Monday, July 25, 2005


it's an old potato, but one worth chewing, now that the d-word trumps all rationality: that democracy has nothing whatsoever to do with moral arbitration. 'democracy' is no more inherently synonymous with 'good' than 'might' is synonymous with 'right' . when the majority in a given constituency decides, by democratic means, that a course of action which is morally compromised is nevertheless necessary, then that course of action becomes, de facto, the right course of action - even if, by all independent criteria, that course of action is wrong - as long as the elected authority endorses that view.

in a sense, this is no more nor less than a reflection of a root behaviour whereby 'we' - that amorphous entity that comprises a large enough grouping to be called a society rather than a family or a tribe - arrive at a collective agreement that such-and-such an abstract concept is one thing rather than another: that this thing, for example, is 'art', whereas this other thing is not, that this thing is 'true', whereas this is not, that this thing is 'good', whereas this is not. there are innumerable forms of marginal behaviour that, depending on the constituency or grouping of the instruments of persuasion, be they religion-, law-, or media-based, will become perceived as either tolerable or intolerable unorthodoxies until or unless the tides of those constituencies change. conversely, there are as many examples of once-commonly enjoyed behaviours which, because of such a tidal shift in the zeitgeist, are now completely marginalised: from public smoking and racial stereotyping to public executions and trashing the environment.

it's all too easy to perpetuate the idea of 'democracy' as being the least bad of the processes by which a government governs - and what two people can agree on what 'democracy' means? - when the governed are being as continuously misled as to the processes by which they are governed as we, the people, the supposed demos whose government supposedly belongs to us, are. even though the failures have been exposed time and time again in all nations which call themselves democracies - from the voting irregularities that install a government to the quasi-legal manipulations and mendacities that sustain it - there continues a tenacious belief that this is, indeed, the least worst form of government, and that there's really no practical alternative if what we want is that most of the people be content with the way things are run most of the time.

a majority is just a majority, and there are many situations where accepting the majority position simply because it is a majority is fundamentally wrong - the so-called 'tyranny of the majority' in a conflict between two diametrically opposed positions, when the supporters of one position outnumber the supporters of the other, when a free vote will automatically favour the more numerically represented. at a national scale this can lead, and has led to criminally repressive, and indeed, genocidal measures being instituted against ethnic or religious minorities under the technically legal guise of democratic transparency (a classic example being the manipulation of the electoral boundaries in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland, to maintain Protestant control over a Catholic majority).

the likelihood of righting it now that it's so rooted in the global consciousness is zilch, but it's still beholden on those who care about such things to continue considering why democracy is wrong.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


whether it be for cutting the ribbon at a new motorway opening, breaking a bottle over the bows at a new submarine naming, or declaring open a new civic building, a royal is still the celeb of choice, and it's hard not to ask - in these enlightened times - why?

we have a new hospital on the edge of town - rather a nicely designed, airy, single-storey building, small (only 36 beds), with a physiotherapy gym, an x-ray department (proudly sporting four rhino pics in the waiting area, incidentally), and a minor injuries unit - whose official opening, last week, is the major item in all of this week's local papers, for no better reason than that it was opened by the Duchess of Gloucester.

who she?

well, she was born simply Birgitte van Deurs in Odense, Denmark, in June 1947, the daughter of a lawyer. after moving to Cambridge, and a period working in the Danish embassy in London, her life took a fairly dramatic turn when she met and subsequently married HRH Prince Richard of Gloucester, the second eldest son of HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, whose career as an architect had been curtailed by the death of his older brother, thus bringing him first in line to his father's dukedom, and necessitating his taking upon himself the usual royal burdens of representing his cousin, the Queen, at openings and banquets and such. as the grandson of King George V through his son, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, he became, upon the subsequent death of his father in June 1974, nineteenth in line to the succession (he is currently eighteenth).

