get on famously in public, but in private when no one can hear them, all the old ‘class hatreds’ are resurrected. Some middle classes will not thank you for being identified with some of the other middle class. That is how the concept of ‘upper middle class evolved’: it is a haven for those who, in all honesty, could not describe themselves as ‘upper class’, but who still feel a tad superior and are damned if they are going to be lumped together with those they regard as in many ways below the salt.
So, for example, William Windsor’s bride-to-be Kate Middleton, the ‘middle class girl’ whose future as William’s queen so excites the Daily Mail, is the daughter of millionaire parents, who was educated Marlborough College in Wiltshire. She then went on to study history of art and speaking nicely at St Andrews University. In the jargon associated with Britain's obsession with class, she might well be entitled to describe herself as ‘upper middle-class’. Contrast her with other ‘middle class’ folk, who describe themselves thus because they earn comparatively well (in the lower bracket) and, crucially, want to describe themselves thus.
What is so odd about all of this is that it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with wealth and prosperity. It is almost like a caste system: it is how you behave and, in many ways, how you speak (although what with the spread of estuary English and the spread and adoption of many urban whites of immigrant speech patterns, that distinction is becoming increasingly blurred). Then there is the political dimension to ‘class’: some left-wingers — for example the comedian Mark Steele — insist on calling themselves ‘working class’ although they are now anything but. What to them is important is that they are making a political point (and bugger whether or not they are talking complete bollocks).
But the fact is that with the transformation of Britain’s economy in these past 40/50 years from a broadly productive industry into a broadly service industry, and the concomitant disappearance of almost all the country’s heavy industry, there is no longer a clear-cut ‘working class’ as there once was. But that has not spelled an end to this damn stupid obsession with class. And as it seems to have been going on since the Norman Conquest, I don’t think it will ever end.

. . .

Speaking of supermarkets, there is most certainly a class distinction apparent in who shops where. Furthermore, each of those chains (or rather the ad agencies they employ to attract the shopper) is well aware of those distinctions. So Asda staff all wear a rather garish green apron and adopt a very matey attitude to customers as well as play on their store being ‘cheaper’ and providing ‘value’. Nothing will frighten off a class-conscious would-be middle-class shopper than being thought interested in value, the clear implication being they haven’t got quite as much money as they like you to think. Kate Middleton wouldn't shop at Asda and probably not at Sainsbury's. She would most certainly consider Morrisons and Tesco, mainly because they are pretty neutral. Sainsbury, latterly, tries to push itself a little upmarket but tends to shoot itself in the foot. When a branch opened in Bodmin, I went along as was delighted to discover it was stocking quite a range of different pates. Several weeks later that range had been reduced to two. Why, I asked. Because there's not call for a wider range, I was told. Bodmin, is not 'middle class'.
Then there’s Waitrose: unashamedly middle-class to their cotton socks. If you are looking for bread flavoured with olives grown in a certain valley in Tuscany, Waitrose is your heaven. There’s a rather funny joke about the mission statement of Sainsbury’s: to keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose. Says it all, really.

. . .

Finally, there is surely some smartarse out there asking him or herself: exactly why is this chap pfpgowell so himself so preoccupied with 'Britain's obsession with class'? Could it be that he is, ironically, equally obsessed, which might explain this post?
Well, all I'll say to that is any more in that vein and I'll come around and break your windows, whether you live in the Ukraine, the U.S., Canada, Russia, South Korea or St Mabyn (which is just down the road. That's, possibly, an impeccable working class response, though the chances of a working class blogger using the word 'impeccable' are virtually nil.
Bring on the revolution, I might finally make a little money wheeler-dealing on the black market.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The magic of the market, or how you can pay whatever you like for the same radio (usually way over the odds). Oh, and bad losers, I loathe them

Now here’s a thing. If you have the good fortune to fly BA, you will, at some point, be informed that you can benefit from many inflight bargains, items which, according to the airline, are substantially cheaper if bought in the air than down below. One such item featured in the airline’s inflight magazine and also on its ‘BA Shop’ website is a rather neat and very useful portable wifi internet radio which also doubles as an FM receiver. It is small – only around 10cm by 7cm by 3cm – but the sound is exceptional for a radio that size. I know, because I own one. If you buy one onboard your BA flight, you are promised a bargain: the radio (BA’s is pictured left) is being sold for just £85, which, BA assures us, is £44 off the ‘recommended retail price’ of £129. I seem to remember spotting one in the inflight magazine when I shot off to Freiburg for Paul Meyer’s birthday bash. Or perhaps I am just imagining it. But at some point in the past few weeks I came across the radio again and decided I wanted one (at which point I must be honest and admit to being something of a gadget queen, which is why my previous criticism of other gadget queens was a little disingenuous). I don’t actually need one, but that – as I’m sure you’ll all agree – is decidedly beside the point. So I googled it, and came across quite a few sites selling that same radio. I stress that in all instances the radios offered for sale were identical, and my pictures will show that what is offered for sale is always the same model. Nothing much in that, you’ll be saying, so what is the chap burbling on about now? Well, it’s this. On the ebuyer.com website, these radios are being sold as ‘Foehn & Hirsch’ wifi radios by – well, not Foehn & Hirsch because that seemingly solidly German firm doesn’t actually exist: Foehn & Hirsch is a tradename of ebuyer.com. Their reasoning in choosing the name was, no doubt, that the German’s produce quality goods (which, by and large, they do), so the punter is more likely to buy their gear if they believe it to have been put together by efficient German hands. Dixons did a similar thing when all things Japanese were in and began marketing its own-brand gear under the ‘Matsui’ name. On the ebuyer website, you’ll get quite a bargain compared to BA’s bargain. It is selling its radio (left) at £30 off the rrp of £79.99 for just £44.99, which price is all the more remarkable because it has gone to the added expense of having its logo marked on the back of each radio. Quality or what? The identical model is also sold by a firm called Viewquest. and here it will set you back £79. Viewquest, which calls it’s model the WiFi 200 (why 200?) obviously does not feel obliged to pass on any saving to the punter. And on the Amazon site, you’ll find any number of people selling the very same model. Visit Amazon and you will see them for sale at £79, £89 and £99, prices all around BA’s bargain price of £85. That’s where I bought mine. If your are feeling very flush and think that ’bargain prices’ are just for the plebs — people like that do exist; they imagine that paying way over the odds for something marks them out as being rather superior — you could always visit the Langton Info Services, England website and pick up a 'View Quest Portable Internet Radio’ for a very reasonable £109.57, which really does make BA’s offer look like a bargain. If you have decided that you, as one of life’s more superior types, most certainly do want to pay over the odds, but not that much over the odds, buy your 'ViewQuest Pocket Wifi Radio (pictured) for just £89.99 at Firebox.com website. You might on the other hand think £89.99 is still just a tad expensive, but that £44 is far too cheap, and that £79.99 is about right. In that case chunter over to HMV.com and grab your radio there. Then there is a company called Sovos UK which informs the visitor that 'The Sovos UK Wi-Fi Internet radio receives a
prestigious iF Product Design Award!' You can marvel it this superb design on the right, although quite why its 'prestigious' radio is identical to that sold by ViewQuest, Foehn & Hirsch and many others and quite why it's version was singled out for a design award isn't made clear on the website. And anyway, if you want to buy one of these 'prestigious' radios, SOVOS UK redirects you to BA's online shop (see above) although I first came across the company I was browsing eBay where you are able to byt the radio for £80, a little cheaper than the BA Shop version. You can rest assured that it will be the identical to all the others, whatever they are called.
When I first decided my life would be incomplete without one, I did a little hunting and came across the radio on the Amazon site for £58. Ah, I thought, my kind of price, and I bought it. I now wish I had done even more hunting. Then, having used it for several days, it occurred to me that my aunt Ann, who lives in France and listens to Radio 4 a lot, might also want one. She already has two Logik wifi radios (one of which doesn’t work) but the great thing about these is that they are truly portable. So I had a look on eBay and discovered that they are for sale there from various people at a Buy It Now price of around £69. But some people were selling them at auction, and I bought another – boxed and brand new (BNIB in eBay jargon) for £42. Admittedly, had there been more competition, the price might have crept higher, but there wasn’t and it didn’t.
The point is that all of the radios, whether from ebuyer.com, Viewquest, BA or the dodgy chap down the pub are identical. All are made in China and none has any distinguishing feature, which allows them to be sold by anyone who wants to do so, under any name they choose to sell them. And they are also free to charge whatever they want, whether at BA ‘£44-saving’ bargain price of £85 or the £58.98 I picked my first one up at. Isn’t the market marvellous? It might explain the agony the eurozone is now going through. It seems you can now buy Irish, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish and, most recently, Belgian govenment debts ('bonds') at rock bottom prices.

