Wednesday, December 29, 2004

susan sontag (16th jan 1933 - 28th dec 2004)

a total inspiration. gone.

Friday, December 24, 2004

hearty greetings to each and every one of you

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!
Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!
Froehliche Weihnachten und ein glückliches Neues Jahr!
Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo!
I'D Miilad Said ous Sana Saida!
Shenoraavor Nor Dari yev Pari Gaghand!
Boas Festas e Feliz Ano Novo!
Prejeme Vam Vesele Vanoce a stastny Novy Rok!
Glædelig Jul og godt nytår!
Vrolijk Kerstfeest en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!
Jutdlime pivdluarit ukiortame pivdluaritlo!
Hyvää Joulua or Hauskaa Joulua!
Zalig Kerstfeest en Gelukkig nieuw jaar!
Kala Christougenna Kieftihismenos O Kenourios Chronos!
Juullimi Ukiortaassamilu Pilluarit!
Shub Naya Baras!
Gleðileg Jól og Farsaelt Komandi ár!
Rõõmsaid Jõulupühi Head uut aastat
Idah Saidan Wa Sanah Jadidah!
Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!
Shinnen omedeto. Kurisumasu Omedeto!
Wesolych Swiat i Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!
Nave sal di mubaraka!
Pozdrevlyayu s prazdnikom Rozhdestva i s Novim Godom!
Sretam Bozic. Vesela Nova Godina!
Vesele Vianoce a stastny novy rok!
Noeliniz Ve Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun!
Veseloho Vam Rizdva i Shchastlyvoho Novoho Roku!
Naya Saal Mubarak Ho!
Nadolig LLawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

more on travelling - less travelling

obviously, there are moments of pure sublimity associated with travelling: I have seen the three suns of Taiga Epsilon rise in sequence above the slow liquid methane cascades of Asgara, and watched from orbit as the great volcanoes of Meldran flung their flowering lava plumes fifteen kilometres into the air; I have swum with torcnymphs in the thick world-circling seas of Keet, and wandered alone among the twenty-thousand-year-old mander trees of Margate ... but mostly, my travelling has been the same as everyone else's - up before dawn to avoid the worst of the traffic and despite allowing four hours for a three hour journey still managing to be crawling at walking-pace through the Heathrow underpass tunnel ten minutes before the final call for check-in for a flight that then won't take off until it's been stationary at the end of Runway Two for forty minutes whilst they sort out a trade dispute at the air traffic control centre in West Maldon and change a set of tyres and a couple of crew members and finally arriving at wherever it was you wanted to go to with all-over cramps and possible food-poisoning still trying to remember what it is you have a nagging feeling you left behind in this morning's rush - and discovering, when you finally - at last! - arrive, that it was your self-possession, your dignity, your composure, your well-being, and everything else that used to make up your personality, which might or might not be slowly catching up.

so I shall be the first to sign up when someone finally comes round to offering the only sort of travel service that's utterly painless, and I see it like this:

having determined my itinerary, I go to the Fardream website and type in my destination and preferred times of departure or arrival both outward and inward, which, apart from confirming the booking and making the payment, is all that I have to do. at the appointed time, having packed my bags in the supplied case, I go to the Fardream terminal branch, of which there is at least one in each town, and make myself comfortable in one of the departure booths. I then take the blue pill ... and wake up in my bed at my destination.

the interim will have seen my comatose body transferred into a custom travelling pod and loaded, together with a full complement of similarly occupied pods, into, first, the local container truck, which will have transferred its cargo to a pod wagon at the nearest railway freight depot, and then into the vivarium cargo hold of a wide-bellied jet; this, carrying only a small minority of wakeful passengers, will have flown to my destination of choice, where, upon landing, my rack of pods will have been transferred to a local container truck, thence to a smaller delivery truck, which will have discharged its pods individually to the exact destination requested, where its collection will have been supervised by a Fardream rep, who will be present, wearing a reassuringly professional smile, as he or she revives me.