'a keen motorist', as they say, Prince Richard is president of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. on December 23rd 2004, however, he kind of blew that by getting banned from driving for six months and fined for speeding, this being his fourth similar offence in three years.

for some reason, whenever there's a royal needed around here, we seem to get one of these two - sometimes both. it's not as if they lived nearby - their official residence is at Kensington Palace and their country seat, Barnwell Manor, is in Northamptonshire. maybe they just like it here. anyway, many of the organisations of which the Duchess is Patron have either medical, educational, or welfare connections, and the Duke is interested in things like architecture and conservation, so between them they seem to be able to cover the more pressing local eventualities. this time, though, she did it solo.

as usual, she arrived by helicopter, which provides, I think, a significant clue as to the royals' enduring popularity. whenever Louis XIV put in a personal appearance at one of the masques he staged at Versailles for which his reign was famous, he made sure the designers had constructed for him something spectacular, like a golden chariot surrounded by clouds, that could be made to descend from the flies in appropriate Sun King mode. this self-appropriation of the ancient Greek theatre device of the deus ex machina was certainly intended, at the time, as a deliberate emphasising of the monarch's divine right to rule. and whereas few, now, would go so far as to maintain that the anointment of a modern monarch at his or her coronation was anything other than a symbolic acknowledgement of the constitutional relationship between church and state, there's clearly a tenacious residue of atavistic association at work across a wide swathe of society that still believes, deep down, that these people - these royals - are gods.

they descend from the heavens, and even C-list examples like this one seem to trigger a kind of cowering reflex, their mere presence transforming otherwise intelligent, coherent professionals into tongue-tied morons who happily suffer the ritual self-abasements - the bows, the curtsies, the fixed smiles, the fish-limp handshakes - and, simpering with pleasure, almost fainting with delight at being permitted to touch this person, engage in the kind of discourse that would discredit the intelligence of a braindead axolotol:

so how long have you been a person in a suit?
for as long as I can remember, ma'am.
how wonderful. and is it thrilling?
awfully, ma'am.
how simply splendid. well done.
thank you, ma'am, thank you.

I exaggerate. I have it on trustworthy authority that, as aristocrats go, they're really rather nice, quite intelligent people, these two, and, for no better reason than that she's a Dane and he's an architect, I'm inclined to believe it, being as irrational in my own Danophilia as I am rational about my republicanism.

perhaps that's the point - that the scorn I profess for those sorts of people who defer to rank for no better reason than its representing a form of social nostalgia - a nod at an older, better time, when everyone 'knew their place' - is a missing of the more important point: that even the most ordered, rational society requires its rituals, its traditions, its ways of marking significant events with something slightly more elevated than a three cheers and a communal toast, and that, despite their history of greed, psychotic acquisitiveness, and inbred psychosis, our beloved royals, who, in reality, owe the cringing respect we bestow on them to nothing more tangible than an accident of birth, seem, by virtue of the sheer historic inertia which they embody, uniquely qualified to fulfill this role - and it is, most literally, a role - better than anyone else.


common to a number of the proto-judicial systems that were being codified throughout Europe during the Middle Ages was the concept of weregeld, or 'the value of a man's life' (women, being chattel - either their father's or their husband's property, were valued more directly). so, according to your social rank, if someone injured or killed you, and was found to be guilty of that crime, he had to pay your next of kin his weregeld to forestall the otherwise inevitable vendetta.

as 'blood money', this concept still exists in many older cultures - something which the occupying armies of Iraq, coming from their own highly developed culture of compensation, have quickly adjusted to, discovering that an Iraqi's life comes quite cheap compared with, say,
a rich man's hurt feelings (or, at the median point,
a poor woman's health).

The Questioning of John Rykener, A Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395

Sunday, July 17, 2005

a demented diatribe on motorphilia

on a badness scale of one to ten, with the late Mother Teresa at one end and the never-late Jeremy Clarkson at the other, cars should register at around nine-point-nine-nine.

virtuousness is always relative, of course, and some cars are badder than others, but between the outright unrepentant Pol Potty evil of the urban SUV and the honk-honk twee naughty of Noddy's Little Red and Yellow Car lie the barest split hairs of real moral distinction. they are an atrociously expensive, time-consuming, planet-despoiling blight, less useful in real terms than the inglenook, and arguably less effective as a status symbol. actually, both as status symbol and as functional object – as a means, that is, of travelling from A to B in the least possible time and with the least amount of stress - they compare very poorly with the yak, which has the decisive advantage of manuring the fields it plods across.