. . .

Heard in the news this morning that Belgian bonds are already being eyed up as a bit dodgy. The 'euro contagion' is spreading. Also on the news was an appalling report that the cholera epidemic in Haiti is also spreading. I wonder if they are somehow related?

. . .

One of the reasons why I bought a Samsung laptop running Windows (to but it into context, in addition to the two iBooks, one Powerbook and on works IBM Lenovo I had at the time. I have since sold one of the iBooks) was because since XP (I think, it might have been earlier) Microsoft has run an online gaming facility, including playing backgammon online around the world. And I do enjoy playing backgammon. The graphics in XP were pretty Mickey Mouse, but the Samsung came with Windows 7 is something else entirely, lovely graphics. But to get to the point: I loathe bad losers. All to often if, in a match of the best five games, an opponent knows he or she (but I’m guessing mainly he) is going to lose, he simply quits. I don’t do that. If I am going to lose, I lose. I’ll repeat: I loathe bad losers.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North Korean bombing spree, Ireland in the shit, 'pre-season' sales, al Qaeda suspiciously quiet - do have a splendid Christmas

Well, the Christmas season is almost upon us with all that entails: horribly saccharine TV adverts urging us to go bust to buy gadgets we don’t need and will never use. (Actually, there is something of the pot calling the kettle black in my criticism of gadget queens, so I shall move on swiftly). I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t always been a commercial dimension to Christmas and everything about it, but I was brought up a Catholic by a German mother, and it was first and foremost a religious festival, however much we youngsters looked forward to presents. We even had an Adventskranz with its four candles, one more lit each Sunday in the run-up to Christmas. My brother and I were sent off to confession on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, probably to get us out of the house while my mother made last-minute preparations. We celebrated Christmas in the German way, which was on Christmas Eve. First we would have supper, then gather round the Christmas tree, which, in those days, were lit with real candles. My mother was rather sniffy of people who used electric candles, but I have to admit they are safer. Now, my wife being Cornish (to call her English just sounds plain wrong), we celebrate in the English way, which is ‘opening presents on Christmas morning’. I prefer the German way. Maybe only because that was what I knew as a child.
This Christmas might well be different occasion, of course. Earlier today North Korea bombed a South Korean island; the Irish have finally been forced to accept a bailout they didn’t want and will probably be forced by the Germans, who are stumping up much of the cash, to raise their rate of corporation tax (which, being lower than elsewhere, made Ireland such an attractive
country to invest in and which did, indeed, attract many foreign companies); al Qaeda have been too quite for too long (‘I don’t’ like it, Carruthers, it’s too damned quiet. I smell trouble.’ Carruthers is pictured on his day off on a shoot.) As al Qaeda are Muslims, they don’t share our sentimental attachment to Christmas and will not be at all bothered if they somehow spoil the jollies.
Then, when I arrived at work this morning, I passed a long queue outside the High St. Kensington H&M branch, which is holding a ‘pre-season sale’. That can be translated as ‘we know you haven’t got much money anymore, but we also know you’ll have a damn sight less after Christmas when the budget cuts really bit, so we’d like to take this opportunity to relieve you of as much of it as possible before the shit hits the fan’. Ironically, because of the extra money I have been earning putting together the Mail’s puzzle pages, we shall have a bit more money this year than in previous year’s, which is rather useful, especially as some bugger reversed into my car last week while I was away and stoved in the passenger door, which will cost me around £400 to have repaired. Wesley has set his heart on an Xbox which was at first going to be a joint present with Elsie, but to be honest, Elsie doesn’t have the slightest interest in computer games, so that would have been a little unfair, so the idea now is to make a contribution to him buying himself one. They are not cheap, despite the extra moolah I now have at my disposal. And there is always the chance the Mail might decide it can do without my contribution. Never, ever, say never. No one is ‘indispensable’. I’ve seen too many people handed their P45 the last thing on a Friday night to feel at all comfortable. And it doesn’t mean you are useless, it just means their plans no longer include you. The Mirror has virtually no subs left. The subbing of all its feature pages has been contracted out to the Press Association in some base in Yorkshire, and there are around nine news subs left in London. Newspapers always do that to cut costs: get rid of staff then hand the executive a bonus payment for thinking up the wheeze. Fuckwits, all of them. It’s enough – or almost enough – to turn you into a commie. You were warned.
Which is all a long way from Christmas, except to say mid-December is the time when the Guardian traditionally has a round of redundo. Yes, the saintly Guardian, which has most of its ‘staff’ on short-term contracts, long enough to ensure they don’t go elsewhere, but short enough to ensure they don’t qualify for a range of employment rights. As a general rule the more sanctimonious the newspaper, the more ruthless its employment policy.
I’ll get in first before all other bloggers: Happy Christmas and let’s hope the New Year will not be as bad for you as it promises to be.