no aspect of this journey will have troubled me in the slightest: every detail of the journey will have been taken care of by Fardream. I will arrive with no sense of any more time having passed than after a good night's sleep. even if the journey time has been as long as it takes to fly halfway around the world, my nutritive and excretory needs will have been taken care of with maximum discretion, and I will arrive not only with no symptoms of either jet-lag or fatigue or cabin-pressure bloating, but having not had to experience any of the exhausting tortures that present-day conscious travelling inflicts - from traffic and airport delays to bad coffee to cramped seats to airline food to screaming babies to fascist immigration officers to chain-smoking mafia taxis - none of it.

clearly, not everyone is going to feel as easy as me about being loaded into a coffin and treated as an animate parcel: the Fardream PR will have to play that aspect down in favour of concentrating the client's attention on the obvious benefits. but I bet there's thousands - tens, hundreds of thousands - of people like me who'd be perfectly happy to travel in this way, and leave the so-called romance of travel to those young and foolhardy enough to be able to embrace its trials as a character-building exercise, or something. once you'd ironed out little details like health and safety stuff, and worked out ways of overcoming those obvious concerns about people submitting to being treated just as cargo, and drumming up sufficient investment to capitalise it, I reckon the subsequent savings on all the expensive paraphernalia of keeping people comfortable en route - from seating to feeding to entertaining - would probably begin to make such an enterprise viable within quite a short period of time.

I must admit I'll miss the sight of that triple sunrise over the Asgaran methane cascades - but hey, it's bound to have a Travelodge - I could always stop off there for a couple of nights.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

typical Iraqi Christmas wishlist

1. 20 liters of gasoline
2. A cylinder of gas for cooking
3. Kerosene for the heaters
4. Those expensive blast-proof windows
5. Landmine detectors
6. Running water
7. Thuraya satellite phones (the mobile phone services are really, really bad of late)
8. Portable diesel generators (for the whole family to enjoy!)
9. Coleman rechargeable flashlight with extra batteries (you can never go wrong with a fancy flashlight)
10. Scented candles (it shows you care- but you're also practical)

(posted at Baghdad Burning)

Friday, December 17, 2004

the rhino's top fifteen albums of 2004

(well, it's that time of year, isn't it?)

1. (joint) Gustav - Rettet Die Wale (Mosz)
Lost In Translation (OST) (Rykodisc)
(really can't choose between these two - the Lost In Translation OST has been the soundtrack to my year since its release in January - and Gustav has proved the single most effective antidote to 11/2, for which I shall be forever in her debt)
2. The Album Leaf - In A Safe Place (Labels UK)
3. Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks (Fat Cat -130701)
4. Lali Puna - Faking The Books (Morr)
5. Le Fly Pan Am - N'Écoutez Pas (Constellation)
6. Lullatone - Little Songs About Raindrops (Plop)
7. Fennesz - Venice (Touch)
8. Air - Talkie Walkie (Source)
9. Cyann and Ben - Happy Like An Autumn Tree (Gooom/Locust)
10. Gravenhurst - Flashlight Seasons (Warp)
11. Múm - Summer Make Good (Fat Cat)
12. Björk – Medúlla (One Little Indian)
13. Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)
14. The Caretaker - We'll All Go Riding On A Rainbow (V/Vm)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

blame it on the parents

Pinochet's son sentenced to prison

"The day his elderly father was indicted on human rights charges, the oldest son of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was sentenced to 541 days in prison for accepting a stolen vehicle.
A court in Curico also fined Augusto Pinochet Hiriart 500,000 pesos ($A1,253) for the additional charge of illegal possession of a pistol."

(it just gets better and better)

Monday, December 13, 2004

friends in deed

how did it all go so terribly terribly wrong right?

on discovering the meaning of life in Little Gidding

I stopped trying to broaden my mind a long time ago in favour of dedicating more time to trying to narrow the field a little. I think the turning point was when I realised that, however extensive my understanding of the world and its peeps 'n' places and my vanishingly insignificant place in it, it all (all that understanding) ended up residing in here (*points to own shiny pate*), where it was subject to such an overwhelmingly selective process of memory distortion that the only thing that distinguished my own recollections from those of others was that mine were less interesting (to me - obviously, to others, they represent the apogee of scintillating entertainment), since they held no surprises - and what's the point of living without surprises?