and yet we do love them so. from their cute little 'bleeps' as we unlock them to the hilarious polyphonic wailings of their alarms which the barest kiss of a dawn breeze seems able to trigger. and they do – let’s admit it - save us having to sit next to smelly people on buses or in the tube. plus they are a neat ritual weapon - good for getting our own back on people who’ve cut us up by catching up with them and riding an inch from their tail. oh – let’s be honest – cars are also a really cool real weapon - a finely-tuned lethal weapon - Vorsprung durch Technik – despatching an estimated 1.2 million humans throughout the world annually, according to the recent World Health Organization/World Bank report, ‘The Global Burden of Disease’. this report, incidentally, predicts that road traffic injuries are expected to take third place in the rank order of disease burden by the year 2020.

third place! (‘War’ only manages a paltry eighth.) killer-cars are outranked only by heart disease and – wait for it – Unipolar Major Depression (or terminal moping-about).

so how is it that cars kill people?

well, they don't do it by themselves, that's for sure! (cute giggle.) stationary and inactivated, they're no more dangerous than any other lump of inert matter. so what transforms them, once that ignition key has been turned and they've been eased out into the road, into such dangerous objects? (rhetorical question - I'm not here to insult your intelligence - this isn't a Jeremy Clarkson rant.) whatever it is, these mysterious transformative powers extend to the drivers as well: that person who tried to kill you on the Junction 23 sliproad is more likely than not a model citizen with badges for kindness to strangers and gentleness to babies and animals in real, ie non-motorised life. this inelegant symbiosis of car and driver seems only to require the most basic urges of aggressive competition to be activated. occupation of the driver's seat serves, de facto, as a liberation from the more inconvenient social requirements of restraint and cooperation and, even, the law itself.

so, given that humans operating them with undue care and attention and at ludicrously unsafe speeds are to blame for all this, and that there are legal checks in place to counteract this behaviour, such as speed cameras, what's the problem? why does the carnage continue, and why is it projected to continue, unabated, to such a patently unacceptable level within the next fifteen years?

in a word, because there are very powerful lobbies at work to ensure, not that it does continue, but that if it does it's everybody else's fault - the government, the local council, the police, the tooth fairy - than either the car manufacturers, the oil suppliers, the go-faster-stripe dealers, or anyone else who contributes either directly or indirectly to this lunatic car-loving culture we have come to inhabit. and how is it that the so-called independent motoring organisations (which are about as independent from the road transport lobby as Hallmark is from Christmas) are so successful in diverting the fundamental blame for the continuing motoring massacres from the drivers to the government, the local councils ... etc? because (again this is really rhetorical, but let's risk insulting Jeremy here) their sine qua non is The Happy Motorist, a creature as mythical as The Green Man, who inhabits a world of empty country roads unmarked by anything more threatening than the flickering shadows of the trees he or she drives past (remember all those ludicrous stories about the epilepsy-inducing lines of plane trees on French B-roads to further justify the local authorities' hacking them all down because so many drunks were driving into them) at speeds which he or she deems 'sensible.'

the real world, alas, is this far away from gridlock most of the time, and inhabited, clearly, by more psychopaths than you'd care to shake a stick at (well, maybe not - best not to provoke them too much), who consider themselves so elevated above any laws that they can with impunity flaunt any and all speed restrictions and feel justified in threatening anyone who gets in their way (ie everyone in front of them) with inches-close encounters of the tailgating kind - at speeds which could only be described as 'sensible' by an F-16 pilot.

