Friday, November 24, 2006

my england

I had a packet to collect from the post office. In front of me was an old lady of eighty or so - alone, wooden stick for support, thin white hair in an old lady's perm, mac, stockings and shoes all from the generic old lady catalogue - who, passing the missed delivery slip over, was trying to engage the postman at the window in conversation, as old ladies do:

"Can't think what 'tis. Warn't expectin' naught. Cost me twelve pounds in taxi fare to come over 'ere."

Old ladies with hip conditions tend not to be able to use the bus - it's too far to walk to the bus-stop.

The patient-but-not-paid-to-chat postman pointed out to her that there was a phone number - if it was just something she had to sign for she could have arranged for it to be delivered another time.

"Oh, where's that, then?"

"On the back"

"Oh, 'tis on back, is it? Didn't think to turn 'im over."

So he disappears for a minute or two and reappears with an envelope. A white envelope. The sort of envelope that you'd put a birthday card in.

"Oh, 'tis a card, is it? Aye, 'twas my birthday yesterday."

An envelope with no stamp on it.

Which she then had to pay a surcharge on to collect.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

my way code

not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the national mood. if I found it hard, at the time, to share in the hysteria or even shed a tear at the high-speed demise of the sad, cheating, doe-eyed wife of the sad, cheating, hangdog heir to the throne, I've found it much harder, now, to share in the hand-wringing tabloid concern for the health of a mildly endearing but otherwise unremarkable TV presenter who happens to have survived another high-speed car crash.

obviously, whenever anything happens to one of their own, the BBC tends to make a big deal of it. but this has gone way beyond the usual tragic loss of cameraman shot whilst filming the invasion of a minor middle east oil-producing nation - this has touched the raw nerve of the sleb-slobbering nation in a peculiarly mawkish way. it's as if this guy actually mattered in a sense greater than being a decent husband and father, which, possibly (it must be true because the TV says it's so) is the case .

Top Gear is the flagship marketing tool of the autophile lobby: its primal appeal operates at the level of massaging the hurt feelings of the driver of the beamer who's been overtaken by a skoda and then been flashed by a speed camera. its main premise is that cars - especially very fast, very expensive cars - are things of beauty, excitement, and fundamental satisfaction, and that anyone who disagrees is a killjoy. 'killjoy' is a word the Top Gear fraternity uses a lot. its main presenter - Jeremy Clarkson, whose presenter personna is a bilious cross between Terry Wogan and Anne Robinson - has become a minor deity in the brotherhood of car worship, his droll comparisons of one piece of motile metal over another elevated to the cult rhetorical status of a latterday Pepys or Pope. unutterably smug, he nevertheless does manage to exert a certain sort of self-deprecating world-weary charm that slightly sugars the pill of his regular weekly message - that cars are wonderful, wonderful things, and that anyone who disagrees is a boring killjoy. a - boring - killjoy.

Clarkson has several cronies - boring straight men (and a token female) to his jovial bullying routine, whose sideshow bob antics are never permitted to overshadow his own krusticentric performances.

it was one of these who nearly managed to kill himself.

what qualifications do you need to go as fast as possible in a jet-powered car? what's the sum total of required skills to 1) point the thing down the runway 2) ignite the burners, then 3) steer straight until the fuel runs out? piece of piss. a hamster could do it. well, almost. courage, you say? bullshit, I say. you're confusing courage and adolescent bravado. any fourteen-year-old would give his (or, sometimes, her) eye-teeth to do it.

the older we get, the more cautious - that's just the way it works: the longer we've been alive, the more chances we've had to assess the risks (of the various leaps of faith, acts of mercy, expressions of desire, contempt, commitment, or disinterest that appear to us as options at one time or other), and, the more chances we've had to experience the consequences (to others - our loved ones and friends - as well as to ourselves) of taking those risks, the less inclined we become to take them. on balance, the pain involved in suffering the consequences of a risk taken and ending in disaster tends to trump the potential pleasure of its ending in a result: the blindingly obvious fact that we're all mortal doesn't, in fact, become blindingly obvious until well past our teens (when, obviously, it's just not true), when, if we're lucky, we've actually had the chance to look death in the face, and, once having done so, choose not to do so again. probably. arguably, indeed, to choose to risk your life more than once in the pursuit of, well, anything, really, can only indicate one thing - that you've lost sight of something essential to your survival - the ability to learn from experience.

that we have lost it - or something related to it - is evidenced by the fantastic surge in the popularity of danger-related package tours. no longer is the world-tour of white-knuckle rides enough - packages that bring our flabby padded bodies eyeball-to-eyeball with sharks, white water and big number g-forces are selling like hot cakes. we can't get too much of that adrenaline rush.

pansies, all of them, of course. wimps and pattiecakes. it's all about fat wallets and crash-cages and fail-safe backup systems and full insurance. any idiot with a spare couple of million can hitch a ride up to the space station now. ditto the sorry index of current soi-disant adventurers and explorers - survival packs brimming with satellite phones and GPS, back-up rescue helicopters keeping their engines warm, and the camera crew hovering discreetly out of sight.

what it's all about, this fascination with the thrill, this absorption in the tedious-but-compelling escapades of the jet-powered croc-wrestling slebs, is the futile stuffing with vicarious sensation of the hole in all our souls that's all that's left of one of the defining aspects of our humanity: the old, old instinct for survival, at whatever cost, has become a folk-memory, something that's so rarely called upon that, like the vestigial tail, it's all but disappeared from our repertoire of experience. the all-consuming physical paroxysm of the fight-or-flight reflex is just the somatic residue of that oldest of instincts. several hundred thousand years of cultural evolution has translated that crucial (if we are to believe that survival is crucial) relationship between terror and action into something else, a web of somethings that itself came to crystallise, long ago, into the proto-religious ceremonies and rituals from which all art evolved.

in the absence of the priests' effective adjuducation between the arbitrary terrors of the universe and our own sense of hapless impotence when confronted with them, we have chosen to anoint these clowns (who desperately want the job, let's not forget - this isn't some sort of punishment) with the holy water of superstition, appointing them as lightning-conductors of the contingent bolt from the blue that, regardless, will continue to strike at random, as it always has. and when, perchance, the clown does earth a strike, the proper reaction, rather than this incontinent burble of misplaced concern and sympathy for the family, should be to tick the box [there but for the grace of god ...] and replace him as fast as possible.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

bugger beggary

in the hectic rush to grow up, the child quickly forgets the intoxicating rush of discovering the magical power of words. how awesome was it to learn that, for this feeling, this way of experiencing the world, this previously misty sense of something, something, oh, strange, there was actually a word! a way of sharing it with others who knew the same word and felt the same thing when it was used.

the rather sad thing is that, despite there being a word (I'm obliged to talk about English here, although this obviously applies to all languages) for practically everything that matters, together with the myriad nuances of all that matteringness (for which there is, actually, a better word in German), there are some words that, despite their describing something really, really useful, get restricted to a very limited congregation of users who hoard its riches, not for selfish reasons, but simply because the rest of us have failed, as yet, to discover it, for one reason or another.

'isostasy' is one such word.

isostasy is
the equilibrium that exists between parts of the earth's crust, which behaves as if it consists of blocks floating on the underlying mantle, rising if material (such as an ice cap) is removed and sinking if material is deposited
(which is the Oxford English Dictionary summary of a rather sophisticated geophysical phenomenon involving the understanding of other such splendid terms as lithosphere, asthenosphere, and tectonic plates).

I remember thinking, when I first came across this marvellous word (in a school text-book), what a wonder, that something so huge and seemingly solid as the surface land-masses of our planet might be considered as a set of wobbling wooden blocks of different sizes bobbing about in a bath, and that this way of regarding it has a word, one word, to describe it. although I didn't, at the time, have any clear idea of how Newton's second law might apply in a global sense, or how material of any nature extracted from one environment will have to be balanced out, somewhere, somehow, by its replacement somewhere else, it was a concept that snagged on something very necessary to my own emerging understanding of the world, and it has continued, metaphorically, to illuminate it for me ever since.

the great paradox at the heart of the global economy is that, whereas the market and the work force is now, to all intents and purposes, a global entity (our Nikes and Nokias and iPods being kept affordable because they're assembled in sweat shops in Thailand and China), the individual market browsers - the rich - still have to inhabit individual sovereign states - their so-called country - which are largely populated by the poor. the officially-tagged names of countries is becoming less and less relevant: just as the global map recently acquired a whole brand new country - Terruh - upon which America and the UK have declared war, so each of the continents is partitioned into at least two major administrative areas populated, on the one hand, by the poor, and on the other, by the comfortably-off.

definitions of wealth and poverty are endlessly argued over according to whether or not the definition favours the different agendas of the wealthy or the impoverished - but it's safe to say that around 5% of the population of the UK owns around 90% of the wealth, and that this gap is steadily increasing.

one of the rules of thumb proposed by the European Union and adopted by, amongst others, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Rowntree Foundation is that you are considered to be living in poverty if you are subsisting on a net disposable income of less than 60% of the national average, which, on current figures of more or less £250 per week, makes the official poverty threshold about £150 per week.