. . .

Speaking of the puzzles pages, there have been larks aplenty here at the Mail with the 'imminent' redesign of the puzzle pages. For 'imminent', read 'imminent for the past two and a half months'. As usual with newspapers, everyone and their dog must have their say, and the editor, who will give the final go-ahead, is bound to hate everything about the news pages, in which case they will be redesigned yet again. The latest launch date, the 43rd I think, was to be next week, the week beginning November 29, but it looks as though it has already yet again been put back, I think because someone's is on a day off, or the Devil hasn't seen it, or they've lost a phone number or something. You'll all know about it once it appears: a general red look will be replaced by a general blue look (although I can assure you that has absolutley nothing to do with the Tories replacting Labour in government a few months ago), the type face is a more modern DM Truth bold and there are a few new puzzles with equally facetious names ('Gogen' and 'Ekwee') with others being dropped. My job will be not change, however (for what it's worth, as I knew you were wondering). God bless Caxton (or was it Gutenberg?) - answers, please, on the usual postcard which you can then rip up and throw away.

. . .

There is a growing suspicion that the euro is ‘no use’, a ‘busted flush’, about as useful a currency as chocolate coins. This is a bit harsh. The euro is, undoubtedly, going though a sticky patch, and, it has to be said, the chances of it surviving in its present form are very slim indeed. But it does have its uses. Here are several:

1 If you have a wobbly table or chair, a euro might well be just the right size to ensure greater stability. Just pop it under whichever table or chair leg is shorter and the job is done. For greater permanence, you could superglue the euro in place.

2 If you are a fisherman and habitually use lead weights to hold down your flies, use euros instead. They are far cheaper than lead, and several glued together will prove just as useful.

3 You might well have occasion to draw a number of circles which are more or less the size of a euro. What could be simpler than using a euro piece as your guide? Just hold it in place with a finger, run a sharpened pencil around its edge and there you have it – perfect circles!

Further suggestions are most welcome.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Death, where is thy sting? Well, if you're under 60, this old fart will probably find out rather sooner than you

Sixty-one tomorrow, and I don’t feel a trace of the angst which afflicted me at this time last year. Last year it went on for almost a week, a feeling that now, finally, the end was nigh, that now I was an ‘old man’ and all that entailed – weeing several times a night, getting cranky, admitting that technology was baffling, that kind of thing. Well, the worrying was pointless. Sixty came and went, the world didn’t end, and I still felt the same as I had always done, utterly baffled by how I had arrived at the age I was in what seemed like very few years. My mother died of a massive heart attack at 60 and my father developed prostate cancer and died of a variety of cancers at 68. His parents also died at what would these days be thought ‘an early age’, but what then, the early 1970s, seemed about the right age. My grandmother, Elsie, died when she was in her early 70s and my grandfather, Walter, followed her not many months later. He had some kind of lung disease, which is not surprising as he smoked heavily all his life. I don’t know what Elsie died of. My German grandfather, Heinrich Hinrichs, died very early indeed, at 55 of liver cancer. But my German grandmother, Maria, live to a ripe old age. She didn’t pop her clogs until she was, I think, 96. It might have been 95, but she was most definitely in her 90s. Furthermore, she, too, smoked, but only the occasional fag. For some reason, I always assumed that I had her genes and would live to a ripe old age, but my heart attack four years ago rather changed my mind on that score, and my stepmother’s stroke three years ago reinforced the suspicion that death can come right out of the blue. But what’s all this bollocks about death? I started this entry by saying that this year seems to be the complete opposite of last year and I don’t seem to give a fuck that tomorrow I am 61 whereas turning 60 last year seemed like the end of the world. (Incidentally, I had a little chat with my son Wesley (who is only 11) and told him some of the best advice I could give him was not to worry too much. We do tend to worry a lot when we are younger, and it is all rather pointless and stupid. I remember being very concerned, before I eventually lost my cherry (to Wendy Romanes in Edinburgh) that it would never happen and that I would die a virgin. Well, it did. Mind, the young are apt to discount any advice which comes their way, which is a pity. And as young Wes takes after me in many ways, it will go in one ear and out the other. Usual routine tomorrow, driving off for my four days of fighting the good fight as part of Her Majesty’s Press, but I have bought a couple of cakes to share with the people I work with and then I shall have a meal with Wei Hsiu after work. But despite what I have written, I must admit that I do wish I were younger, that I could carry on screwing (it’s rather died a death since I got married, although for several reasons, my heart attack and the medication I was strongarmed into taking being two of them) and that I wasn’t invisible to women. That, unfortunately, I am. I am on the brink of joining the league of ‘nice old men’ or, depending who is asked (Jenny Coad perhaps being one) ‘nasty old men’. Oh well, it happens to us all.

. . .