this insistence by the raving motorphiliac lobby that most drivers are able to recognise what a sensible speed is and will adapt to different road conditions according to the various factors of visibility, weather, and personal skill and experience is just so much specious nonsense - patent nonsense - arrogant nonsense - and potentially (and actually) lethal nonsense. the argument that roads liberated from speed restrictions would somehow be safer roads is just so dumb it's flat earth, and yet this is what the motoring liberationists are seriously trying to propose. in the face of the overwhelming evidence that speed restrictions and their enforcement through speed cameras save lives, they want to lift them because they're an infringement of their civil liberties?! pull the other one! arresting people and holding them without charge or trial on suspicion of their being involved in criminal activity is an infringement of civil liberty. the introduction of an ID card with a chip capable of tracing your movements through a GSP link is an infringement of civil liberty. photographing your driving too fast and fining you for it is not an infringement of civil liberty.

the citizens of Nowhere Land are beholden to no-one, restricted by nothing, and as free to do whatever they fancy as any other citizen of a fantasy community. in the actual world, citizens are obliged to accept certain responsibilities in proportion to the degree of their participation in society. in this world, 'participation' includes the use of the superstructures and infrastructures of the available transportation systems. our reciprocal responsibility, therefore, is to use these in a manner which, at best, gives due consideration to the other users of those systems, and, at least, does them no harm.

using the roads is one of those social events over which we have only very limited control. the act of driving along a road is one of the few truly universal social levellers. roads have to be shared with a random selection of people, many of whom we'd go to considerable lengths to avoid encountering in 'normal' life. this is one of the reasons why so much design emphasis is placed on making the internal environment of a car so comfortably insulated from the external. our cars have become (or have become to be perceived as) armoured mobile extensions of our homes - in many cases, even more comfortable versions of our real homes. for many of us, the most comfortable seat we ever sit in is the driver's seat of our car. and how many of us live in homes that are air-conditioned? and sound-proofed? with tinted windows? and surrounded by cool glowing dials and multiple control surfaces?

such is the ubiquity of this myth of invulnerability that anyone who dares to challenge it is demonised by the motorphiliac mafia (of which Mr Clarkson must be considered at least a don, if not a godfather) as, at best, a killjoy, and at worst as some kind of political subversive. the car is the dominant global fetish, arguably a religious fetish akin to the St Christopher that dangles from the more superstitious rearview mirrors, in the most literal sense that its primary function as an extension of the personality of its driver predicates on a set of superstitions and beliefs that no amount of rational discourse is able to displace. the imagistic juxtaposition of the tangle of blood-stained metal in the latest motorway massacre pics on the news with the slick state of the art persuasions of the car adverts in the commercial break becomes as meaningless as any other in the lexicon of the commodification of everything. there is simply no recognition of a causal relationship between the two. the one doesn't exist in the same world as the other.

there's only one way to break this morbid obsession, and that's by exposing the bottom line.

the cost (in hard cash - the human life factor is clearly non-factorable) of restoring that annual megatonnage of motor-mangled human flesh and bone to something resembling functionality must be absolutely astronomical. in direct, hands-on medical intervention and rehabilitation terms high enough, but then when you add on the loss of skills, productivity, and all those little things that make a working human so valuable to the economy, it must send the gross through the roof. if someone were to calculate the actual figure, add on an underwriters percentage, and then feed it back to the motorist as a percentage of his or her annual insurance premiums, there might be the stirrings of a recognition that, not only is he or she being exposed to the most appalling injuries as a direct result of his or her love affair with the car, but that he or she is paying right royally for the privilege of treating everyone else, even if he or she never gets injured.

my personal pipedream is that sanity finally prevails, the motoring industry concedes that their relationship with the roadkill is no different than that between the arms industry and the battlefield, and cars are begun to be developed that make us feel less, not more secure with the speed at which they can travel. if our Beamers and Mercs were modelled more on Trabbies, made out of corrugated cardboard and coming with a top-limit two bhp engine with no more torque than a salad-spinner, we'd start thinking twice about cutting up those losers trying to overtake that convoy of grannies in electric wheelchairs on the bypass.

sooner rather than later, despite everything the government's ass-licking response to the road users lobby implements to forestall the inevitable, the country is going to lock solid into one endlessly revolving mass of traffic, and long before that happens, we're going to have to learn to drive as if we were connected carriages in a train - once you've managed to join the stream, you stay where you are - because any attempt to overtake will be as impossible as it will be pointless. this is already an all-too recognisable scenario for anyone using, say, the M25 on a regular basis, or using any of the motorway system south of Bristol during a Bank Holiday weekend.