the rich tend to cluster - in Surrey, for example - so it doesn't require a maths genius to work out that this ratio of rich to poor requires that for every county of Surrey with a small population of high-earners there has to be an urban conglomeration such as Birmingham or Glasgow with a very large, concentrated population of subsistence-dwellers.

this might be called the isostasy of economic demographics.

clearly, a finely calculated balance has been achieved in all the economically developed countries between the needs of the rich and those of the poor - the relationship between the two being moderated by tax-gathering and social funding. the acquisition of wealth is not, after all, intrinsically wrong, provided it has not been acquired through means that are wrong. the potential social value to be accrued through the establishment of a very successful business - directly, through taxation or the provision of salaried work, or indirectly, through the sorts of philanthropic ventures exemplified by the Rowntree Foundation - is a significant factor in the evaluation of wealth. on the other hand, the social harm caused by poverty - not least in terms of the measurable burdens of crime and ill-health - is an equally significant factor in the evaluation of that balance.

the very poor are, in fact (I can't be bothered to cite source for this - it's so bloody obvious) subject to much higher relative levels of taxation than the rich through the stealth forms of VAT on everything apart from food and clothing and the desperate lures of such fantastic chimeras as the National Bloody Lottery - one of the most cynical deployments of indirect taxation ever introduced in this country. whereas the rich can afford the sort of creative accountancy that makes Darren Brown's street-magic seem like fumbling buffoonery, the same advice is unavailable to the millions who are conned each week into betting their meagre savings on an outside chance so remote that it makes the tote look like a copper-bottomed certainty in comparison.

historically, the inhabitants of the country of the rich have behaved with appalling disregard for the well-being of their neighbours, the inhabitants of the country of the poor. the rich have regarded the poor as lesser beings - either too lazy or too stupid to find their way across the border between the two countries. and, alas, such are the vicissitudes of human fortune, those poor who do manage to migrate across that border tend very quickly to align themselves with the attitudes of their new neighbours on the other side. the notion that with increased wealth comes proportionately increased social responsibility is one that has never really caught fire in the west except amongst a minority of philanthropists.

there seems to exist a fundamental, psychosis-like syndrome at the root operational level of Western society: whereas all nation-states declare - some at a constitutional level - their foundation in the belief that all people are born equal, not a single nation-state - not even in Scandinavia - has managed to translate this fundamental belief into an enduring, functional social form. why - one might ask - do we bother maintaining the fiction that we believe in equality when, manifestly, we don't? is it simply a by-product of a secular society evolved from a Christian one, one which has totally trashed the sentiments of the Beatitudes in favour of rampant self-interest but still feels a residue of guilt about it? or have we really managed to persuade ourselves that, although it is true that everyone is born equal, some - through accident of birth, or some as-yet-to-be-scientifically-verified genetic propensity for the acquisition of wealth - grow up to be more equal than others? or that some, by the same quirk of pseudo-genetic destiny, are doomed to a life-trajectory that dips inexorably towards beggary?

it could be - it has been - worse. at least, that token nod at the worrisome e-word seems to act as a form of conscientious sea-anchor, constraining the worse excesses of exploitation inherent in this sad, tatty parody of a liberal democracy that we pretend to inhabit. and, certainly, the notional equality available to, say, women, or to the non-white non-Christian non-Oxbridge middle classes, is an improvement on the status quo of only a generation or so since. in reality, however, the hilarious idea that Beyoncé or J-Lo are the 'equal' of their bottom-feeding ghetto sistas is as far from the truth as the industry hype that elevated them in the first place, and nowhere better than in those gruesomely toe-curling aspirational lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous MTV videos is the inflexibility of those isostatic laws demonstrated.

the continent-sized mass of corporate villainy perpetuated by that relatively small population of publicity-shy bankers and oil-czars and insurance-walkmen who really run things globally has to be balanced, publicly, with the hollybolly bread and circus world that performs exactly the same function in contemporary society as did the Roman games two thousand years ago: distracting the taxable masses from and actually persuading them to collude in their own subservience, and to continue indulging the excesses of the rich. this appears to be as easily achievable as allowing us little folk to think that we, too, as long as we play the game and don't rock the boat, might one day be fortunate enough to make the great leap across the border that will admit us into that land of eternal milk and honey, to become - let's not mince words here - Americans. the fact that, within the borders of the cash-richest country on the planet, there exists a town called Poverty (pop. 36,000,000 and growing) is just one of those unfortunate paradoxes that there's probably a word for.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

In popular mythology, the ostrich is famous for hiding its head in the sand at the first sign of danger. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder is noted for his descriptions of the ostrich in his Naturalis Historia, where he describes the ostrich and the fact that it hides its head in a bush. There have been no recorded observations of this behavior.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

the samson option

one of the strengths of agnosticism is that it comes with no preconditional hatreds. unlike the adherents to any of the historical faiths, I am not obliged, as an agnostic, to regard any grouping of non-adherents as despicable scum whose souls - damned for their apostasy - I might safely regard as worthless, and whose bodies are a hateful shell of sinful iniquity. as an agnostic, I am allowed to regard everyone as potentially decent until or unless their behaviour proves otherwise. I am, not, in other words, condemned to believing that everyone who doesn't believe what I believe is my mortal enemy, and to believing that any harm I cause to them is good because it is in a good cause - the cause of their subjugation.

one of the weaknesses of agnosticism is that it comes with no capacity for empathy with the passionate self-righteousness of those who do believe the above. I can bring the full weight of my liberal understanding to sectarian-nationalist violence, but that comes at the price of denying an equal weight of furious scorn for those whose behaviour is driven by ancient, superstitious, tribal hatreds that have as much place in the twenty-first century as the alchemist's alembic.

whereas, as a reluctant scion of the British Empire, I have to accept my share of historic responsibility (the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Mandate) for what's happening currently in the Middle East, it's only fair to point out that the British were only the more recent of a multi-millennial succession of landgrabbing empires - from Assyrian to Babylonian to Egyptian to Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman - to have capitalised on the inherent tribal volatilities of that region. that the Israelites' claim to their patch can be substantiated by a promise made to Moses by Jahwe Himself circa 1000 BC could be - and probably is - matched by several other nationalistic groupings descended from one of the other contemporary pre-Diaspora tribes, but whether such contentious three-thousand-year-old myths constitute a constructive contribution to or a seriously unhelpful distraction from the ongoing dilemma is moot.

with the wisdom of hindsight, few now disagree that it was a catastrophically inept act of political hubris on the part of the fledgling United Nations to establish a western-dependent non-Muslim state at the heart of an Arab nation, to evict the incumbent population and then re-populate it with semitic immigrants. whatever long-term political and economic strategies underpinned this miscalculation - predicated on the cynical realpolitik of the time, which was more about supervising the final controlled demolition of the Ottoman Empire than about finding a home for the survivors of the Nazi holocaust - were ruinously scuppered when it came to light, during the fifties, that one of the richest oilfields in the world ran under and was accessible to almost every state in the region except the one which was meant to be the dominant one. there followed a frantic period of political bed-swappings and manoeuvrings for advantage that resulted in some strange alliances indeed - not least the pre-emptive arming by the US of one Saddam Hussein's Iraq against the perceived Iranian threat - and has resulted in the establishment of a nation state the same size as Wales not only having had to evolve into the most heavily fortified and most ruthless on the planet, but also having, with covert western connivance, developed a secret (officially unadmitted but undenied, and strangely exempt from any kind of international oversight) arsenal of at least 400 nuclear weapons.

it can't be much fun discovering - once you've finished your compulsory military service and started travelling - that you belong to a pariah nation, one that everyone - apart from God's America - despises. why don't they understand? how would they like it if they too had neighbours who behaved like rabid dogs, suicidally intent on driving them into the sea? what other choice do we have than to defend ourselves with unflinching determination from such racist aggression?


the survival of the Jews, as a coherent religious unit, throughout so many thousands of years of forced displacement and persecution, is one of the marvels of human history. all cultures arise from a religious root, those roots themselves having always played, historically, with the exploratory tendrils of neighbouring cultures and neighbouring religions, and few modern cultures are exempt from substantial Jewish influence. those who deduce from the current conflict that it represents an irreconcilable gulf between Muslim and Jew have misunderstood the nature of the conflict. in fact, the Jews' historic relationship with the Muslim world has been largely peaceable and constructive. the five hundred years of settlement in Spain under the Moorish occupation from the eighth to the twelfth centuries are regarded as a golden age in Jewish history. hence 'Sephardic' Jew from the Hebrew for 'Spanish'.

the present desperately dysfunctional relationship between Israel and its neighbours, and, as a result, between Israel and the rest of the world, is primarily a territorial, not a religious conflict. sixty years is long enough to have established that the Palestinians' grievances over the perceived thefts of their land are not going to subside, and that no amount of brutal collective punishment of the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon for their respective militias' armed resistance is going to starve Hezbollah and Hamas of its grassroots support. the chilling Roman efficiency with which Israel kills ten Arab civilians (reprisal or self-defence? you decide!) for every one of its own killed has spawned a militant culture of resistance wherein every massacre spawns a whole new brigade of recruits to martyrdom. few on either side remembers - or even cares - how this all started. all they care about now is killing the other.