Unusually, I shall write an entry not on the day but two days earlier, or at least that is what it will seem like. I wrote the above on the night before my birthday, and this is being written in the early hours of the day after my birthday, November 22. Incidentally, it’s the years John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The usual question is: where were you when you were told of the assassination? Well, I was in the Junior House changing room at the Oratory as we were all getting our coats and stuff to walk the mile or so to Junior House. A prefect of other came in - I seem to remember it was Juckes, but I wouldn’t swear to that - and told us. In this day of universal terrorism every other weekend, such an event would not cause so much of a flutter, but then it was different. The West and especially the U.S., had persuaded itself it was invulnerable - despite the A bomb paranoia - because we were ‘the good guys’. That smug confidence was shattered by the assassination. I won’t say it was shattered forever, because several tens of years from now, our children and their children won’t give a rat’s arse to what we feel, but will be far more concerned with what they feel.
Anyway, had a great Chinese meal with Wei Hsiu at some place called the Phoenixe Palace just around the corner from Baker Street, and I’m pleased to say it was lightyears away from the standard sweet and sour pork with rice and a side order of spring rolls and fried seaweed. Wei Hsui had been there before with a Chinese friend and knew it was good. Plus, as it was my birthday, she treated me. But 61 is odd.
My stepmother gave me three very nice tartan flannel shirts, but they remind me of the kind of shirt which is de rigueur for the local bowls’ club treasurer to wear. You, dear reader, won’t understand this until (and if) you reach 61, but it wasn’t a joke when I wrote above that I ask myself how the bloody hell I got here so quickly, as you will find out. And like me, you will feel as though you are still in your early 20s and wonder, whenever you catch sight of yourself unexpectedly in a shop window or mirror, who the bloody hell is that old git staring at me. I wish he wouldn’t. What you don’t see is that as you look away, so does he, having thought exactly the same thing. In honour of my birthday and all those who have their birthday on November 21, I include a photo of a generic old fart. Rest assured that I look even older and more decrepit.

. . .

Heard a joke today which is now rather old hat, but which was going the rounds when Iceland went bankrupt:
Q What's the difference between Iceland and Ireland?
A One letter and six months.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The European 'dream' gets sillier and sillier, why the 'big picture' hides inconvenient truths and three cheers for pessimists and Mad Men

I should say at the outset that I belong firmly in the so-called eurosceptic camp on the EU. Quite simply, what looks good on paper must prove itself in the real world before it gets my vote. The evolution of the European Union makes perfect sense if you follow it from its birth as a ‘coal and steel community’ and the Benelux countries through to the establishment of the European Economic Community and then the present European Union. Each new form was a logically evolution from its predecessor. But if you look at those modest and pragmatic beginnings - based on the idea that if, so far mutually antagonistic, countries have common interests, there is a sporting chance of the could cut down on the killing and warring - to what we now have - a pseudo state with two parliaments, a president, a council of ministers, many of the trappings of a state, a huge budget and a huge and costly bureaucracy and, of course, a stirring anthem, but no territory as such, and all that in just 56 years - it is sure to take your breath away. But not, unfortunately, in admiration. When we eurosceptics mention that corruption is rife and that the EU’s own auditors habitually refuse to sign off annual accounts because so much money cannot, at best, be accounted for and, at worst, simply disappears, we are decried. Look at the bigger picture, we are told, look at the ‘good’ the EU has done. And most certainly many of the poorer countries have benefited from an improved national infrastructure courtesy of EU funds. But much of that EU money which was intended to improve infrastructure is part of what goes missing. (I understand that as a matter of course any group budgeting for some building project or other in Italy will factor in a sum for backhanders and Mafia payoffs. After making all kinds of promises to crack down on organised crime when it applied for EU membership, Bulgaria simply dropped all action once it had become a member and all the crime lords who ran the country beforehand still do so, but can add the stream of EU funding to their income.) It also takes our breath away that so many supporters of ‘the European project’ applaud when Brussels hands out cash in ‘aid’ to ‘developing nations’, but at the same time blithely accept without question the pernicious Common Agricultural Policy which does nothing but keep inefficient, mainly French, farmers in business and thereby puts a full stop to any developing those nations would dearly like to do by selling us their agricultural produce. Then there is the mess which is the euro. A sign that many very influential people have simply lost the plot would be the call by Dominque Strauss-Kahn, who heads the International Monetary Fund, that member states should hand over even more of their sovereignty to Brussels to avoid a repeat of the current crisis. You can read more about it here. His call makes perfect sense in its own context - just as the euthanasia of all over 75 would make perfect sense in the context of relieving pressure on our hospitals by freeing up beds and funds - but it is plain cuckoo in the real world of national sentiment and rivalry. Then there is the point, of which much as made at the outset, that the EU would be a community of equals: there you be no 'big countries' and 'small countries'. Well, that's another principle which has been sacrificed at the altar of pragmatism. When it is footing the bill, 'big' Germany doesn't see why it shouldn't call the shots as far as 'small' Greece and Ireland are concerned. Yes, I know the EU is intended to put a stop to all that national nonsense, but so far it hasn’t and won’t. If it had, the German taxpayers would gladly hand over even their last cent to bail out the Greeks, their brothers in the great European project. If it had, the Irish would not be as sensitive as they, in fact, are to being told what to do by the Germans (such as raising the rate of the corporation tax they charge) and would gladly take guidance in the common good). Of course, they would tell Berlin, because we understand it is all in the greater good. Back in the real world, each nation is out for what it can get, despite the idealistic rhetoric.
So far, you’ll agree, I haven’t made one eurosceptic point which hasn’t often been made before. And if you are a ‘project’ supporter, I’m sure there are many points you are just dying to make to turn this unbeliever onto the true path. But there is which occurred to me which I don’t feel has been made too often. It is this: the theory of the EU is that all members are equals. The reality is that the big boys, are pushing the small boys around, as now Ireland is being bullied by France and Germany. I suppose what finally cooks the EU goose for me is the sheer hypocrisy of so many supporters of ‘the project’.
. . .

I made the point that the EU, on the one hand, likes to present itself as concerned about the plight of developing nations (the term Third World is now rather old hat, especially has quite a few of the former ‘Third World’ nations are doing rather better the we here in the First World) and on the other takes absolutely no practical steps which would be of more assistance than ‘aid’. I heard on the radio this morning that a couple of optimists are hoping to revive the Doha round of talks on world trade. One difficulty is that the ‘developing’ nations are reluctant to ‘open their markets’. Well, that’s no surprise as for too many Western nations world trade means them ‘opening their markets’ to our goods but does not include the concept of ‘us opening our markets to their goods’. And where we do accept goods from ‘developing’ nations, they are invariably produced by Western companies operating in those countries. The other advantage of handing out aid, is that it keeps those who accept our aid highly dependent on us. And that is exactly where we want them.
. . .

