Wednesday, 30 July 2008

rush limbaugh was right

Rush Limbaugh was right: The blogosphere's reaction to the New Yorker cover proves that the Bush era has killed a lot of liberals' sense of humor. And that's not funny.
- Salon, 15 July

obama's missing two per cent

Can you hear me now? Obama's missing 2 percent: By failing to survey cellphone-only voters, pollsters could be undercounting Barack Obama's support by millions of voters.
- Salon, 14 July

that welsh 999 call

The Control Room conversation, which took place in May, was recorded - and below is a transcript:
Control Room: "South Wales Police, what's your emergency?"
Caller: "It's not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there's a bright stationary object."
Control room: "Right."
Caller: "If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It's been there at least half an hour and it's still there."
Control: "It's been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?"
Caller: "It's in the air."
Control: "I will send someone up there now to check it out."
Caller: "OK."
The mystery was soon solved, as the exchange between control and an officer at the scene, makes clear.
Control: "Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?"
Officer: "Yes, it's the moon. Over."
- BBC, 4 July

1948 british olympics squad members

'It was the youth of the world getting together': As Britain's Olympic team head for Beijing, Emine Saner meets six members of the 1948 squad - from the 77-year-old swimmer who darned her costume before the race, to the 87-year-old cyclist who rode a £10 steel-framed bike.
- Guardian, 10 July

Monday, 28 July 2008

'I have never, ever, seen hazel type'

Never Learn To Type

Hazel Blears' team may have been burgled the other day and had a hard drive stolen but the audit of missing documents was apparently not too difficult to conduct.

"It was rather easy to work out what documents were lost," Blears' staffer tells the Backbencher. "Everyone who works for her went through their archive of sent items and looked for ones to Hazel."

Is that it? "Yup. Other than that, there would have been nothing else on the computer. I have never, ever, seen Hazel type."

The Backbencher is envious. Not for Hazel a life tethered to a keyboard. Not for Hazel the ennui of thinking: "Why Do I Do This Everyday?" That's what keeps the pepper in Mrs Pepperpot's pot.

- from the Guardian's Backbencher email of 25 June

a post-space-travel world

Alex also notes Nasa's fiftieth birthday. As I commented, it is odd to be living in a world in which space travel is in the past but not in the present (shuttle and space station notwithstanding), a world in which we are too young to remember space travel. That's one option that the science fiction didn't foresee.

piper alpha again

Alex had a more sombre connection with Piper Alpha than I had, which I had remembered. My two memories of it, apart from Alex's connection which I learned of later, are watching it on telly in the school of education's halls with my mother, where my parents were staying while over for the graduation, and of my mother saying that Billy next door, who worked offshore, phoned home from his rig/platform to say he was fine but couldn't say why he was telling them this, and had to get off the phone quickly to let all the others make their short phone calls. The world before mobile phones (I don't know if you get reception in the north sea).

I'd meant to note this yonks ago; Alex's post is down to the third page now. From time to time I mean to give some kind of considered response to one of Alex's posts - usually a science/religion one - but before I manage to get down to devoting time to a polished, nuanced comment, seven weeks have passed. Which always puts me in mind of the Smith and Jones sketch where in their office someone brings round a maternity leave card for them to sign, with high expectations of how funny their comment in the card will be, and they spend so long wrestling with what to write that before they've finished the mother and baby are popping in to the office for a visit.

why clinton voters say they won't support obama

Why Clinton voters say they won't support Obama: The attack of the PUMAs, or a dozen reasons why Clinton voters are still too angry to come home.
- Salon, 23 June

Sunday, 27 July 2008

private eye cartoon

Cartoon from Private Eye of 25 July 2008. Same pair of shops pictured three times: in 1978 they are butcher and baker, in 1998 they are travel agent and estate agent, in 2008 they are charity shop and charity shop.

amused moose

I went to two Amused Moose pre-Edinburgh showcases - Hot Starlets 3 and 4 - of 'up and coming' talent this evening at the Arts Theatre's Comedy Cellar - first time for a long time I've been to a comedy gig.