there is far too much support - not only material, but spiritual and racial - invested in the continuing survival of the Jewish State of Israel for there to be any question that it will survive. already, however, that survival has been achieved at the cost of a grievous expenditure of moral capital. the longer this intifada continues, the more Israel is obliged to respond with less and less concern for the political consequences, and less and less concern for the worldwide outrage at the brutality of its behaviour. this could continue indefinitely, were it not for the single outstanding problem of America's sponsorship. even with the deep-reaching influence of the Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill, there are serious signs of stress already beginning to show, not only on the budget, but on the political will available for this endeavour. this 'New Middle East' that's begun to be talked about is a neo-con fantasy that will not manifest in actuality beyond the terms of the Haliburton reconstruction contracts in Iraq and the medium-term profitability of the reconstructed and re-assigned Iraqi oil wells. America is in a crisis of denial and self-bamboozlement about what this so-called War on Terruh is all about: it is confusing every issue of foreign policy, outstandingly in the Middle East (where the bogeyman Al Qaeda, for example, has no part to play at all, and is regarded with contempt - as a bunch of irritating dilettantes - by most of the engaged Muslim parties) and costing her dear, whilst the world's next emergent superpower, China, is slowly slowly - in its own sweet time - making up its mind on what the terms of the big bail-out will be at the coming global spring clean.

one of the essential sites to visit on the package tour of Israel is the fortress of Masada - a vast ruin on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert that was the site, in 72 AD, of the Zealots' last stand against the occupying Roman army under Lucius Flavius Silva. after holding out under siege for three months, the leaders of this thousand-strong resistance movement, recognising that their situation was hopeless, and that surrender to the fifteen-thousand-strong Roman legion would only result in either slavery or execution, made a decision that rings through the centuries as one of the tragic cornerstones of Jewish history. when Lucius Flavius finally entered through the breached walls of the citadel, he discovered that everyone - every man, woman and child - was already dead, having chosen to die at their own hands rather than submit to the Roman triumph.

the other definitive suicide in Jewish history was, of course, Samson, whose final act of revenge against his Philistine captors was to summon his legendary strength one last time to grasp the pillars supporting the roof of the temple of Dagon and bring it crashing down on his - and his tormentors' - heads.

word has been out for some time in the independent media that a policy of last resort in relation to the development of Israel's nuclear arsenal was devised by the Israeli government way back in the days of Moshe Dyan, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War: this policy is known, chillingly, as The Samson Option.

however intractable this conflict might seem, it is both intolerable and unsustainable. endless war in the Middle East is not an option. Armageddon is not an option. diplomacy and arbitration have to succeed. clearly, however, as long as America is the only active instrument of both, no progress towards a peaceful resolution is ever going to be made, since, as far as a substantial part of the Arab world is concerned, America is perceived as the great Satan, and any deal it tries to broker will only be at the Arab world's expense. somehow, this suicidal deadlock has to be broken, and this will only happen with the collusion - direct or indirect - of Israel's neighbours, people who, themselves, have learnt to live with such internal conflicts as those between Shi'a and Sunni, Druze and Maronite, and whose culture is a thousand times better equipped to negotiate amongst tribal factions than that to which even the most well-intentioned American foreign secretary (and that combination of words has been a definitive oxymoron for quite some time) owes allegiance.

although a sustainable accommodation has been achieved in recent years between Israel and its southern neighbours in Jordan and Egypt, the leading regional candidate for a mediator acceptable to all parties in the conflict is Turkey: Muslim but firmly secular, Turkey has close economic and security ties with Israel (which regards Ankara as a valuable ally in the region), but has also traditionally supported Palestinian aspirations to statehood, thereby inspiring its trust as a mediator. true, Turkey is no angel of peace (let's nobody mention Armenia or the Kurds), but in a situation such as this where the only cards currently on the table are a busted flush and a pair of dog-eared jokers, beggars can't be choosers - radical substitution time - out with the preppy wankers of Washington and in with the bouncers from Istanbul.

anybody got a better idea?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"You can only talk about a few bad apples for so long before you need to take a serious look at the barrel."

Gary Younge

Monday, July 03, 2006


to think the unthinkable for a moment - what would actually happen if the UK government were to decide to scrap the so-called nuclear deterrent, instead of committing to the next generation of weapons?

lots of anguished wailing, of course - from the opposition and the media, who would feel honour-bound to vent some steam about the importance of the nuclear deterrent in maintaining the balance of power that secures our place in blah blah blah. some complaints, too - less hysterical, but probably better informed - from the armed forces, who would wonder what was going to happen to all those submarines and the people who sail in and service them. and then there'd be the sweet bleating of the sheepy flocks who just want to be left in peace and - bless the ickle lambs - put their trust in the government and the media and the armed forces to behave in their best interests and defend their right to do so.

but - political baloney and civic naïveté aside - what would actually happen? would the North Korean government, for example (well, I know - North Korean fat bastard psychotic paranoid looney-man dictator - but let's pretend it's a government) - next in line for bogeyman of the century award - conclude that such wimps as didn't have a nuclear deterrent must be ripe for invasion, and therefore declare war on the UK in order to pre-empt a strike by the Disunited States? (?) (double-?) would Russia, in such desperate need of living space (!) (double-!) get there before him? India? France? Israel? (ok, that last one's a joke) (admittedly a very strange joke) is it really true that the security of my family - the security of knowing, in a relative sense, that, provided we abide by the eccentric standing orders of English law and pay our taxes and do our bit to contribute to the local economy, we might reasonably expect to pass our time in any way we choose and proceed unmolested through this adventure of life - that all this is dependent on my country's possessing a ridiculously large number of warheads of such devastating destructive potential that they could never be used except to ensure the fiery murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians, of people like ourselves whose lives, like ours, had proceeded, up until the moment of the flash like a thousand suns, on the assumption that they, too, might reasonably expect to pass their time in any way they chose and live their own lives unmolested by foreign interference?

it's all very strange.

well, no, actually, it's all very simple. the madmen in charge of the DS (stand up Dubya, stand up Kim - now, try to spot the difference) believing that God has anointed them top-dog, believe also that in order to maintain their position as top-dog they need to show off the biggest pumped-up cock stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, and that this requirement extends to their fawning economic dependents allies also (provided that thy cock stockpile doesn't get to be as big as mine).

so - no worries, mate. consider it done. how about's we fix you up with my twin virgin sisters while we're about it?

jesus wept.

even the fuggin Commons defence fuggin committee doesn't see the point! on the one hand we're being told that the major threat to our peace and security is terruh, which knows no country and operates by stealth and out of shoes and backpacks and on a shoestring. and on the other we're being persuaded that in order to maintain our peace and security we need to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons that not only will be capable of frying the entire ozone layer at first strike and accomplishing overnight what global warming will be labouring to achieve at best in a hundred years or so (well - safely beyond the political lifetimes of this generation of arseholes, which is effectively the only determining factor), but will also cost more than something like the combined GDP of all those impoverished African states whose poverty we're committed, thanks to the sterling efforts of Saints Bob and Bono, to eradicating (yeah, right).

the nearest this planet ever got to nuclear armageddon was under the presidency of another popular saint - JFK - who, the terrifying hindsight of history has revealed, was perfectly prepared to make real the dictum that the DS has based the entirety of its foreign policy on since 1945 - better dead than red. and if a saint was capable of that, god save us from what this lot's got in mind for us.

Monday, June 19, 2006


mac users call this the grey screen of death - the mac equivalent of the windows blue ditto: that blank folder in the middle is the hard drive saying "sorry but I can't find anything to boot myself up with - nice knowing you, goodbye, and thanks for all the fish."

which is a bit of a bummer.

so, five days later, and a few pounds (£) lighter, all's more or less back to where it was before the crash, and I'm left wondering how it is that this thing - this machine - this typewriter-cum-telephone-cum-television - has come so to dominate my - and your - and most of our lives. for, really, although I was striving, throughout those few days, to occupy my zen-detached place, and to persuade myself that the effective loss of a shocking amount of un-backed-up work was something that I could live with, I really wasn't fooling anyone, let alone myself, and the phrase 'on tenterhooks' came to reveal its quintessential meaning in the manner of my increasingly frenzied squirming on this wretched spike of insecurity the longer the uncertainty continued.

in so far as our sense of selfhood is largely a function of that pesky two-way mirror of perception - how we perceive that we are being perceived - the personal computer (particularly in its form as an interface with the internet and the world wide web) has become either a personality prosthesis or synthetic augmentation depending on how you look at it.

there can't be many people now under the age of twenty-five whose social lives haven't been as entirely circumscribed by e-mail, msn, blogger and myspace as their academic or working lives by Word, excel, and powerpoint (and/or photoshop, cubase, protools, dreamweaver, whatever ... ad-diddly-infinitum), and who regard the pc or mac - either in its desktop or laptop form (or, increasingly, in its mobile phone form) as an absolutely indispensable feature of their lives. the prospect of loss, then, is something that goes way beyond a previous generation's fears of losing their filofax - the loss of data is only a part of what is implied in the prospect of self-erasure faced by those standing staring into the lost-computer abyss. from choice of desktop image to preferred browser to lists of favourites to iTunes playlists, our personalities are embedded in our computers far more deeply than in the way we dress or in our choice of transport, and the potential loss of the machine reverberates deep in our neocortex as something akin to a cross between a partial lobotomy and the death of a very close friend.

this is no more something to be deplored than was the microphone usurping the megaphone, or the calculator usurping the slide-rule: it's the culture optimising the technology, nothing more, nothing less, and, by and large, the dystopian potential - for big brother-like social control, or exploitative naughtinesses of the phishing and scamming kind - is far outweighed by the potential for informed vigilance afforded by internet access.

it is, however, fairly alarming that the sort of nervous breakdown once forewarned by months or years of increasing individual dysfunction and announced by the gradual whittling-away of self-esteem by dint of the diurnal drip of corrosive human intercourse onto the fragile carapace of our tender personalities is now something that can happen in the few moments it takes between pressing the startup button and nothing happening.

