Monday, 17 December 2007

terrorism books

Dying to Win: Why Suicide Terrorists Do It by Robert A Pape (Gibson Square, £18.99)
At the University of Chicago, Pape has compiled a database of all acts of "suicide terrorism" around the world from 1980 to the present day: Hizbullah, Tamils, Sikhs, Chechens, al-Qaida and so on. What he finds may surprise ranting theorists of a clash of civilisations. Suicide terrorism is made more likely by a confluence of three factors. First, a military occupation of (or a direct military influence over) a homeland by a democracy. (The US military bases in Saudi Arabia were long Bin Laden's primary grievance, before they were mostly evacuated in 2003.) Second, a religious difference between occupier and occupied: the difference, rather than the content of any religion, is what counts. (Al-Qaida-type bombers overwhelmingly come from states under US military influence, not from countries with the biggest populations of "Islamic fundamentalists".) And third, "community support for martyrdom", including a supply of volunteers, who are generally well educated and not among their society's poorest.


What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat by Louise Richardson (John Murray, £12.99)

From a more sociological perspective, and using a wide variety of detailed case studies, Richardson arrives at a conclusion also supported by Pape: that people who commit suicide terrorism are not, by and large, crazed religious maniacs but rational actors, choosing a tactic that they suppose will further their particular political ends. ... She praises Tony Blair's first, unscripted speech in response to the July bombings of last year, in which "he spoke calmly of crimes and police work"; and makes some hard-headed statistical points: "The probability that terrorists will kill as many Americans as drunk drivers [will] in any given year is tiny." Possibly the most intelligent and readable contemporary one-volume account available.

- extracts from a couple of reviews by Steven Poole of books on terrorism in the Guardian of 9 September 2006

whim of iron

That Betjeman in middle age was able to divert his waning creativity as a writer into a brilliant career as a broadcaster and proselytiser was yet another sign of his eccentric talent, his "whim of iron".
- from a review by Simon Jenkins of AN Wilson's biography of John Betjeman in the Guardian of 9 September 2006

Saturday, 15 December 2007

santa's pin number

A simple joke from Friday's Now Show:
- What's Santa's pin number?
- 0-0-0-0.

Satan's pin number, of course, is quite different.
(And I can never hear the Iron Maiden classic without singing to myself '6-6-8, the neighbour of the beast'.)

they found him dead

Just started reading my third Georgette Heyer detective story and already wondering why I bother with the Agatha Christie chewing gum (of course it's the ease, and The List) - so much more wit and warmth, so much better written. Interesting to see in the Georgette Heyer Wikipedia entry that she thought her first detective story, Footsteps in the Dark - my disappointing second read of hers, after the good Detection Unlimited - sufficiently poor that she later asked the publishers not to reprint it. Also interesting that, as this brief newsletter item says, she was considered the Queen of Crime for a time, but is now remembered primarily for her historical novels. I think I am going to enjoy tracking down her nine other detective stories.

Friday, 14 December 2007

calm down

The gentlemen of Liverpool can't both keep complaining about being caricatured in the media as workshy criminals and also keep burgling their football players every time they play away.

away in an awesome manger

Away in an awesome manger: The Nativity story is a cornerstone of the Christian faith but can be a big hurdle for a bunch of skeptical New York teenagers.
- interesting article by Garrison Keillor in Salon of 5 December

jobcentre plus

Do as I say, not what I do: Four hundred and ninety-seven Jobcentre Plus staff have been sacked over the past year after failing to turn up for work.
- from the Guardian's Backbencher email of Wednesday 5 December.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

religion and politics in america

In America, meanwhile, 'those with no religious beliefs are shut out from political power. Earlier this year, a secularist group offered $1,000 to the highest-ranking politician in the land who would publicly proclaim no belief in God. This turned out to be Peter Stark, a Democratic congressman from the San Francisco area. He is the only congressman, of 535, who professes no belief in the Almighty.' This from an Economist article of 11 December on the religion and politics in America. British Christians must read this with baffled incomprehension, especially old lefties like myself who see nothing Christian about American politics and policy. 'An unbelieving president still seems an unlikely prospect.

'On the other hand, only 53% of Americans still say they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified atheist.' 'Only'? I'd take a atheist Labour candidate over a Christian Conservative candidate every time, other things remaining equal. Funny old world.

christianity and islam again

It seems superflous to note another article on the difference in treatment of Christanity and Islam in the media, but here's another one, this from Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph of Saturday 8 December. Accompanied as usual by a long tail of unthoughtful comments, and incorporating, as it's the DT, a bash against the BBC licence fee.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

the return of the native

In 1987, fed up with how miserable London had become, Jon Henley turned his back on England. Now after 20 years of living abroad, he is back. But there are a few things about New Britain that he finds positively baffling ...
- entertaining article from the Guardian of Monday 10 December.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

fiver news

Two interesting news snippets from yesterday's Guardian Fiver:

Jolly family man Neville Southall has successfully sued his daughter for £55,000 worth of trophies. Southall gave the memorabilia to her when she was 10, but now wants them back. "I'm devastated," his daughter Sam said. "I idolised my dad. I don't know how I'll pay the costs [which amount to £5,000]."