Line-ups from Amused Moose website:
7.15: AmusedMooseComedy's Hot Starlets #3 featuring David Mensah, Hannah George, Kurt Driver, Liam Spiers, Luke Benson, Mark Cornell, Mark Restuccia - hosted by Rob Tarbuck
8.45: AmusedMooseComedy's Hot Starlets #4 featuring Martin Hill, Mike Wozniak, Moonfish Rhumba, Scott Calonico, Seann Walsh, Tania Edwards, Tom Rosenthal - hosted by Rob Tarbuck

The compere said that they were the last shows of any kind at the Arts Theatre - I presumed he meant the Cellar, but I see from the Arts Theatre's website that they've had a chequered recent history, so who knows. He also said the Rolling Stones had played the wee room way back when, no reason to believe he was joking.

The acts were a mixed bag, as you might expect. Interesting, and predictable, how often they went for the easy crude laugh, sometimes letting down what was really a promising style, approach or persona. Luke Benson was a genial Geordie who was charming, Tom Rosenthal did a good nervy Jewish style. Kurt Driver did a thing going along the line and getting people to make suggestions to make up a story - like so many of these things, takes nerve when you're starting out but could work well if he gets enough appreciation and recognition that people buy into his style, there's a point at which you get a critical mass that people know what you do and go with it. Those three, and David Mensah (British Ghanaian, the only coloured comic), were the cleanest. Moonfish Rhumba - double act using music backing track, kind of educated English rap, laughs through incongruity - were good in their clean bits. Scott Calonico, an American, made heavy weather of it; Hannah George was a bit like a loud friend who isn't as funny as they think. Mike Wozniak had a beautiful style - deadpan, erudite - but unnecessarily crude material. Tania Edwards had potential, Liam Spiers too. Doubtless the ones I thought unremarkable or less than average are the ones who will go on to success. Some of the names I look at and even now not only can't I remember what their comedy was like, I can't even picture them.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

little girls gone wild

Little girls gone wild: Now companies sell padded bras to 6-year-olds. Isn't it time to stop marketing grown-up sexuality to little kids?
- Salon, 20 May

psycho christians and the media

Psycho Christians and the media: Why the press gives McCain a pass for consorting with [crazy] holy men, but condemns Obama to talk-show hell for the same sin.
- Salon, 20 May

Monday, 21 July 2008

feist on sesame street

Feist on Sesame Street - via Graham Linehan's in-this-case-certainly-accurately-named blog, Why That's Delightful. That's a splendid song; I suspect it's a version of a song of hers which I've never heard called '1234' (in fact, I'm not sure I've ever knowingly heard anything by Fiest); I'll need to listen sometime to check.

I knew that Graham Linehan had, rather against the spirit of the times, criticised comedy writers for going for the cheap dirty laugh - here's a recent Stage article relating to that, and a post of his.

PS - found 1234 on YouTube (every music video seems to get on there automatically); nice video too.

lesser-known pipe tunes

The Highlander's Farewell To His Departing Minister: 'Bye, then.'
We don't really do big emotional farewells.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

the actor who wrote hamlet

The Actor Who Wrote Hamlet: The Third Series of Arden Shakespeare editions has produced the best evidence yet that what scholars refer to as the "text" of Hamlet is actually a script. Three scripts in fact: the so-called Bad Quarto of 1601, the Second Quarto (Q2) of 1602, and the First Folio of 1623. How are they doing this? Instead of conflating all three source scripts into a single version that was never produced by the pen of Shakespeare, Arden is giving primacy of place to Q2, both because it was printed during Shakespeare's lifetime and because it's generally recognized to be derived from a copy of Will's handwritten manuscript (what scholars call "foul papers" and theatre people call a "cut and paste draft").
- start of an interesting blog post on A Likely Story, by an American chap, which I hadn't come across before but found via The Hamlet Weblog, which I hadn't visited for ages.

The Hamlet Weblog also directed me to this on Wellesnet, an Orson Welles radio production of Hamlet in two parts - looking forward to seeing if those links still work and are downloadable.