Monday, May 29, 2006

the invisible boat

there is a famous, if probably apocryphal story about Captain Cook's first landing on one of the Polynesian Islands he visited during one of his voyages of discovery: the story goes that, so far beyond the native islanders experience was the eighteenth-century European world he came from that they were literally unable to see the boat he had come in. when communication had been established and they asked him where he had come from, and how he had got there, and in reply he pointed to the great three-masted sailing vessel anchored off-shore, they stared in an incomprehension that, quite literally, occluded their vision. the ship conformed to no known configuration of their experience of the world, so it was invisible to them.

it's clear that, in many aspects of our development, we require guidance towards understanding what it is we perceive: that perception precedes cognition, and that the link between the two is the learning experience.

we appear to inhabit an oscillating universe in which our sensory apparatus has evolved to compensate for the ever-moving waves and particles of the material world by adopting a set of oscillating platforms of its own. we are constantly comparing one experience with another at the micro level in order to make sense of what it is we are perceiving. the eye, for instance, is never still - it is constantly vibrating, making tiny movements up and down and from side to side in order that the photosensitive cells on the retina can compare one stream of photons with another and combine these comparisons into a visual representation of what is out there (at least, in the wavelengths that were determined to matter on the natural selection route). all the way up to the macro level, each item of information we acquire about the world is compared with those which preceded it in an ever-expanding library of sensations and memories. and eventually, when we have acquired a sufficiency of experiences and memories, we are able to apply a sophisticated discriminatory function that compares our personal libraries with all those others out there in everyone else's head, and start developing a thing which we call 'taste' - whether we apply it to what we eat, drink, hear, or see, we still call it 'taste' - something which, in turn, helps others to decide whether or not we and they have enough in common to feel comfortable in each others company.

this taste thing - as applied to music - is far more sophisticated, obviously, than preferring, say, sweet foods to savoury, or the other way round. what would the musical equivalent to that be? preferring assonance to dissonance? hard to say, because our relationship with music has less to do with our capacity to hear and discriminate between different tones and rhythms than with the sort of mentoring - direct or indirect - we have received in the course of learning how to hear this cultural construct we call 'music'.

it is often repeated that music is a language, one that is capable of facilitating a form of communication between people whose native spoken language is different, and one that is able to articulate aspects of our experience that words fail at. if both of these statements are true, then it follows that the process of learning about music - that bridge between perception and cognition - is more analogous to learning about gastronomy than about the fundamentals of another spoken language.

everyone eats, just as everyone makes noises, but we require guidance towards the enjoyment of a wide range of gastronomic pleasures, just as we require guidance towards hearing the wider range of possibilities of acoustic pleasure. 'understanding' is never the point, any more than understanding a soufflé is the point. the literature of musicology is constipated with the language of understanding, a language that is often as patronising as it is hermetic. the better commentaries on such non-cognitive experiences as enjoying good music or food tend to be those which abandon the descriptive in favour of the anecdotal – a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the translation of one sensory language into another is a fundamental oxymoron.

for all that, there remains the very interesting question of whether or not music carries any meaning at all beyond the immediately emotional and visceral. and that, in turn, raises the question of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience - how, in the process of its creation, the artwork becomes separate from the artist. the literature of artistic meditation is full of references to the phenomenon of the creation - be it a novel, a piece of sculpture, or a piece of music - taking on a life of its own, of the relationship between artist and artwork being similar to that between parent and child, and of its seeming - literally, in many cases - to determine the course of its own completion. art – particularly Modernist art – has come to be considered almost as an extension of the unconscious, or the libido, or both.

but art doesn't exist in a moral vacuum, and, as a spectator or listener, acquired knowledge about the biographical events surrounding the work is clearly as important as the work itself.

if we regard this painting with uninformed eyes, it appears to be saying something relatively straightforward:

if, on the other hand, we regard it in the knowledge that it was the last painting van Gogh ever worked on, and that he died soon after completing it, it takes on an entirely different set of readings, particularly when we add to that knowledge the commonly understood biographical details about his madness and poverty.

similarly, once we have learnt that Carl Orff was one of Hitler’s favourite composers, it becomes impossible wholly to enjoy his gloriously Rabelaisian Carmina Burana without experiencing a pang, at least, of pc concern.

the same applies to all music which has in some way been contextualised by commentary - and almost all music has, whether in the form of critical assessment or anecdotal annotation.

there have been many more or less erudite attempts to explain the finer points of musical language by analysing particular keys or scales or chord-progressions as utilised by particular composers to achieve particular effects. in the course of the 2006 Reith lectures, for instance, Daniel Barenboim himself demonstrates several such.

I suspect, however, that such repeated attempts to analyse how such and such a chord in such and such a key might evoke such and such a response is more akin to a form of didactic sleight of hand than Mosaic dogma.

if there is sufficient authority behind a particular statement about the world, that statement can quickly become an axiom. the majority of artistic judgements occur in this way.

at the very least, it's a form of tautology. let's say that we hear, for the first time, a certain musical passage which we find affecting, and which we come to understand is expressive of loss, say, or yearning, then an authority such as Barenboim comes along and painstakingly analyses - usually demonstrating on a piano - the musical structures underlying this effect, and, hey presto, our ears are opened and our understanding is complete. our own inarticulable sense of something special having happened when we heard the music has been articulated, redefined in reassuringly comprehensible English, and, henceforth, whenever we hear that kind of progression, or structure, we know what it 'means' because we have been armed with the means (the words) to describe it.

this is probably no more than to say that this is how it – culture – works: that, over time, an aggregation of opinion occurs as to what means what, what matters and what doesn’t, what is good and what is bad, guided by a dependable grouping of authorities whose combined opinions coalesce into a set of doctrines which, in turn, become grist to the continually developing cultural mill.

it becomes impossible, therefore, eventually, to challenge such received opinions as that Mozart’s Symphonies or Rembrandt’s portraits embody the human spirit par excellence because such opinions have become the aesthetic equivalent of Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics – their ‘humanity’ exhaustively analysed as a function of key-changes or brush-strokes.

whether or not music has the capacity to do anything more nuanced than embody the human spirit in this very generalised sense is hardly worth arguing about: clearly it can't describe, for instance, the processes at work in a Shakespearean sonnet or any similar work of literary genius - that isn't the point of music, despite what an army of wishfully thinking pop critics might have us believe. the music can support, and seem to reinforce the sentiment of the average lyrics - either I love you and you love me and we're as happy as we can be in a major key or I loved you but you left me for another so I'm a bit sad in a minor - but, in reality, bereft of the lyrics, we're for the most part left floundering in a swamp of interchangeable genre-dependent sounds that manifest the entire range of the emotional alphabet between A and B (and occasionally stumble on to C).

that we can, and do, nevertheless, find some music either as breathtaking as staggering onto a Himalayan summit, as joyful as the birth of our first child, or as gut-wrenching as losing our most precious possession is a side-effect of our two-steps-forward one-step-back progress towards our evolved humanity, when the cerebral cortex finally wrapped itself around the limbic system. because we can speak, we think we can speak about anything, but, at its best, music occupies the breathing spaces between the words, than which it is no less affecting, and at its very, very best, it articulates that which remains and will always remain resolutely unsayable, but as necessary to the articulation of our humanity as our ability to love.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

time and space

no-one owns a watch with a digital readout anymore, do they?

there are a few places where the 14:50 format is deemed appropriate - railway stations and computer menu bars, for example, as well as those obviously science- or sports-related situations where microsecond precision matters - but, by and large, we have resisted the displacement of the earlier technology, and our wrist-watches - from the most basic and utilitarian to the ones that are supposed to reveal our personality (ie as a dipstick platinum-plated saddo with more money than brain cells) - are still a 3 - 4cm disk with a big hand and a little hand and twelve evenly-spaced divisions around the circumference.