I used the word ‘optimist’ earlier on. I should like to share with you the best definition I have yet come across of a ‘pessimist’: ‘A pessimist is a well-informed optimist’. Rather true, really, isn’t it.
. . .

Admitting to liking a TV series which has been praised to high heaven is not easy. Or at least I don’t find it easy. That probably sounds daft, but it’s true. The reason is that I feel as though I’m jumping on a bandwagon. But I’ve just seen this week’s episode of Mad Men and it has to be said that it is streets ahead of most other drama on TV. And I like it a lot. But to ensure - or to try to ensure - that I am not regarded as a fair weather friend,here is a list of very popular, much praised TV programmes which I think are absolute cack: Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity . . ., Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, Britain’s Go Wannabes and Spooks. Actually, I’m not too sure Spooks has been praised, but it is most certainly popular. And complete bollocks, too. I’ve only seen two episodes but that was enough for me. In fact, it was one and a half episodes. And as you can’t really criticise something you haven’t seen, I did once watch about 15 minutes of Big Brother (several series ago). It was as dire as I expected it to be. It is beyond me what interest people found in watching star-struck idiots talking shite about nothing. Britain’s got talent is especially unpleasant in that in the initial rounds acts perform which are plainly awful, but who were chosen to perform because they were awful and the enjoyment the viewer gets - quite honestly it would be truer to call them voyeurs - is seeing them humiliated. It’s the modern equivalent of going to Bedlam and laughing at the loonies. That was a very popular pastime in the 19th century.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ireland on the brink, but would the Germans be welcome? The euro: with your eyes shut, it's still attractive. And two cheers for the cynics

Usual routine tonight for when I am in London: bugger of from work at 10pm, radio on and listen to The World Tonight as I walk the short distance from High Street Kensington to Earl’s Court. Headlining tonight’s edition was the news that Ireland is, perhaps, on the brink of going cap in hand to the EU for a ‘sovereign bailout’. That probably isn’t the phrase, although I’m sure the words ‘sovereign’ and ‘bailout’ are in there somewhere. Not so, says the Irish government (as you would expect them to, a tactic known by me and, possibly one or two older – British – readers as the Mandy Rice-Davies response. But don’t worry, I shan’t toddle off on a tangent explaining who she was. If you are interested and want to know how her response originated, you can find out here and here. And I have included a picture of the good lady herself to show why she turned a few heads. I'm sure she
would have turned mine, although at the time of the Profumo affair, I was just 14.) To demonstrate how bad this latest euro crisis is, even if the Irish government isn’t forced to resort to this sovereignity thingummy, bravely whistling in the dark, it is claiming that what it might do is approach the European Central Bank with a view to borrowing a bob or two, you know, to tide them over. The trouble is that the government pledged just, over two years ago, to underwrite Ireland’s banks, which are up to their necks in debt, if they showed any sign of going belly up. The theory was that that kind of resounding support would reassure those with the money (ironically, largely the West’s former colonies) from whom the banks might borrow that the Irish weren't yet a basketcase (it’s a strange world is banking) and that they would not yet be inclined to turn off the taps. Ireland also instituted a series of swingeing cuts to make sure it had enough money to lend to its banks to keep them solvent. But that, it seems, is not enough. One point made on the programme is that government’s pledge to the banks which was intended to head off the danger of the banks becoming insolvent and the danger that the government itself would run out of money is seen by the ‘money markets’ as one and the same danger. That means that as far as the ‘money markets’ are concerned it doesn’t matter a one way or the other whether the ECB stomps up that cash or whether the EU is forced to bail out Ireland: both are just the two sides of the same coin.
At the time of writing, I have no idea what will happen. I think it is likely that Ireland will, like Greece, have to be bailed out by the EU. And ominously Portugal is also hinting that it, too, will soon have to follow suit.
This might seem rather arcane stuff to the casual reader, but its ramifications are enormous. Several of Britain's banks have lent the Irish counterparts an awful lot of money so they would be deep in the shit if their debtors went to the wall. And David Cameron was claiming today that Britain’s exports to Ireland are greater than all its exports to China, Brazil and somewhere else put together. But if Ireland hasn’t got the money to buy Britain’s exports, things will begin to look rather bad for Britain. Then there is the – ahem – touchy prospect (for some) of having the Germans, who are have coughed up most of the dosh which went to Greece and who will probably cough up most of the dosh which will go to Ireland and Portugal (and, if things go really badly, to Spain) going through the books and laying down how, when and where Ireland can spend its - Germany’s – money. The Irish didn’t take kindly to their country being run by the English for several centuries (although part of the problem was that the English treated the Irish like cattle for most of that time), so they might not relish the outside interference of the Germans. Naturally, you can’t blame the Germans from wanting a say in how their money is spent, although everyone knows that it is in everyone’s interests that Greece, Ireland and Portugal don’t go to the wall, so Germany knows full well that in many ways it doesn’t have any choice. Britain is also in the game to the tune of £6 billion for the same reason. But handing over the money will not go down to well when the full effects of the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition’s spending cuts are felt. It all reminds me of that Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

. . .

For me the whole business is something of a vindication. I don’t want to see the Irish, the Greeks or the Portuguese suffer – especially as it is always those towards the bottom of the pile who suffer most – but I can’t help but conclude that all those tawdry cynics – yes, my hand is up, too, admitting to the tawdry cynicism – who wondered just how long the party would last when the euro was launched as the currency to end all currencies (or something like that) were right on the nail. As a rule of thumb, the more rousing the speeches and the grander the claims, the more likely an project floated on a cloud of utopian idealism will crash to
the ground. It was all so dishonest: the public was won over by trivial claims that ‘you won’t have to fumble in your pocket looking for the right money when you are buying your capuccino on holiday – it’ll all be euros! Just think of the convenience!’ The serious economists on both sides, those who supported the euro and those who were sceptical, were both well aware of the dangers. The only difference was that the supporters decided their best strategy was to keep their fingers crossed and hope for the best. The sceptics stayed well clear, although knowing as they did that they would not remain unaffected when the inevitable crash happened was not at all reassuring. Of course, the crash hasn’t yet happened and might, perhaps, not happen. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

. . .