'in search of the perfect hamlet'

In search of the perfect Hamlet: As David Tennant prepares to play Hamlet, the Times's theatre critic names his top ten actors in the role, but is still waiting for someone to play it perfectly
- Times, 18 February

advance tickets

I bought tickets yesterday further in advance than I've ever done before - Hamlet in the Donmar Warehouse production in Wyndham's Theatre next summer. The whole season - from this autumn to next autumn - went on sale a few months ago, and the Hamlet next summer is almost sold out. I only wanted a single ticket on a Tuesday night, and there were already some nights that had none, and the others mentioned had between one and three available. I got one in June and one in July, three weeks apart, knowing on the one hand that I've no real idea what I'll be doing on Tuesday nights next summer and on the other that the run will sell out and I'll easily be able to return the other ticket and get it resold. I wonder how many others are doing a similar thing. Jude Law's doing Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh's directing.

In December the RSC production of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart currently on (and sold out, as far as I can make out) in Stratford transfers to the West End. Tickets for the transfer go on sale in September; I popped in to the box office to see if they had a leaflet about it. They didn't; they also said that they were advising people that if they wanted to get a ticket they should join the RSC membership scheme, as the tickets are on sale to members already and may sell out; when I went on the RSC website they had a disclaimer, obviously realising what people were doing, to say that members wouldn't necessarily get a ticket or a ticket on their preferred night. I might still have a chance on opening ticket day, as I'm only after a single ticket, or I may have to take my chances queuing for dayseats.

national theatre follow-up

The National Theatre is the first theatre, or wider venue, that's started sending me emails after I've attended an event there and inviting me to follow links to comment about it on the messageboard for that production, recommend it to a friend or read reviews and see production photos - I got ones after Major Barbara and The Revenger's Tragedy this year.

charles williams

Charles Williams, the odd Inkling: The Archbishop of Canterbury admires a new consideration of the critic, poet and theologian
- Times Literary Supplement, 18 June. I have one of his books, still unread.

Opening para of review:
Of the three central and iconic figures of the “Inklings”, Charles Williams has always been rather the odd man out in comparison with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. This is not only to do with Tolkien’s well-documented antipathy towards Williams; there is a whiff of brimstone in the nostrils of some when they read of his involvement in hermetic or occultist groups, and of his agonized and confused sexuality. The novels are bewildering in style and content (Ashenden quotes C. S. Lewis’s acerbic comment that Williams did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse), the late poetry famously obscure, and the critical and theological essays wildly idiosyncratic. Yet it is impossible not to feel that he inhabited a larger world than either Tolkien or Lewis (as the latter acknowledged); and someone who made so deep an impact on both T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, neither of them carelessly generous in their literary or personal estimates of others, surely deserves a second look. Geoffrey Hill has recently stressed the energy and intelligence of Williams’s work on the history of English poetry. Theologians continue to circle round the doctrinal work with nervous respect. And the late “Taliesin” poems still excite something of the same uncertain fascination in a surprising variety of readers.

inevitable ps

A PS, inevitably, to last night's long post. I notice of course that I take for granted my unspoken rules of one album per artist and no compilations. It would also be interesting to compare that list with lists of albums I have listened to most often a) ever and b) in the last year or two years. I'm sure I'd find that there are albums there I haven't listened to at all in the last two years, and not just those I don't own. And there would be more compilations in those lists, especially various artists compilations. While really enjoying hearing Ain't That A Shame on the American Graffiti compilation last night, I remembered that I have a Fats Domino compilation. But one is rarely in the mood for a whole album of Fats Domino (and I've noticed that this, counterintuitively, is a drawback of CDs' longer playing time - you can fit more tracks onto a compilation, but sometimes you'd actually rather hear that artist's ten top songs than sit through an extra forty minutes of their fifteen next best songs). Such are the delights of the jukebox effect of VA compilations and the iPod shuffle - a particular ukulele or punk track popping up, say, can sound great and refreshing, when it would lose its appeal if it were the twentieth in that vein in a row.

Friday, 18 July 2008

lists - albums and films

In May and June Jay and Michelle did a sequence of lists of thirty things, including favourite albums (Jay and Michelle) and films (Jay and Michelle).

Made me realise that I've never made a list of my favourite films. I won't do one just now, but I think that, rather like my albums list, they'd be older on the whole than Jay and Michelle's, and a lot more black and white. I've seen a lot of the films on their lists, but none of them leap out as dead certs for my top thirty.