obviously, travel was out, since this is top of the list of the stuff that's supposed to broaden the mind, and I must say I have very few regrets about deciding never again, except in conditions of dire emergency and/or astonishingly lucrative job offers, to go out of my way to move further than the bottom of my garden. and yet it's still there, very much in one's face, the lure of the exotic to such innocents as once, I suppose, I used to be, who suppose, if only they could save up enough to purchase one of those round the world backpacker tickets and beg enough from their parents to subsidise it, that their experiences will open a secret gate of understanding into the nature of life the universe and everything, or at least provide a lengthy list of entertaining anecdotes with which to bore one's friends for the rest of their lives. in the more enterprising cases, of course, they'll scam the ticket from some reality TV show in return for allowing themselves to be arbitrarily tormented and humiliated en route in order to provide the material that the viewers supposedly demand.

just as sipping retsina on a grey day in December in South West England converts it, by some cultural alchemy, from the divine nectar you experienced when sitting at a harbour-side bar in Skiathos in May watching the sun set into a glassy wine-dark sea into something vaguely reminiscent of disinfectant mixed with cat's piss, so all foreign experience, uprooted from its time and place and context, serves little purpose other than to be able, later, to reflect 'that was different' - which is about as good as it gets, really. anyone who imagines that by witnessing a bunch of barefoot local ragamuffins kicking a tin can around in the dirt of a grassless field behind a gaudy tin can church in Trinidad they're learning anything about anything is deluding themselves: poverty means you improvise and happiness can sometimes be a tin can - there - was that useful?

by default, travel writers and photographers are the most culpable of the travel = mind-expansion pimps. their hugely enjoyable lies about the gawpsome exotica to be discovered at any randomly intersecting lines of latitude and longitude need to be understood in the context of the world post-Thomas-Cook, ie in the vastly profitable world of tourism. and, please, let's scotch, once and for all, that tired distinction between the tourist and the traveller. the traveller is a tourist who believes the junk the travel writers and photographers peddle. the tourist is a traveller who believes the junk the brochure writers and photographers peddle. the one inevitably despises the other. they're both equally gullible (well, the honest tourist marginally less so, cos all she wants is cheap sun and sangrilla and sex, which she's more likely to get than the other, who wants spiritual enlightenment and/or acquired depths of pan-cultural understanding formerly reserved for lamas and librarians as well), since the only relationship that matters between an impoverished country (of the kind that attracts the most visitors for its plucky charm and cheap accommodation) and the foreign visitor is the economic. inevitably so.

as usual, of course, I speak from the insufferably smug position of immense privilege - that of having had, and having exploited many opportunities to travel, more often than not in the context of work (in an earlier life in the theatre, touring in Europe mostly, with the occasional foray to extremely foreign parts like Wales), which is how I prefer it.

once, during a Spanish tour at the time of the Falklands War, we were unloading the van outside the gig in some tiny town way out in Extremadura and attracted the usual crowd of kids who all started chanting 'Malvinas! Malvinas!' (the Spanish name for the Falklands, to whose present claim by Argentina Spain was supporting, of course). for sure, the kids had no inkling about the issues, but knew we were Ingles, and that the Ingleses were in a funk about something that they said belonged to them, so it was like a football match, wasn't it? Malvinas! Malvinas! none of us in the company spoke more than a few words of Spanish at the time, but we got the gist of what was going on, so we all mimed surrender and scribbled 'Las Malvinas' on the backs of the company fliers and started handing them out saying "take them, they're yours, we never wanted them in the first place", and other stuff which the kids couldn't understand, of course, but found totally hilarious. nice gig. those stupid Ingleses. they just rolled over and died.