this isn't a manifestation of some sort of universal technophobia lurking beneath the floating-windows-based phase 3 technoworld - more a reminder that, at the deepest layers of our consciousness, we are aware of time as something more than a set of incremental numbers. digits describe only the points, the units of which, by universal consensus, time supposedly consists. it's clear, though, that our individual experiences of time encompass far more than the passing of units, that our acquaintance with time encompasses its relationship with space also, and that this indivisibility is better represented by the traditional form of the clock face than by the digital readout.

if I am due to meet someone at two o'clock, and glance at my wrist to see the big hand on the 10 and the little hand next to the two, I am comparing that wedge of space between the ten and the 12 with my own relationship with promptness. I know that that wedge is decreasing in a very measured and gradual way, as if it were a door closing, and that its positive characteristics ('early') will become negative ones ('late') once that wedge has decreased to a slice, then a sliver, then passes through the zero point of transition before starting to increase again, incrementally, in its negative form. for most of us, it's much easier, more immediate, to visualise time passing in this way than to hear or see it as a countdown.

interestingly, prerequisite to the maths underpinning the more arcane cosmological theories about the Big Bang is the fundamental understanding that that original event was responsible for starting the clock running - that not only matter, but time as well originates from that point. perhaps, at some core level of consciousness, we're aware of that.

depending on their routine, everyone has their own way of visualising time beyond their wrist-watch. whether annual, seasonal, calendrical, or diurnal, our progress through time is something most of us see as some form of journey - a path that began at our birth and whose vanishing point, somewhere beyond the horizon, will coincide with our death. we're simultaneously aware that there were events before we were born - history - and that there will be a continuation of events after our death - the future - despite our continuing inability to experience it. our cyclic experiences of time - the days, weeks, months and years - are now more detached than formerly from their associated natural markers - the seasons - and few of us are even aware of the larger cyclic occurrences - the macro-temporal events such as the lunar or the other planetary cycles, and least of all of such enormously slow cycles as the circulation of our galaxy. that entropy rules and that, in the wake of the rule, everything gradually gets slower, is something so enormous as to be inconsiderable, but it nevertheless has a human-scale analogue that has wide-ranging implications.

the journey from cradle to grave is one of slow but sure deceleration.

the human heart, for example, has already begun its work at around the 5th week of gestation, and is beating, at birth, at around 220 pulses per minute. this rate diminishes rapidly in the first few months, the months of maximum growth rate, when the blood supply is correspondingly maximised, and by the end of its first year, the infant's heart is pumping at around 150 beats per minute. this rate continues to diminish by one beat per year until, at 25, it will normally be pumping in a range (between at-rest and maximum activity) of around 117 - 176 beats per minute, and at 75, between 87 and 131.

the infant's and the old person's conception of time itself is equally different. the twenty-four hours of a day represent about a twentieth of a five-year-old's life, but only about a three-hundredth of a seventy-five-year-old's. by the same slightly dubious logic that we use to maintain those strange comparisons of animals' lifespans with our own (you know the kind of thing - a three-year-old dog is a teenager because dogs only live to ten or so) we could say this means that a five-year-old's day is - or is perceived to be - fifteen times longer than a seventy-five-year-old's, and that if days were regularly-spaced telegraph poles beside a railway track, they would appear to be passing at walking pace to the child, whereas to the old person in the seat next to him or her they would seem to be flicking past almost faster than the eye could catch them.

whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on whether we consider time as a tyrant or as a friend. aside from the fact that it's going to kill you in the end, I think it's better thought of as a particularly annoying authority figure - something like a cross between Carol Vorderman and Simon Cowell - someone whose power over us we have no choice but to acknowledge, but whose actual presence is accepted on sufferance as a means to an end. that end, of course, being to cut through all this crap about dying to the chase about the sometime adventure, sometime burden of living - which manifests, simply, in different ways appropriate to the particular set of markers we've reached at the time.

Monday, May 01, 2006


there's clearly a line - not an absolute line, something more akin to a floating border, a more or less wide, and fluctuating gradation - that distinguishes the values associated with conservatism and the defence of the status quo from those associated with the more radical politics of embracing change. it's a line that gets externalised in a number of ways that correspond to the degree of our personal engagement with the issues that emerge out of this - some would say - defining tension in any social organisation.

nowhere is this line experienced more deeply than in the matter of ownership. the my-ness of what I perceive to be mine and the your-ness of what is yours - and our being able to agree on this - is fundamental to our ability to get along.

essentially, there's nothing to distinguish the graffiti that cover every square inch of a New York subway carriage from the advertising posters that peep out from beneath it all. they're both - for the most part - superfluous to the original designer's intentions, they're both - for the most part - ugly and meaningless, and they're both - for the most part - conveying messages from opposite sides of that line that, really, none of us wants to hear. the advertisements are displayed in organised rows, paid for by the square metre; the graffiti is sprayed in random sweeps, and stolen. one set is safe - the silent icons of material consumption; the other is dangerous - the warcry of the gap-toothed dispossessed, the illiterate manifesto of the new barbarians at the gates.

there's a foolish romanticisation of urban graffiti that extolls the substitution of one arbitrary set of aesthetic principals with another. whereas it's defensible to maintain that tagging the blank wall of a building or object that symbolises political and economic oppression in one form or another is a subversive action - a way of reclaiming something - it's clearly flying in the face of the mass of evidence to presume some kind of underground political movement linking the global authorship behind the graffiti we encounter on a daily basis. by far the greater part of it is no more considered than gobbing out your gum onto the pavement - at best, it's the human equivalent of a territorial animal's spraying his patch.

every so often, a cat strays into our garden and has a sniff around. if it's unlucky enough to find itself impelled to raise its trembling tail and start squirting one of my bushes whilst I'm around, it will, more than likely, find itself the target of a well-aimed (I pride myself) missile - stone, clod of clay, half-brick - nothing lethal, but I do take great satisfaction in hearing the surprised howl and witnessing the undignified scuttle for the fence, and feel no remorse whatsoever for such summary disposition of what I consider to be justice: cat tries to spray my bush, cat receives painful lesson that will hopefully deter future sallies.

the crucial pronouns are 'my' and 'our'. no-one's going to deny me the right to defend my own territory from invasion or defacement. the interesting dialogue begins when we extend the meaning of 'our' to stuff that, whereas not actually belonging to us, we nevertheless feel an attachment to as if it did.

few tears are shed, for example, when a corporate HQ is defaced - except by the security guards who lose their jobs for failing to defend company property. most corporate architecture is indefensibly repellent - either that or, Richard Rogers style, jauntily monumental. with the notable exception of the Bauhaus, few schools of public art and design have taken the marriage of form and function to mean much more than maintaining the classical proportions in the toilet cubicles. architecture is one of those fringe art forms that rests solidly on a foundation of simple wealth. at least it doesn't pretend otherwise. any conversation that begins 'our architect suggested..' does not come with a secondhand camper van parked outside on the street, and so-called 'visionary architects' have a poor record of providing effective social housing.

on the other hand, if anyone were to be discovered interfering in any way with the Diana memorial fountain in Green Park, they'd most likely be lynched.

it can be of small wonder to anyone who has ever visited - or has the misfortune to have to inhabit - any of the architect-designed New Towns, or those clusters of high-rise accommodations that blight the outskirts of every city, that respect for their environment is low on its inhabitants' agenda. if, time and time again, the architects behind these mass social housing schemes get it so wrong (with one or two magnificent exceptions) as to drive their residents to the kinds of behaviours consistent with lab rats in a maze, who can possibly be surprised that, time and time again, the basic taboos against shitting in your own backyard get broken. once the fundamental constituents of what's been described as 'social capital' - ie citizenship, neighbourliness, trust and shared values, community involvement, volunteering, social networks and civic participation - have become so eroded as to have lost their structural integrity completely, nothing short of wholesale transportation or quarantine containment is going to prevent the leakage of the resultant socially degraded behaviour into society at large.

mediaeval piles are riddled with graffiti. one of the indispensable items in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gentleman-traveller's travelling trunk was a stonemason's chisel and mallet, which he would employ to carve his initials into the stone wherever he could find a space to do so. no abbey, bridge, milestone, or monument - from Wells Cathedral to Stonehenge - was exempt from his tag. some of these initials are carved with remarkable skill - it would seem that the art of stone-engraving - at least the art of engraving a decent Gothic font, complete with serifs - was considered on a par with all the others at one time.

such graffiti, however, are allocated a particular status in the public affection not so much for the skill of their execution - Banksy's work is more skillful - but for their historic association. a carving dated 1806 is automatically allocated a heritage rating that will never apply to a spray-painted 2006 simply on the basis of its age and its social provenance. a two-hundred-year-old defacement has acquired a patina no less valuable than if it were gold-leafed, not only because it's old, but because it was done, most likely, by a gentleman - a nobleman, even, with luck.

the automatic authority that formerly accrued to the ruling classes by dint of nothing more than tradition backed by overwhelming force has long since been passed on to the corporate vandals whose tags - they call them logos - stare down from every hoarding. nevertheless, the indiscriminate spraying of any blank surface just because it's blank isn't automatically to be applauded as an act of anarchic reclamation. for every graffiti artist whose stencilled works are replete with wit and wisdom there are a thousand amateurs whose daubs represent nothing more artful than the droolings of a dyspeptic hamster, and even though I might have had no say in the design and execution of most of the public stuff that I encounter on the street, I would prefer, for the most part, the unembellished blankness to the talentless tagging that usually stains it.

forced to side, though, I'd have to choose the spray-canning vandals against the ones with the forces of so-called law and order on their side. but woe betide them if they come spraying in my back garden.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Barenboim on Wagner

But can you, Daniel, separate the composer from his music? I mean we... you've mentioned Wagner, and he was known to be deeply anti-Semitic, and there are a lot of people in Israel, as you know yourself, who cannot stand to have his music played there.