I mentioned cynics. Well, I’m sure there are all kinds of cynics and that men and women become cynical for all kinds of different reasons. But I can’t help but feel that many cynics began life as idealists and just couldn’t handle the inevitable disillusion. Some can, some can’t. Those who can trim their sails a little, make slightly less grand plans and carry on regardless, quite often more likely to taste success in what they essay because of their more realistic frame of mind. Those who can’t handle the inevitable disillusion react with less maturity and retreat into cynicism. There is a rather tired old saw that ‘if you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.’ (It’s been repeated so often that it veers on being insufferably trite, but I’ll risk it just this last time.) Well, instead of ‘liberal’ read ‘idealist’ and it still holds true. There is, however, no reason to retreat quite as far as cynicism. I am generally regarded as a cynic, and, looking into my heart and knowing what I know about myself, I must admit that my cynicism is more or less a lack of bravery. Or to put it another way, a cowardice. But having said that, I would add that idealism must have both its feet on the ground to be worthwhile. And the idealism which underpinned the launch of the euro – and which still underpins the increasingly farcical European Union – lacked that essential realism. It’s all very well to trot out the hopes and dreams of the ‘founding fathers’, it is not at all impossible that if the shit really hit the fan, this brotherhood of Europe crap
would soon be out of the window. Our governments might behave honourably, but would our people? If you are unemployed and hungry and without hope, just how much will you feel in common with the Pole or Spaniard or Bulgarian or Brit or Greek sitting on your doorstep and apparently not doing half as badly as you? Look how far and fast ‘civilisation’ degenerated in the Balkans when Yugoslavia collapsed. So perhaps it is worth being a little cynical sometimes, however that cynicism came about. (NB I spent a good minute and a half hunting the web looking for a picture of a cynic, but this is all I could find.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The mystery that is Sarah Palin, Obama looks for new pals in India, the end of the U.S., and never say never. (Oh, and national illusions)

I am, admittedly, just another web scribbler with no particular knowledge, let alone insight, into U.S. political affairs. But the rise of Sarah Palin and her conviction that she might well end up President of the United States in 2012 baffles me a great deal. To be blunt, she doesn’t strike me as being the sharpest blade in the box. I heard a report about her on a Radio 4 programme called Americana – a very good and very balance programme, by the way – in which a clip was played from her latest – well, what was it: an election video? – which was posted on You Tube. It was remarkable for it’s sentimental woolliness and its appeal to unspecified ‘American values’. (However, Palin is not alone in choosing to try to boost her support by stubbornly remaining exceptionally vague: how about Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’? Now what the bloody hell does that mean at the end of the day? Bugger all, as far as I am concerned, but it sounds good, which was all it was intended to do.)
My problem writing about Palin is that all I know of the woman is what I have read in the Economist and in other newspapers, and have seen and heard in one or two TV and radio reports broadcast during the Republican primaries two years ago. Having made it to be governor of Alaska, she can’t be totally dumb, but she didn’t strike me as being exceptionally bright, either. Her knowledge of foreign affairs seems to be almost non-existent, and in none of the TV or radio reports did I see or hear her do anything but utter vague national sentiments. There was not a word on economics or domestic policies. Though as someone remarked recently, presidential candidates tend to campaign in poetry but govern in prose, and the man who eventually won last time wasn’t above gushing many woolly nothings to drum up the votes.
But as far as I know, America’s President doesn’t necessarily have to be overly bright. Bush Jnr was no dumbo, but he was no Einstein, either, and in the past there have been several Presidents who seem to have been nothing more than makeweights, with the real power lying in the hands of their promoters. (I remember years ago hearing, before I even really understand these things, the gibe that Eisenhower’s presidency showed the U.S. that it didn’t necessarily need a President.)
Of course, Palin might strike some of the right-of-centre powerbrokers who, it seems put up that money and make a candidate electable as just the ticket they need, and it is quite feasible that she will get a fair degree of support come the next round of Repulican primaries. But there will also, of course, be other Republican politicians who fancy a shot at the top job.
. . .

I mention all this because last night I heard another report on the radio which was rather interesting in its implications. It was The World Tonight’s account of Obama’s trip to India and what various people, Indian and American academics, politicians and analysts, thought might be going on. Quite apart from the obvious commercial imperative of drumming up more custom for Yankee business, one suggestion made was that the U.S. is despairing of Pakistan its ally in the region as a basketcase, and would like to switch to championing India. Furthermore, India and China have long been regional rivals and with their burgeoning economic importance that rivalry will grow ever more intense. America, the assembly of wise men said, would like to side with India in that particular rivalry, which preference it would be well-advised to make clear sooner rather than later. But, intriguingly, there was also the suggestion that an era where once the then Soviet Union and the U.S. were the world’s superpowers, followed by a decade when the U.S. was the world’s only superpower might be drawing to a close and that the world’s future superpowers could well be China and India. The U.S. is, of course, immensely rich and not on the point of going bust. But what both China and India have which, arguably the U.S. no longer has is a hunger. We here in the West already have. They, over there in India and China, still want. It might be summed up, crudely, in that for us obesity is more of a threat to our lives than hunger. And it was far more recently that people were dying of hunger in India and China than in the Western world.
Recently, I read the observation that once in a system, it is very difficult, in fact, almost impossible, to imagine life outside that system. The observation was made in a review of a book about the Soviet Union, but it would seem to hold true in other scenarios. For us who have grown up under the shadow of Uncle Sam – remember the cliché ‘When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold? – it is almost impossible to imagine a weakened, not-so-relevant U.S. Of course, if things do take a downward turn for the U.S., I shall long be pushing up the daisies before it becomes apparent, but it would be stupid to assume the States will go from strength to strength until the end of time, which seems to be the assumption of many. (And, of course, ‘the end of time’ might well come a lot sooner than we expect if the world’s assorted apocalypsarians are to believed – once it was going to be overpopulation which would do for us, now it is global warming which will see us off. Apparently. If you believe to doom merchants. I’m afraid I take all prophesies of imminent doom with more than a pinch of salt.) But given that the U.S. has only been leading economic power for around 130 years, and given that the whole shooting match seemed in danger of coming close to meltdown recently, any suggestion that the world might well witness a U.S. which doesn’t lead the world might not be as fanciful as it might at first seem.
Just look at other ‘empires’ which were all once seemingly all-powerful, but which all eventually hit the buffers: the Roman empire, the Persian empire, the Moghul empire, Genghis Khan’s empire, the empire of Timur the Lame aka Tamburlaine, the Byzantine empire (arguably the second half of the Roman empire, but also arguably not), the various Chinese empires, and, closer to home, the British empire (RIP). When each of these was at its height, anyone suggesting it would not last forever would have been ridiculed.
Could it ever be possible that the U.S. might break up? Well, it would be a fool who would claim that it couldn’t, but it would be in several hundred years from now, and it would be hard to imagine quite how. But never say never.
. . .