I love Spain. I also love Denmark. (Denmark is my very own personal secret country. I don't want anyone else to know about it. stay away.) both countries seem to awaken something in me that remains dormant between visits.

the staggeringly wise Noam Chomsky proposed, some time ago, that all children are born with a basic understanding of language and the mental capacity to learn it very quickly - far more quickly than ought to be possible, considering the complexity of the task. his thesis - known as the nativist perspective on language acquisition was developed from the astonishing observation that all babies begin by babbling the phonemes (basic sounds) of all languages to begin with, ie the infant's 'babble' contains, as well as all the familiar vowel sounds from the European languages, the unfamiliar ones from, say, the Asiatic languages, and the totally alien ones, such as the glottal clicks, from the older, rarer languages such as the African. his proposal was that, at birth, the brain is 'over-connected' in the sense that it comes ready-wired with this universal capacity for language, with an immensely complex network of connections, many of which, if not used (ie the infant only hears its parents using a limited combination of those sounds to construct meaning), simply die out or become dormant, whilst new connections based on experience start to build on the most-used ones.

given the even more recent work on the mapping of the human genome, and the discovery that the genetic difference between each and every one of us is only marginally more significant than between us as individuals and the common fruitfly, it strikes me as not being too far-fetched to extrapolate from these kind of findings the notion that cultural and linguistic divergence is just a kind of macrocosmic geophysical analogue of that chance-driven engine of genetic evolution. the reason for my sensing something in me coming online, as it were, only when I cross either the Spanish or the Danish borders could be, quite simply, that my particular programming - my own much-modified hard-wiring - happens to resonate, at those crossings, in the same frequency as has evolved and been adopted as the carrier-wave of the Spanish or Danish cultures. who knows why? Scandinavian gloom counterbalanced by Spanish passion? well, why not?

the Delphic oracle's cryptic maxim - 'Know Thyself - Nothing in Excess' - might or might not have just been one of the drunken babblings of an ancient glue-sniffer. whatever. the understanding that learning to know yourself, at least (the nothing in excess part seems generally to have fallen on deaf ears), constitutes the beginning and the end of wisdom has become one of the prima facie canons of Western philosophy. this being the case, inarguably the process requires that we venture beyond the borders of the known and the safe in order to pursue such self-knowledge. there's a time for doing this in the literal sense, but, equally, there's a case for recognising that there's something about the traveller/tourist mindset that contributes less about learning about yourself through learning about others (the travel-broadens-the-mind school) than about the opposite - and that such travelling, by distracting ourselves from our time-and-space-bound selves, could actually represent a kind of escape from our selves. certainly, I recognise in my own Wanderlust years (mine the equivalent of a week's sniffles compared with the full-blown life-fever of a few people I've known) a correlation with my love of flying and science fiction - the one an escape from gravity and level horizons, the other an escape from reality. if the agoraphobic has to confront his fear of exterior spaces, whatever I have become or am in process of becoming seems to be addressing some previously unacknowledged fear of inner spaces. fear of self-knowledge would have been an absurd idea to those Greek Apollonians, but I bet they'd have had a word for it. egophobia? this way to the Minotaur.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

(T.S.Eliot - Little Gidding from Four Quartets)

Saturday, December 11, 2004

the horror

"charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500"

(Captain Willard - Apocalypse Now)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Posh and Becks in wax nativity

Victoria and David Beckham's wax doubles have been given starring roles in a celebrity nativity scene at Madame Tussauds in London.
The pair play Mary and Joseph, while Tony Blair, George Bush and the Duke of Edinburgh make up the three wise men.

gets my vote for most fabulously tacky stroke of genius of the year.
jeff koons - damien hirst - (insert favourite tack-artist here) - look and weep.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


"what it don't get I can't use" (Radford/Cordy - 'Money' from 'With The Beatles' - 1963)