Yeah but there's no ............

They cannot hear Wagner's music.

Yeah but that's not because he was anti-Semitic. This is a very dangerous sentence you just said now, because we will be here for the next two hours now.


The reason that Wagner is not being played in Israel, the reason at all is that, it's not because he was anti-Semitic. To be anti-Semitic was a part of the normal make-up of an intelligent thinking person in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was the very first...

Well he was Hitler's favourite composer.

Think of the ............... - sorry let me finish - the problem with Wagner is that he was used and abused because his writing, his prose, is vociferous, and horribly anti-Semitic. The music is not. Even the characters in the opera, there is not one anti-Semitic character in a Wagner opera. That you can use it to make of it, this is something else, but it is not. The reason for the Wagner problem for many Jewish people, for whom I have complete and total sympathy and understanding, is that many of them have seen members of their families being taken to the gas chambers in the concentration camp in Germany to the sound of The Meistersinger overture, and you ask yourself, how could they ever listen to this music again? This is the, the, the problem. My contention is of course that they can't, and of course they shouldn't, and of course there is no reason to make them do that. And - not but - and at the same time one must not give these people the right to stop other people, who fortunately do not suffer from this association, from hearing this music. This is the Wagner problem in embryo. "

(from the current Reith Lectures)

Monday, April 03, 2006

brief encounter

this fine young fellow turned up this morning - he (or she)'d obviously heard on the avian grapevine about the feeder. how is it that the mere act of a young kestrel coming to sit on your fence seems like a sort of beneficence? we stood regarding each other for a full five minutes. neither of us had very much to say. 'morning. 'morning. strange weather we're having. true. well, must be off.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


so what are we going to do about global warming?

that's we as in you and me, us, not the people, le peuple, il pueblo, das volk, not 'we' the citizens of this or that nation, since, clearly, our political leaders are lying through their straightened teeth about their intentions to do anything at all about it, and only listen to us at election times anyway and then only if we're in a marginal constituency; some, indeed, are still refusing to believe the science, although it couldn't be more persuasive if it were leaping around with a bare midriff and a hip hop backing (although, to be fair, these are the same people who run the country where half of the population believes the world and everything in it including the fossil record was created in seven days round about two thousand BC!), and so don't have any serious intention at all about doing anything about it. Kyoto? Fuckyoto.

so it's up to us - you and me.

first, we have to decide whether or not we care.

no, seriously. why should we care? so the planet's heating up a bit, most likely as a result of carbon emissions, and the net result is that the weather will change a bit and sea-levels will rise a bit. how bit a bit? well - predictions vary, but the likeliest scenario, given an unchanged carbon emissions situation over the next fifty years or so, is that Bangladesh and most of Florida, amongst other low-lying areas, will be inundated.

so, why should we care, assuming we (you and I - I'm still just talking about us) don't live either in Bangladesh or Florida, and safely above, say, the six metre contour line?

we're unlikely, after all, to be affected much in our lifetimes - not as much as by, say, the impending oil crisis - the total depletion of the crude oil supply, that is - which, even at a conservative estimate, is going to happen within the next twenty-five years (and we can safely ignore those reassurances from the oil industry and government about as-yet-to-be-discovered resources in deep water and at the poles - we can rest assured that that's the party-line government version of 'God help us').

but they'll find a fix for that - they have to, don't they? people need power. power to the people.

so why should we concern ourselves, you and I, about something that won't affect us?

what's the worst that could happen? it's all going to be very gradual, after all. it's not as if, come 2060-ish, between one year and the next, a billion people are going to be displaced from the old littoral zones to the new ones. there's going to have to be a gradual adjustment. if we were pragmatists rather than doomsayers, we'd be making our own preparations already. we'd be checking out on the maps for areas suitable to a post-deluge displaced economy, and purchasing land at the edge of what will represent the new shore line for redevelopment as part of a littoral economy. our present neighbours might look askance at our building a concrete rampart and levelling the area behind it on the side of a hill that's currently thirty miles from the sea, but our kids will thank us for providing them with a readymade harbour wall and the basis of a marine facility when the sea-level finally stabilises at the new median. we could call it Noah's Park.

it is, after all, the case that climate change - and alteration of the landscape by natural forces - is naturally periodic and inevitable, regardless of how much such change might be nudged along by overdosing on carbon dioxide emissions. it is also, in all probability, the case that it's already too late to reverse this process - the consensus in the climatological community seems to be that it's all happening at a rate already in excess of the worst-case predictions of ten or fifteen years ago, and that not even an immediate pan-global reduction to zero emissions would prevent what's going to happen from happening - just maybe a few decades later, is all.

so - what difference is it going to make if you and I were to reduce our energy consumption, insulate our homes better, make fewer journeys by plane, and recycle more of our waste? what difference, indeed, is it going to make, in the long term, if everyone - across the entire planet does this?

sweet fuckall, as we both know.

but that's not the point, is it?

the point is that we know - you and I - that, for the first time in human history, our carelessness about the environmental cost of our energy requirement has resulted in our precipitating an unthinkably catastrophic chain of events resulting in the accelerated melting of the polar ice-caps, the subsequent constitutional alteration of the major sea-currents that are the engine of global temperature regulation, the raising of mean sea-levels, and the planet-wide modification of climate patterns with as yet unpredictable further consequences. and we both know - because we know what 'ecology' means - that, although our industrial predecessors might be forgiven for their ignorance of the disastrous consequences of their carelessness, to continue behaving as if we were still in ignorance of those consequences is criminally irresponsible, and as stupid as expecting a broken tooth to grow back.

trouble is - given the relative pointlessness of the exercise, and the fact that our continuing profligacy with energy is only going to be sanctioned by its increasing cost, where's the incentive to change, except as a kind of moral hair-shirtiness? neither you nor I inhabit a place of closed-cycle self-sufficiency, so, even though we might wish to moderate our personal energy demand, there are still certain minima below which we simply couldn't function except in a radically changed social structure.

how do you feel, for example, about whiteness?

me, I like white. I love snow. I like milk. I like white bedsheets and towels and bath-robes. I like white rooms. I like white toilet bowls and sinks and work surfaces. I confess to a slight fetish about white knickers. ahem. but, snow and milk excepted, the ongoing whiteness of all of these white things is dependent on a regular treatment with something that often comes in an attractive bottle and is pleasantly perfumed to disguise the uncomfortable fact that its contents - often ammonia- or chlorine bleach-based - are horrendously inimical to the environment. that's aside from the energy requirement of the high-temperature wash. and yes, I know there are environmentally-friendly alternatives. I've tried them. they don't work.

the painful fact is that an environmentally friendly world is a grey world - grey sinks, grey towels, grey knickers - wherein white is an environmentally damaging luxury on a par with running a pimped 4x4 with fat cow-catchers and a 150 watts subwoofer. and whiteness is just one of the many, many things we'd have to compromise on in future if, together, we decided we were going to save the planet.

we might, on the other hand, just decide, fuckit, we're all sailing to hell in a handbasket anyway, why should I cut myself out of the loop, pass me my white tuxedo and my dancin' shoes and bring it all on, bro, let's live a little whilst we still can.

our choice. our call. our world.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

where angels fear to tread

In a coup for the Conservatives, the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, has declared his backing for David Cameron, releasing a song that the party hopes will become the Tory answer to Labour's 1997 anthem, Things Can Only Get Better.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

atanarjuat - the fast runner

'Getting top performance from an Inuit cast and crew required creating an Inuit 'culture of production' -- with good humour, no fear, a lot of patience and a spirit of flexible cooperation and teamwork rather than military-style control. Inuit have learned through the millennia that people cannot overpower reality. Our objective was not to impose southern filmmaking conventions on our unique story, but to let the story shape the filmmaking process in an Inuit way.'
(Zac Kunuk - Director)

we seem to be living in the midst of a global plague of lists. top ten tips infest the silly pages and the daytime schedules - kissing, teeth-whitening, getting seat upgrades on planes - wherever you look, whatever you're doing, there's someone bursting to advise you on how to do it better, faster, cheaper. by far the most irksome, though, are these top 100 lists. whenever I pay attention (increasingly rarely - apart from Neighbours, of course) to the box in the corner, there seems to be yet another meejah proto-sleb slithering onto the bottom rung of the sleb ladder by hosting yet another cheapskate piece of programming called the one hundred best .... songs, cereals, serial killers, septicemia victims, sump-oil addicts, cervixes .... it just seems to go on and on, hyperbole humping hyperbole until finally - desperate drum-roll - they come to the final superlative - the best!!!! voted by you!!!!! the public!!!!! which is always something by the beatles.

even if it's cereals.

which makes it just a teeny bit embarassing to have to announce that, actually ( meekly raises own stumpy little hoof), I've just watched the finest movie I've ever seen in my entire life.

whenever I've been asked in the past, my stock response, for want of having to go yet again through all that tedious conditional stuff about genres and defining classics and developing tastes and depending on this that or the other, has been to say Tarkovsky's 'Mirror', and leave it at that. but, from today onwards - move over Anzdrey - I have to practice yet another difficult name and title - Zac Kunuk's Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner.