Speaking of ‘sentimental American values’, it would be wholly unfair to single out that nation. We Brits have our own share of nonsensical national beliefs, as do the French, and, undoubtedly, every other nation in the world. You will often hear the completely spurious claim, often in the Letters pages of the Daily Mail, that the British ‘are a seafaring nation’. The implication is that all of us (and as we are by and large quite welcoming of ‘foreigners’, despite what the liberal-left likes to claim, that would include assorted East Asians, assorted Eastern Europeans, assorted West Indians and a huge number of Irish) have salt water running through our veins and like nothing better than putting to sea every weekend. The French, I gather, likes to see themselves as a nation of intellectuals who will initiate arcane debate on some obscure subject or other at the drop of a hat, and then, of course, break off to eat well and drink a fine wine. I’m not too sure how the Germans see themselves, but the Italians like to consider themselves the world’s lovers, even though, by most modern estimations, over half of them are homosexual and the half that isn’t is far too tied to their mothers’ apron strings to be of much use in the sack.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Near death in Moscow, how we take our freedoms for granted. And another gratuitous dig at Andrew Marr

In Moscow, at some point in the past few days, a journalist called Oleg Kashin was attacked in an underpass near his home (or on his doorstep – accounts vary) by two men. They ‘smashed both his hand’ (and use inverted commas because the report I am doesn’t give details) or just the one (again, accounts vary and perhaps they were Lib Dems supporters and believed in moderation), ‘and cut off a finger’. He is now in hospital where doctors are also treating his two broken legs, two fractures to his jaw and a fractured skull (or one broken leg, depending upon which report you read, though under the circumstances I don’t think it really matters). Kashin, who works as a reporter for a newspaper called Kommersant, was said to have been investigating banned opposition groups and has reported on ‘extremist youth groups’, including one which calls itself the National Bolshevik Party. All this in democratic Russia. There were also details of an ‘armed raid by 50 masked police’ on a bank owned by Alexander Lebedev, one of Vladimir Putin’s sternest critics who, wisely, is now based in London where he owns the Evening Standard and The Independent.
. . .

Meanwhile, here in Britain, the big story for the tabloids is that ‘Cheryl Cole ducked the X Factor vote’. To be fair they also carry far heavier stories – ‘Thousands of foreign convicts will be sent home’ (Mail), ‘No 10 asks business chiefs to help cut jobs (Independent), ‘Forty-six “dangerous” terrorists go free from jail’ (Telegraph) and ‘Benefit cuts will force poor out of South’ (Guardian) – but to my knowledge no reporter, whether from the broadsheets or the tabloids has been beaten to within an inch of his life for daring to report one of those stories. Four years ago, the journalist Anna Politkiovskaya was murdered in her Moscow flat. Admittedly, her death and the attack on Kashin are not everyday occurrences in Russia and I’m also sure that the Russian newspaper and magazine press carry just as much candyfloss as our noble British fourth estate (‘Teasy Tanya makes go-go eyes at Boris’). But it has long struck me as ironic that a ‘free Press’ is always less effective than the Press in a country where, de facto, it is less free. Burmese journalists do lay their liberty on the line when they do their job, as do hacks in Saudi Arabia, Iran and, still, several South American countries. Here in the Western world we hacks are more or less free to do our job and the greatest danger to our livelihoods is not from thugs who operate in the dark but extremely clever and ruthless lawyers who work the law and do the bidding of anyone willing to pay their very high fees. For example, current at the moment is the issue of ‘superinjunctions’. A ‘superinjunction’ is imposed by a court to ban the media from even reporting that an injunction has been taken out. So if a ‘personality’ has been caught with his trousers down, not only has he been able, under human rights legislation, been able to stop the media reporting as much – in that doing so would go counter to his ‘human right to privacy’ – but he can now also stop the media from reporting that he has done so by taking out a superinjunction. I am bound to add that many in the law and many judges are extremely unhappy with that development and I’m sure that at some point the Government will put the kybers on it, but at the moment it is the case. Naturally, different countries interpret the ‘freedom of the Press’ differently. In France, the media lay off the private lives of politicians, which allowed Francois Mitterand to have two families and many affairs without any of his arrangements becoming public. The U.S. takes a different attitude in that its libel laws are more relaxed than those here in Britain, and I can say anything I like about anyone, however outrageous, on the understanding that if it is untrue, the ‘victim’ can sue the pants off me and will. But my broad point is the irony that hacks – and I use the term to honour journalists, not to slag them off – operating in countries which has a ‘free Press’ are apt to take that freedom for granted and do rather less digging, whereas hacks working in countries where the Press has far fewer – de facto – freedoms might literally be risking their lives to do their job.

. . .

Not all of the hacks that beaver away here in Northcliffe Towers are chained to their desks thinking up puns for headlines. And of those who do get out to sniff the outside world, not all are reporters or writers. It was one such hack, neither a sub nor a writer but who plays an important part on daily getting the Mail to its eager public and who I see daily, who I encountered in the gents this morning.
‘-,’ I asked, have you ever come across Andrew Marr?’
As he previously worked for the Times and as the pool of national newspaper executives living in London (‘executive’ being rather less grand than you might imagine) is comparatively small, it was quite likely that he had. Marr has also been around, having worked – and later edited – The Independent and writing the Economist’s Bagehot column before launching his broadcasting career. The Mail executive told me had.
What did he make of Marr? I asked him.
‘Rather pleased with himself,’ he replied.
That sums up my impression of Marr, although I can’t really even claim to have met him, despite my brief encounter in the Blackpool with the drunken Tory from Solihull in tow. But I regularly tune in to Radio 4’s Start The Week, which he chairs. Marr strikes me as the kind of man who thinks, almost daily, ‘intelligent people like us’, although I’m sure he is far too astute actually to use the phrase.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Art for art's sake? Why it should never pay to kid ourselves in the interests of The Truth