with two cards on the mantelpiece already - one from my sister-in-law's mother, the other from mel's dentist - it's time to upend the piggy-bank and make a budget.
having long ago forsworn the pursuit of wealth in favour of something else (don't rush me - I'll remember it in a minute) I do wonder, from time to time, whether or not I was wrong, and whether money can, in fact, buy happiness. certainly, a great deal of the unhappiness that goes with poverty can be mitigated with money. equally certainly, it's clear from the behaviour of those who appear in the public eye, and from my own limited experience of contact with the very rich, that unhappiness isn't the prerogative of the poor. but as always, it depends on how you define the two factors - happiness and wealth.
I can see an easily identifiable set of circumstances which would constitute happiness, for example, in 99% of the population - male and female - at or around the age of twenty - circumstances that revolve around recreational sex, drugs, rock n roll, the ready acquisition of cool stuff, and travelling in style, all of which could be, and indeed are readily available on the open market. I can see that there are circumstances in which the prolongation of this behaviour - and the happiness that it brings - into late middle-age could be maintained as long as the money held out, and that plundering the world for new experiences - if that was your bag - could be inexhaustible fun.
finding myself in a rare non-judgmental mood, I see no but's in this. (you were thinking he's about to point out the downside of being someone like Jack Osborne or Prince William or Paris Hilton, weren't you? sorry - no can do - they've got it made and they're making the most of it - good for them. the small but wicked compensation for the rest of us consists in the pathetic Schadenfreude of watching them make the inevitable total fuckup of the rest of their lives, but that's another story.) provided - ok here we go with the 'provided's' - you're ok with limiting your definition of happiness to nothing to do with, oh, I dunno, intelligence, let's say, or self-knowledge, or trust, or responsibility - you know, boring grownup virtues - I reckon it can be bought, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. that proviso, however (what a giveaway) might turn out to matter in the long run.
I think time has to be factored in somewhere, although I'm none too clear how you might go about that. I mean, is the stuff that will make a twenty-year-old happy the same stuff that will make, say, a fifty-year-old happy? well, duh, yeah, actually. except that, in the majority of cases, the fifty-year-old's expectations will have a) been moderated by experience; b) been subjected to the physical limitations of ageing; and c) (probably the single most significant factor) been subject to the unpredictable alchemy of parenthood.
having kids changes everything. there's no single aspect of behaviour that's not fundamentally altered by that experience. you have to be a totally self-dedicated selfish egotistic bastard of a fuckup and a total failure as a human being not to consider your kids' happiness above your own. this kind of comes with the territory. it's something most parents discover within minutes of the birth of their firstborn. no secret. neither is it any particular hardship. it's just what happens. but
(ok there was always going to be a but I just held out as long as I could)
but what - apart from all the latest cool stuff and that new game that all their friends have got and instant gratification of every whim - do kids most want? (you see where this is going, I expect) and where can you buy it? and how much does it cost?
whenever I hear the merry ka-chinng of another mythical christmas till being prepped (don't you miss that merry ka-chinng?), I think of those sad car-stickers that the RSPCA dishes out every year - a dog is for life, not just for christmas - and think, yeah. woof.

Monday, December 06, 2004

the gates - central park new york - feb 12th - feb 28th 2005

after 24 years, Christo and Jeanne-Claude finally get permission to make a stroll in the park.


Friday, December 03, 2004

crime and punishment

I’m not proud of those summary judgements I’ve made in the course of my learning how to be a father. I reckon that in half the cases I pulled the twins apart and shouted at one of them for trying to bite the other’s ear off it was the other one’s fault.

there's no pragmatic test of whether or not a judicial system works. justice, like most social systems, is an idea: as much a matter of belief as analysis. under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, theft is said to have dropped dramatically compared with former years. whether or not this had anything to do with the fact that Taliban justice was peremptory and ruthless, in strict application of Shia law, so that thieves always had their hands chopped off within minutes of a judge's edict, is in fact a matter of belief as much as anything else, even though the connection would seem to be conclusive. a Taliban philosopher would argue that the strict application of the law and the punishment of transgressors was merely one factor in the improvement of the Afghan moral character, part of the reforming principle that applied throughout the country under the Taliban guidance at this time. he would maintain that the more rigorous resumption of a devotional study of the Qu’uran was the more significant contributory factor in the reformation of criminal characters, whose moral lapses such teachings would inevitably have pre-empted.

at risk of being considered a total social terrorist, I have to confess that I don't much believe in law and order. I’d better explain that. I think it matters that each of us should have some idea as to how we'd like to see things being run, rather than just grumbling about how badly it seems to be run, even though we know that such dreaming is utterly futile, and one of my little foibles is that I think people, left to their own devices, are perfectly capable of sorting things out for themselves without having to resort to the law, which, far too often, gets it terribly terribly wrong. the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s statistics show that since 1985 there have been over 85,000 miscarriages of justice, as evidenced by successful appeals against criminal conviction. now, I know that I'm supposed to think that there are bad men out there who want to take things from me and harm my family, and that's why we have the daily mail and the sun and itv news and crimewatch to keep us informed about them, and that's why we have a legal system to protect us from them and punish the wrongdoers. however, the longer and the harder you look around with eyes uncorrected by such lenses, the clearer it becomes that the amount of wrong being done on an annual basis by these people to people such as you and me is but a teeny-weeny gnat's turd compared to the sewage farm being dumped on us daily by the real villains.