I was little prepared for what this turned out to be, apart from having glanced at a review which had made it sound sufficiently interesting to bother adding to the ScreenSelect list. the fact of its having been released all of four years ago and won a clutch of prestigious international prizes had passed me by completely. these things happen when you take your eye off the ball. I knew it was going to be beautifully crafted and interesting, but I was totally unprepared for an experience which, if you'd told me a day earlier, I'd have said was impossible: the being flung back, as a spectator in the comfort of my own living room, into something very closely resembling that intensely visceral, pre-literate experience of what dear old Aristotle called catharsis.

in the Hellenic dramas, catharsis meant an audience at a tragedy becoming so closely involved in the acted-out experiences of people whose lives are transformed by forces of destiny directly attributable to divine interference that a form of spiritual cleansing and recharging takes place - a rehab for the soul involving purging and renewal through identification. the ancient Greek katharsis has the same root as the word for menstruation. when Aristotle used it to describe the proper objective of the dramatic tragedy he was employing the word in a uniquely affirmative sense that might, incidentally, give pause to those whose view of older civilisations sees patriarchy only as a form of oppression, but that's by the by.

the need for the dramatic experience per se hasn't changed much with time, although the theatre has, and it's been a very long time indeed since I felt anything like what I'm talking about here in the arena of the modern theatre. which just makes it all the more remarkable that this movie should ring that bell so resoundingly, being, as it is, a first major outing for the tiny independent Inuit production company (actually the only Inuit production company), Isuma, filmed entirely on location in the Canadian Arctic using a cast of mostly amateurs, with the dialogue exclusively in Inuktitut. thank heavens for subtitles, although I suspect that the sound of this language alone, one of the strangest I've ever heard, is a significant contributor to the overall effect.

the film is based on an ancient Inuit legend - a simple story about love and jealousy, murder and revenge, atonement and forgiveness, that might have been lifted from the epic canon of any culture at any time. without revealing too much - the less you know about what happens the better - it's safe to say that it contains one of the most astonishing screen chases ever - the protagonist naked and barefoot, running across the melting sea-ice, where the coldest of deaths is one mistake away. it makes the car chase in Bullitt seem like a stately procession in a padded bumper-car.

but that accounts for only five minutes of a three-hour movie which passes by unbelievably fast - astounding that three hours can fly by like that - as if Kunuk himself had temporarily assumed the time-bending mantle of one of the disturbing shamans who play a small but inordinately significant part, negotiating the uneasy relationship between the living and the spirits in this icy world where starvation is an invisible but omnipresent family member, always imminent, and kept at bay only by sets of survival skills that truly beggar belief.

if this were just a docudrama - a kind of latter-day Nanook of the North - it would probably have won anthropological and ethnological prizes for its realism alone: a hundred-times better funded wardrobe and properties department would have been pushed to achieve these sorts of levels of authenticity: from the sinew-belted sealskin longjohns to the polished-bone sunglasses, it all rings resoundingly true, and lacks only the smells (which, clearly, in a sweaty igloo stuffed with the farting and belching bodies of too many randy young men, are mind-bogglingly awful) to complete the picture of life lived as if on another planet entirely.

and the sounds! the crunch of mukluks (or are they kamiks?) in snow, the wind on the tundra, the swish of spit-polished caribou bone sledge-runners on ice, the crunch of fist on cheekbone, the howling of the dogs, the crunch of ice-block laid on ice-block to construct those extraordinary domed homes.

but this isn't an anthropological exercise; however lovely the people (who smile like angels) and however beautiful the landscape, this movie is not about - or only tangentially about - their different kinds of beauty. Kunuk's movie is a hair-raising accomplishment - the enactment of a legendary tale that is so immediate and compelling that, until you stop to think about it (later, when the movie's done what it has to do) you really have no clear idea when it is supposed to have taken place - not now, obviously, because there's no snowmobiles or satellite dishes, but, until you realise that there's no use of metals at all - something that was unavailable to the Inuit until the Europeans arrived in the seventeenth century - it might as well be happening anytime in the last thousand years, up to and including yesterday. the point being that, unlike countless movies that have authentically recreated the appearance of a particular time in order to tell a story, or countless theatre productions which have translated the classics into a different time in order, supposedly, to refresh their impact, Atanarjuat succeeds somehow in melding the timely with the timeless in a totally artful, but seemingly artless way, telling the story exactly as it comes - true to fifty generations of oral tellings-on, whilst simultaneously making it seem as though it is happening right here, right now, and succeeds, what's more, in fusing the epic concerns - of morality, of justice, of the proper application of power and responsibility - and the human concerns - of love, friendship, family duties, work and pleasure - into one seamless, magical garment that favours neither but exalts both.

Atanarjuat is a great artwork in that it totally transcends its immediate concerns, illuminating areas of understanding and empathy that can only be illuminated by great works of art, and which are as needful of illumination now - probably more so now - as when the first artists struck the first flints of artistic illumination. it is our experiences of such artworks that provide, aside from those self-constructed time-markers composed of our own memories and experiences, the most important milestones: markers in the timeline of the experience of mankind that synchronise, momentarily, with our own, and confirm our sense of belonging, of being on the right path, of being, actually, in the right time.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Leslie Walter Roylance 22nd May 1916 - 15th March 2006

As you probably know, Dad was born in Gorton, in east Manchester, in May 1916. He was the eldest of four, having two younger brothers and a sister. Sadly, Godfrey and Raymond predeceased him, although his sister, Molly, who caused something of a stir in the family when she married a missionary and sailed off to Papua New Guinea, is still very much alive and kicking down in Australia, and has just announced that she's planning a visit this summer.

When Dad was born, a mere eight years had elapsed since the first man-powered flight by Wilbur Wright at Kittyhawk. Claude Monet was painting his famous 'Water Lilies' and cementing the reputation of the Impressionists in art history forever, and the composer Gustav Holst was completing his suite, 'The Planets'. Overshadowing everything at that time, of course, was the terrible conflict of the First World War, with the Battle of the Somme only two months away, although the poets Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were forging a famous friendship on the Western Front, and writing the poems which were possibly the only good things to arise from that conflict, and Lawrence of Arabia was charging about on a camel meeting Omar Shariff on the Mesopotamian Front.

Dad was an almost exact contemporary of Len Hutton, a cricketing hero not only of his but of mine as well. He also very nearly shared a birthday with Gregory Peck, Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable, Yehudi Menuhin, Margaret Lockwood, and Roald Dahl, although if any of these people had anything at all in common apart from a coincidence of birth, I've failed to identify it. Perhaps they all liked ice-cream and mum's strawberry trifle, too.

I have very clear memories of that house in Oakfield Grove where Dad was born and brought up. It was at the bottom of a sloping Victorian terrace and on the edge of a park. Dad's upbringing was obviously strict but generous: my grandmother was a shadowy intimidating matriarch who smelt of mothballs - she died when I was seven or eight. But I used occasionally to call in at Grandad's on my way home from school. We played dominoes and I was allowed to light his cigarettes. He smoked Park Drive and occasionally Capstan, I think, and also had a Rizla rolling machine that I assumed worked by magic. I bought a copy of Roget's Thesaurus with the book-token he gave me on my thirteenth birthday, two months before he died. I still use it.

During my early childhood, Dad was a lay preacher at the local Baptist Church. I found nothing exceptional about this - I assumed, as children do, that that was what Dads did on Sundays, just as they played cricket and mended bikes on Saturdays and went to work during the week, and it wasn't until years later that I realised how exceptional this was amongst Dads, and furthermore, what a fine writer he was and a truly inspiring speaker.

This talent came to a late and glorious secular flowering when, after retiring from the bank, he embarked on a further career as a sometime lecturer, giving talks on his speciality of probate law. Although he finally had to give that up a few years ago as his failing sight prevented him from driving, I know that he got great pleasure from giving those talks, sharing the benefits of his experience with large numbers of people up and down the country. He was as witty as he was erudite, succeeding in making a talk about the amendments to the Inheritance Act of 1938 and the Law of Comorientes seem as much fun as an evening in with Morecambe and Wise.