A match in Peru had to be abandoned at the weekend after Sport Ancash midfielder Efrain Viafara used his big, fat backside to control the ball, a move the opposition interpreted as an insult. "If they had sent off Viafara none of this would have happened," said Universitario captain Mayer Candelo.

religion and public life

An interesting set of articles from The Economist of 1 November about religion.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

letter b

Interesting Guardian item on the reissue of early Sesame Streets on DVD labelled 'These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today's preschool child':

'It's not the psychedelic nature of the programme in its 70s incarnation that worries, but the behaviour it might encourage. Children dancing in the street! Grown men reading storybooks to kids - for no apparent reason!

'Cookie Monster is the number one problem, not because he is a monster, but because he eats cookies (encourages obesity), and when his addiction takes a special stranglehold, the plate (might hurt). His alter ego, Alistair Cookie, used to smoke a pipe before eating it, which, Sesame Street producer Carol-Lynn Parente explained to the New York Times, "modelled the wrong behaviour", and so Alistair was, tragically, dropped, and he now probably munches down on pipes in bitterness in illegal pipe dens.

'The clearly depressed Oscar the Grouch is another problem: "We might not be able to create a character like Oscar today," said Parente, which is possibly one of the most depressing sentences I have read in my life.

'For those of us reared on Sesame Street, the degree to which the show is embedded in our psyche is hard to overstate. My favourite segment was the 1979 one when the Muppet band the Beetles, suitably mop-topped, if a little fuzzier of face than the originals, sang their poignant ballad Letter B (sample lyric: "When I find I can't remember/What comes after A and before C/ My mother always whispers, 'Letter B'," and yes, I am quoting from memory).'


SB's been listening to Wimoweh/Lion Sleeps Tonight. Nothing matches Karl Denver's extraordinary and tremendous version of Wimoweh. I remember years ago Dannies Baker and Kelly suggesting that some football team should adopt it as their run-out music, in order to really strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. There's a live version of it on YouTube, with Roy Hattersley on lead guitar; everything's on YouTube. Karl Denver was a merchant seaman from Glasgow. I've got a Best Of, which is proof than an artist can produce one stupendous song and nothing else of any real value.

Saturday, 1 December 2007


Yesterday afternoon changed my mind about getting the bus home from Oxford Circus and got the tube instead. In walking from the bus stop north of Oxford Circus to the steps down into Oxford Circus tube - a walk of about twenty seconds - I passed coming the other way separarately first Alistair McGowan and then Steve Punt. Whenever you see someone off the telly around there, you assume they're going to or coming from the BBC.

house prices

Our house seems to have tripled in value since we bought it nine years ago. This isn't especially good news, since so has every other house in London. I don't know how first-time buyers manage, especially if they're single and working in the charity sector, say. A third of a million for a two-bed ex-council smaller than the two-bed council I grew up in; that's just nuts. Needless to say, we couldn't afford it now; we could barely afford it then.

a letter of comment

_Kip Williams_ channels Jeanette Winterson: 'I enjoyed the latest issue, and the note about Ms Le Guin. / Of course, though, this is not a letter of comment. Please make no mistake, though it is a letter and it comments (see above), it is not one of those shallow "gosh-wow Flash Gordon" LoCs that dwell tediously on the minutiae of ... I don't know ... margins or staples or something. No, it deals fearlessly with real human issues and emotions, using, perhaps, some elements also found in letters of comment, but in a much more real and relevant and humanly worthwhile sort of way. / I could go on about the differences between this and letters of comment, but as I haven't really read any, I can only presume that I am blazing new trails in literature with this humble missive, which owes nothing to anything that has come before. Behold the future! / Well, I'll let you get back to your letters of comment now. I expect they must seem silly and shallow to you now, but carry on.'

- a nicely-done letter from David Langford's November Ansible, on the back of Jeanette's denial (as per usual with writers and critics of literature) that there is nothing of SF in her new book (which of course there is).

back on silver street

Jeremy Muldowney (Letters, October 27) is mistaken when he says that in my In Search of Shakespeare I suggested that Shakespeare's landlady was Catholic. If he had troubled to read the book, he would have found the story of Shakespeare lodging with the Mountjoys, a Huguenot family, in some detail - a tale which has been well known since Charles Wallace published it in 1910. As for the "vigour" of my research, he would have also found a reconstructed map of Silver Street, and references to material which had hitherto been largely unexplored by Shakespeare biographers, including the St Olave's Parish register, the Barber Surgeons Archive, Ralph Treswell's property surveys for the Clothworkers company, the Carriers Cosmographie and other documents and texts pertinent to Shakespeare's time there - even including the unnoticed floor plan of the house itself. These have since been used by a number of writers, including Charles Nicholl (whose book I have much enjoyed).

As for Shakespeare's religion, I assumed that he was a conforming Protestant in his period in Silver Street - but as is well known there is a great debate over this, and to be a lodger in a Huguenot house ( with a home address in the Midlands) on the face of it might have allowed some latitude to anyone who wished to keep his private religious beliefs to himself.

- Michael Wood defends himself in the Guardian letters page of Saturday 3 November.