imagine a world without police. what do you see? total collapse of civil society? looted shopping malls, cars burning in the streets, gang shootouts outside safeways, that sort of thing?

so imagine, instead, starting over, re-inventing this tinderbox society with one that wouldn't explode the moment you removed the safeties. you don't actually have to do very much. we're already - most of us - bringing our kids up to believe that it's wrong to take things from each other without asking permission, that it works better to cooperate with each other in order to achieve an objective than to fight over it, that some difficult things are worth working at rather than giving up on, that bullying is wrong, that it's important to recycle and look after the planet and give money to help starving kids in Africa. so where's the problem?

there are some - count me out - who believe in something called 'evil', which comes in various shades from grey to satanic black, and that some kids get infected by when they start growing breasts or beards (or, in a few unlucky cases, both), and that this accounts for how they get to be wayward and start doing wrong and needing to be brought back in line by being sent to prison or having their single-parent benefits cut or excluded from ever being allowed to appear on television, ever. so anyway, this evil thing, once it happens, means that we all need to be on our guard against it and take precautions, which are often quite expensive. living in a safe part of the city is expensive. sending our kids to the right kind of school is expensive. being comprehensively insured against all contingencies is expensive. so, the more money we have, the better we can insulate and defend ourselves and our families from it. so that's why it's good to be rich. and that's why we call the rich the winners and the poor the losers, because the poor have lost their way in this fight against evil, and they're to be both pitied and treated warily, because, at the slightest opportunity, they'll slit our throats and take away all our money and spend it on drink and drugs and gaudy entertainments.

them and us - the only historic divisions that matter.

but what if 'evil' doesn't exist? (it doesn't, by the way, just in case you were wondering about the rhino's position here) what if it was the inspired invention of - oh, some priest, let's say – conceived in order to help convince us that we should do what he advises or else.... and what if this idea were taken up by some other people - politicians, say - who, recognising a good scam when they saw one, thought hey, that's a really good way of keeping people on their toes, keeping them onside, keeping them quiet about all the little compromises they'll have to make in the course of keeping this evil stuff at bay.

there are some of us - go on, chortle, have your fun - who really thought we'd seen the back of all that 'evil' stuff some time ago. this was meant to be the dawning of the age of aquarius, for those of you who need reminding. but times change. boy, how they do change.

by and large, I still reckon people are essentially decent. scoff as much as you like. I've said it before, I'll say it again. the only difference between that palestinian kid and that israeli kid is an historic cultural difference - and if you're going to try and persuade me that arab genes are different from jewish genes, then you can fuck off right now. neither is born with an inherited tendency to tear the other’s throat out on sight. similarly, if you're going to argue that a kid born to a black single mother from the St Pauls side of Bristol is inherently more inclined to be a loser than the daughter of a BBC producer living in Clifton, you're going to have to say why, and you're going to have to do so without pussyfooting around either the race or the social deprivation thing. that both will more likely than not turn out to be decent citizens is a triumph of common sense over media distortion of the blindingly obvious demographic facts.

given a level playing field of education and social opportunity (indulge a dreamer), the average kid will turn into a decent person, provided you don't poison that well of education with religious and/or nationalistic dogma and/or throw in the bias of an excessively wide gap of social advantage. the majority - I say again - the vast majority of this gloriously diverse mix of sentient beings called humans consists of decent, sensible people who know what the difference between right and wrong is without having it rammed down their throats by either the priests or the mullahs or the rabbis or the politicians, and, given a free choice, will choose to behave well towards their family, their friends, their neighbours, and strangers, in that order, so long as that behaviour is reciprocated.

a system of justice that wrongly condemns over four thousand innocent people a year – and subsequently compounds that by presenting them with a bill for their board and lodging in prison – is nothing to be proud of, but it could be a whole lot worse.