There's no law, fortunately, that says fathers have to be repositories of homespun wisdom and advice. I say fortunately, because, if there were, I'd be a major transgressor. Either that, or I've inherited, as well as a host of fairly useful things like knowing instinctively how to reverse park and change a plug, the supremely sensible instinct as to when to hold your tongue. This might not be true for Nigel and Yvonne, but it was certainly the case for me - Dad recognised very early on that if he were to try giving me advice, I'd more than likely do the exact opposite out of sheer bloody-mindedness. So I don't, as some people seem to do, have many memories of his ever actually advising me to do anything.

Apart from the business of the little-known Denton West End Primary School playground wars of '54 - I was seven - when he took me aside one evening - he must have got wind of something going on - and said to me that if - he stressed the 'if' , because this was coming from one of the most pacific men I've ever met - if I were ever to find myself needing to fight someone, I should always remember one thing. My breath was truly bated. I assumed he was about to initiate me into some arcane martial arts secret that would have my enemy, David Winston, begging for mercy within seconds of my applying it. It was all about a girl, of course. Susan Haggas, of fond memory. If, he said, this were ever to happen, just remember one thing: don't keep your thumbs on the inside of your fists.

Which, if you think about it, is probably the most useless piece of advice any father ever gave to a son. I mean, what's that about?

Anyway, in the resultant melée, not only did I get my nose bloodied, but I got so confused that I almost dislocated both of my thumbs. Total triumph of David Winston. Except that, to the utter confusion of both of us, I got the girl. But that's women for you.

Tne only other piece of advice I can remember him giving was fairly obvious really, coming from someone whose working life was bound up with untangling the terrible messes people leave to their successors by dying intestate. Almost as soon as I was old enough to sign a legal document , he advised me to make a will. Sound advice. And, to give credit where credit's due, he's been banging on about it ever since. Have you made a will yet? Not yet, Dad. You ought to, you know. I know, Dad, you've been telling me that since 1968. So when are you going to?
Alright then.
Alright then.
You won't, will you?
I will, Dad.
Will you?
I will.

In common with most people of his generation, Dad's capabilities extended into areas that would put most of my generation to shame: to us, multi-tasking is just a computer buzzword - Dad embodied it.
His career had made him an expert in probate law, although he was well-versed in general legal principles from the solicitor's apprenticeship he had undertaken before deciding to enter the world of banking.
Aside from the expertise he brought to his work, however, he was more than capable, it seemed, of undertaking any of the practical tasks associated with running a household: from concrete-laying to shoe-mending, furniture-repairs to glazing, he seemed to be able to put his hand to anything, as well as playing a mean organ, having a beautiful calligraphic hand, and playing a ruthless game of scrabble.

He was generous to a fault, infinitely patient, scrupulously honest, and unburdened, it seemed, with an ounce of selfishness beyond that required of individual autonomy: you'd almost have to hold a gun to his head in order to get him to admit that, yes, he really wouldn't mind if you offered him that last chocolate truffle.

As is often the case in families, most of my memories of him are connected with family events, and very happy memories they are indeed, but, quite recently, when I was visiting Manchester with one of my own sons, we were walking down Moseley Street so that I could show him the bank where his grandad had worked for most of his life, the Head Office of what used to be William Deacons, long-since metamorphosed into something else in that strange world of corporate evolution, and, as we passed those imposing entrance doors, I suddenly remembered a meal we had shared together, just the two of us, more than fifty years ago. For some reason I don't recall, Mum had dropped me off at the bank, and Dad had shown me around: I was completely overawed, of course, by what seemed to me to be a kind of palace - vast halls, echoing marble floors, dark wooden panelling, ornate light-fittings, and people talking in hushed whispers about very important things. I was introduced to some of his colleagues, and felt very proud to be associated with this man whose life here - quite separate from our home in Denton - had a whole set of meanings which were quite indecipherable to a child of eight or nine, but who was clearly liked and respected by a bewildering number of men and women who were complete strangers to me. Then he took me down to the staff canteen, and there we sat at a table, just the two of us, and ate lunch. I don't recall anything that was said. That wasn't important. I clearly recall what we ate, however: ox-tail soup, roast beef, carrots and mash with gravy, and apple pie and custard. And there we were, just the two of us, me and my Dad, and me glowing, my heart overflowing with pleasure and pride and love.

Parenting is a catalogue of firsts: first gurgle, first smile, first tooth, first step. What gradually creeps up on us as time passes, however, is a corresponding catalogue of lasts, most of which pass by unnoticed: the last broken night, the last nappy-change, the last piggy-back, the last bed-time story. And, little by little, the list of lasts inevitably begins to overtake the list of firsts, until, one day, there's this final set of last things to remember: the last time we ate together, the last time we shared a joke together, the last time we spoke, the last time we embraced.

The sorrow of Dad's passing is great, but I know that time will eventually heal that sorrow and replace it with an ongoing remembrance of his life, an exemplary life, full of kindness, generosity, and laughter, a life which, in the midst of our mourning, we should celebrate, with hearts overflowing with pleasure and pride and love.

Friday, March 17, 2006

the creatives

it's normal to talk about this thing or that thing as being a 'work of art' when, in fact, it's just a pleasing construction: I've used it myself most recently with reference to someone's notebook, a salad, and a haircut.

so why do my hackles rise every time I hear someone talk about a TV commercial as a work of art?

for the simple reason that my own moral universe is predicated on the search for truth, which is a non-negotiable phenomenon, and the advertising industry is entirely about lying - which is not; and, more and more, I get the feeling that there are people out there - especially in the advertising industry - who really believe that some adverts are 'works of art' because they have failed to absorb the catastrophic social consequences of getting confused about this.

so they cruise around, these pampered agency hacks, on some convenient Panamanian-flagged yacht that's completely adrift from any recognisably responsible moral anchoring point, beholden to no form of compliance other than the needs of the client, and, having devoted the entirety of their creative energies to persuading us to purchase something that is utterly superfluous to our needs, compound that impertinence by trying to convince us that the manner in which they are doing it is somehow analogous to the work that an artist does.

bollocks, I say.

and yet again, bollocks.

there isn't an ad in existence that isn't a lie - no brand is the best, all products are subject to a process of market discrimination, our identities are not definitively endorsed by what we consume, Orlay will not stop time and recover lost youth. this doesn't really need saying, does it? if we truly believe that we need this thing rather than that thing merely because it bears a Sony rather than a Samsung logo, we are rightly condemned to spending the rest of our days in the peer-pressure infantilised, arrested-development state of a twelve-year-old.

these so-called 'creatives' of the industry are the evil spawn of a treacherous education system that teases creativity out of our children from the kindergarten onwards only to hijack it finally by trawling the major art colleges for potential artists who are willing to trade their souls for the astonishingly disproportionate rewards of being a 'creative.' so successful has this process become that they don't even have to do any pimping - by the time the struggling young student has arrived at the hallowed doors of Central St Martins or wherever, they've already been absorbed into the bowels of a system that, having industrialised art a long time ago, regards it as just another commodity, and the artist simply as a supplier of creative ideas.

I've yet to see a supposedly original advertising idea that hasn't been purloined from another artist, beit a classical or a contemporary one. the world of low-budget independent film - as vital a forum of genuine artistry as you can hope to find anywhere - is a favourite quarry, shamelessly strip-mined and repackaged as imagery devoid of context, but the entirety of the art world is fair game to these shameless shysters. Vivaldi's Four Seasons used to be a wonderful piece of music. now it's impossible to hear it - especially Spring - devoid of its association with a dozen kitsch, Tuscan-themed commercials for anything from holiday villas to toilet paper.

an image-junkie myself, I'm as susceptible as the next man to the lure of creative brilliance, and subscribe to the suspicion that there's growing to be more creative substance in the commercials than in the programmes they bracket, but as long as that substance is disengaged from any function more necessary than urging distinction between two or more identical brands of beer or jeans or mobile phones, I'll pass, thank you, on greeting them as works of art. I'll also continue a personal scoffing campaign at the toadying meejah-led hagiography of the ludicrously overpaid directors and lackeys of these agencies. as if having supervised a globally successful campaign to persuade people to buy one brand of deodorant rather than another were somehow a laudable thing, rather than a mildly contemptible and totally inexplicable waste of time and resources.

there is, of course, the possibility that I'm completely wrong, and that, in our effectively secular society, whose success is largely dependent on the fabulous profits to be made from waste and excess, 'truth' should be redefined as 'that which confirms our sense of purpose', which, almost by stealth, has acquired the tacit rider 'as consumers'. in such a society, the true purpose of art is to illuminate this truth, or at least to explore the boundaries of choice that contain it, and the ads, since by definition they fulfill this function, are therefore art.

in such a culture, the advertising industry has come to usurp the place formerly occupied by the reactionary establishments of the academy, and in such a case, when art's subversive potential has itself been subverted to such a reactionary cause, the only choice the true (!) artist has left is to withdraw from the field entirely, to refuse either to participate or to negotiate, and to engage only in such activities as could not under any circumstances be defined as art.