I’ve just heard something on radio which got me thinking (yet again) about the kind of ‘double think’ we are apt to engage in. I think I might have touched upon it before when I mentioned that all too often some people will deny the existence of ‘an absolute’ (whether or not they mean by that a ‘God’) and insist that everything is ‘relative’, and yet also insist that there are – for example – ‘human rights’ which, by their nature, are unassailable and immutable. They might also state – all the while insisting that everything is relative – that certain kinds of human behaviour, for example racism, are intrinsically evil. The notion of ‘relativity’ – and I am not here talking of nuclear physics or anything like that, although it is surely pertinent that its development in the sciences was concomitant with its development in what might conveniently be called ‘modern thought’ (i.e. the ideas which have bubbled up in what is thought of as the ‘20th century’) – is actually rather a useful one, although in the sense that is useful that a blind man cannot see as it makes picking his pockets far easier. For example, this ‘modern’ notion of relativity allows us to embrace other notions such as ‘subjective truth’ (which Kierkegaard was so fond of) and also, for example, make legitimate any claims that something ‘is art’ because it is art ‘to me’. As far as I can see (and a French cousin who must remain nameless in this blog or else I am in big trouble, but who would most certainly disagree with me were he here), that extremely ‘subjective’ notion of art is the central plank supporting the recent spate of ‘conceptual art’. It really does seem to be a case of wanting it both ways. Would it not make more sense to state that something is or is not art, rather than sometimes something is art and at other times it isn't? Well, I would have thought it would. Except that if we are to bow down to those who insist on priority of relative truth and that, therefore, if something is 'art to me' it is therefore 'art', in theory everything could be art, which is another way of saying nothing is art. But such fourth-form philosophy is purely for those who write blogs. Meanwhile back in the real world what is or is not art is rather important. For art is big business involving big, big bucks, and where big bucks are to be made, there can be little room for doubt. If I am selling you a Picasso for $10 million, you want to be pretty certain that it is worth $10 million, so it helps to have a league of experts to hand who will certify that the Picasso painting I am selling you is ‘great art’, that Picasso was
a ‘great artist’ and that it is worth every last cent of the $10 million you are handing over. On the other hand (they will say), this pitiful painting I completed last week, which was an attempt to copy Picasso’s style, is not art at all, even though for me it is art. That’s the trouble with subjective truths: unless they are accepted as truths by others, the majority, perhaps, they have little value as truths. So, for example, the only reason that the market in Picassos holds up is because everyone plays the game and signs up to the ‘truth’ that Picasso created ‘great art’. Ironically, as far as Damien Hirst is concerned, the game seems to be coming to a rather premature end in that the fabulous prices that were paid for his work barely five years ago are collapsing like a house of cards. Yet this has nothing to do with the works themselves: they are surely as ‘good’ or as ‘bad’ as they always were. What has changed is nothing more fanciful than that blowing through the Western world is the chill wind of economic hardship.
But what has this to do with what I heard on the radio? Well, it was this: the British pop artist Peter Blake was featured on a BBC Radio 4 programme, of which I caught the tail end. And I heard him describe his ‘anger’ with the venality of the art world which he first encountered as a young artist. It seems he was holding one of his first exhibitions, and several of his works were proving to be very popular. So he was taken aside by the gallery owner who inquired whether he was prepared to paint ‘another 12 of these’. Blake (there's an example of his work below) was outraged. He didn’t actually go on to say so in the snippet of
the programme I heard, but the subtext was that art, and a work of art, is a sacred, a one-off, and the very idea of mass-producing several of a kind was utterly sacrilegious. (So what does Mr Blake make of Damien Hurst production line?) But what occurred to me when I heard Blake speaking was: why on earth not? You were a young artist who had decided to earn his living by painting, and here was the chance to earn a little money to keep the wolf from the door and possibly to save a little money. What on earth is so wrong with that? And what if he had painted another 12 copies of more or less the same painting. Would only the first have been art but not the subsequent 12? Or would some, in some mystical way, be ‘art’ but not others. Could six of them be ‘art’, and six not be art? There could be no disputing that although each resembled the others, each is most certainly unique: there is simply no way one could, again in some mystical way, also be another. And what would Blake say, for example, to the many self-portraits Rembrandt painted? All are most certainly regarded as works of art, and anyone arguing that subsequent self-portraits, those painted after the first was painted, would do nothing more than make himself look ridiculous.
In fact, what I am doing here is not talking of ‘art’ at all: I am trying to expose the extremely woolly nature of all talk about ‘art’. All too often – and here I am speaking from experience, having done exactly what I am about to describe – when an ‘art expert’ is pushed to explain just why a particular work is ‘art’ and anther isn’t ‘art’, usually one ends up with the expert rather lamely claiming that he and other experts simply ‘know’, ‘can tell’ what is ‘art’, and that it has a lot to do with an acquaintance with other works of art, with a knowledge of the history of art and that kind of thing. It is a pretty useful argument, because there is no very effective counter argument (and I am again using useful in the sense that it is useful that blind people can’t see because it makes picking their pockets all the easier).
So what was so precious about that first painting by Blake which made the request that he should paint another 12 like it so crass? There will be those reading this who will agree with me and ask the same question. And there will be others who will throw up their hands in horror at such philistinism. Art, surely, is art. It is not, heavens, a mere commodity. It is art.
Oh, really?

For the record, I like what I have seen of Picasso's work very much. I am not at all bothered with Damien Hirst or Peter Blake. And, by way of contrast to these three stalwarts of the, more or less, modern art world, here is a painting by a chappie called Lawrence Alma Tadema. He was a very big noise in his time (the end of the 19th century), about as big as, if not bigger than, Hirst at the height of his 15 minutes. Today, I don't think anyone has ever heard of him. Here is one of his paintings. And below that, for good measure, Hirst's famous shark. I should think that today’s art world cognoscenti will throw up their arms at the sight of Alma Tadema’s work and shudder (just as they doubtlessly shudder when they come across a copy of Vladimir Tretchikoff's The Green Lady). Yet at one time Lawrence Alma Tadema was considered to be the bee's knees and his work was thought of as high art, and, furthermore, art at is best.
But rather than reflect on notions such as the mutability of art and some such, wouldn’t it just be far easier, not to say more truthful, to admit to ourselves:
1) Art is what we want it to be, and that there is no quintessence which distinguishes a work of art from a work of non-art?
2) The true value of a work of art in the commercial market is what you can get for it? No more, no less?