long before then, I hope that they'll stop painting speed cameras a gaudy yellow and publishing maps of where exactly they're located, and institute a guerilla campaign of camouflaging them and moving them about randomly and secretly. and enough of this discreetly flash-photographing offenders and fining them. each camera should be equipped with a metal-piercing harpoon that decelerates the bastards from sixty to zero in 0.4 seconds flat. that'd teach 'em. they could keep the photograph printed on a T-shirt with a choice of two amusing legends: 'I survived 10g in a random airbag test' or 'my other car's in the wash'.

Friday, July 15, 2005

SebastiĆ£o Salgado - Antarctica

even at ridiculous postcard size and at a crumbly 72 dpi this photograph is quite overwhelming. imagine a 12 x 16 bromide print! Salgado's always been technically amazing, but this is the sort of nightmare hand-printing job - jagged ice against cloudy sky - that any photographer will reel at (an all-zones job if ever there was one), and if he really did this himself, then all credit to the guy. it's way up there in the Anselm Adams/Edward Weston class, and confirms the rhino law that a great photograph is one part visual skill to 49 parts luck to 50 parts technique: it's all too painfully predictable what a hash a boatload of enthusiasts would have made of this image if they'd all been in the same boat at the same time. it's almost too dramatic - Romantic verging on kitsch - a Piranesi take on Gormenghast - perhaps only appealing to a minority now, of shameless romantics like me. I'm glad he's shifted away from the photojournalism - some of the criticism levelled at him for beautifying poverty was harsh, but, as a lot of it came from the impoverished themselves, perfectly justified.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


change happens - consider the universe
humans are no different from stars or galaxies - only the time-scales are different
the shift from wanting to change to changing is as simple as removing the impediments that we place on the mechanisms of change through the fear of it
take off the brakes, take away the safety nets, and wait - change will happen
but wanting to change is usually about wanting things to get better
and change can also make things worse
this is called risk
without risk - no change, either for the better or for the worse

some changes - possibly the only ones that matter - are single-use, ie they occur out of a most particular set of circumstances which can never be repeated: these circumstances represent an opportunity which, once passed, is irrevocably gone. Shakespeare knew this, as he knew most things to do with the human condition:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,   
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;   
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

(Julius Caesar Act IV Sc.3)

as for individuals, so for societies
my gut-feeling is that we've blown it
big time
but what to do?

Sam Beckett to the rescue (somone else who knew a thing or two about the human condition):

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
(Westward Ho)

Friday, July 08, 2005


what happened in London yesterday was appalling. what happened in New York on 9/11/01 was appalling. what happend in Bali on 10/12/02 was appalling. what happened in Madrid on 3/11/04 was appalling.
the evil citizens of Terror - that amorphous nation with which we are told we are at war - have struck again, and the rhetorical response has been a unilateral reinforcement of the wall of prejudice and fear and hatred that stands between us and them.
one of the most frequently used words in the headshaking lexicon is 'incomprehensible', as if there had never been a historical dialectic, as if there had never been any art, as if we had simply not evolved the capacity, through the intelligence and the imagination, to understand anything which didn't fit the familiar. this is not merely ignorant - it is lethal. just because you and I feel constrained by our upbringing, our education, our sense of morality, even our beliefs, not to retaliate when provoked, not to separate human lives by sect into those with and those without value, not to be willing to surrender our own lives to some greater perceived good, does not automatically bestow the right to ignore the possibility that, underlining these perceived 'evils', is a fundamental disturbance in the global body politic that must - and could - be addressed, providing the means of understanding - the sine qua non of diplomacy - is not continually hamstrung by this kind of semantic censorship. it is possible - nay, easy - to understand and deplore, but to deny understanding as if by so doing we were somehow tainting ourselves with evil is to back ourselves into the same cul de sac of superstition and stupidity that got us all into this mess in the first place.
what happened yesterday in London was appalling. what happened in New York on 9/11 was appalling. what happened in Fallujah in March was appalling.