I made a list of favourite albums once, a top ten probably, I think to send in to a magazine poll - possibly long ago enough that it was Q, or may have been Mojo. My list would probably include much the same things now; despite my best efforts to ensure that my musical tastes do not remain frozen from my teens, my musical tastes remain largely frozen from my teens. I've heard more, so many tracks I like have come in over the years from various sources and genres, but not many whole albums. Similar to something Nick Hornby said in an album review once, I don't have the time to commit to repeated listenings of new albums that I did when I was younger. Too much in the relentless pursuit of the new.

Thinking about Jay and Michelle's lists, and what might have been on my old list, did make me think I should make sure I've got what I used to consider my favourite albums on CD. I got Peter Gabriel 3 for £5 on my last Fopp visit, which I'd been keeping an eye out for (as most of the others were popping up there for £5). Today I got Moving Pictures by Rush for £3 - which incidentally is probably cheaper than the secondhand lp version I bought when I was in school. I was worried that I wouldn't like it so much as I had before, because I got Exit Stage ?Left a while ago and it was a little disappointing, and covered much of the MP material, but listening to MP earlier this evening I enjoyed it a lot, and I was glad the live album hadn't put me off buying it. As with a lot of other albums, I wonder if I'd like it as much now if I listened to it now for the first time, and hadn't put the hours in, especially as the compilation I got a few years ago which started with MP material, I didn't find any of the later material my cup of tea at all. Sometimes one album from a group hits you personally where the rest of their catalogue doesn't; sometimes that happens for everyone (I always think of REO Speedwagon in that regard, whose High Infidelity was massive and which was preceded and followed by many albums which made no impact at all as far as I'm aware).

My old list would have had a Beatles album, almost certainly The Beatles; a longer list might have more. ELO Out of the Blue. Blondie Plastic Letters. The Rutles. These albums all date to when I only had a tape recorder, and about a dozen tapes.

The Sundays Reading, Writing and Arithmetic would actually date from London years - I remember watching the video for Here's Where The Story Ends in the kitchen in Gosberton Road, Balham on the video chart show on ITV or C4 on Saturday mornings. Another London one would be The La's.

The Cure Seventeen Seconds, which I associate with Ali Miller for some reason. Holding out for the possibility that the double cd version will get cheap in Fopp. Cat Stevens Teaser and the Firecat, got in a sale of work in Stornoway, remember an adult friend who was there saying, after I'd picked it up, that it was very good; he was right. Just the thing for a lovelorn teenager. Jethro Tull Broadsword and the Beast, associate with Douglas, Malcolm, Alex, and a party at Alex's. The Doors, associate with Chris.

Because I did so much of my buying secondhand and my listening to the radio, most of the things which were my favourites (whether particular albums or artists in general) were behind the times.

Big Country The Crossing. Alarm Strength. Runrig Recovery. Cathie Ann MacPhee Canan nan Gaidheal. Fairport Convention Unhalfbricking. U2 The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree; I prefer the atmosphere of the former, remember listening to tape of it in my bedroom at home, borrowed I'm pretty sure from Alex; the latter I remember listening to in my bedroom in Bellfield Road, Aberdeen, at university. Mike Oldfield Hergest Ridge - I like Tubular Bells a lot too, but I'll always be a Hergest man; Douglas remarked on how much less is happening in it than TB, and that may be why I like it more, fewer dynamics, slower moving with more drones and harmonics. REM Automatic for the People. David Bowie Hunky Dory - I associate with listening to in Chris's bedroom. The Bangles A Different Light. Proclaimers Sunshine on Leith. The Voice Squad Holly Wood. Frazier Chorus Sue (Martin Freeman's brother the main man, it turns out). Bryn Haworth On The Wings Of The Morning. Larry Norman Upon This Rock. Paul McCartney, in the past it would have been Ram, now probably London Town for its variety. John Lennon Plastic Ono Band (his only good album, actually; 'actually', indeed). Lynyrd Skynyrd Pronounced (probably, along with The Corries, the most underrated band among my favourites). The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Lemon Jelly KY. Tubeway Army Replicas. Penguin Cafe Orchestra Signs of Life. Queen A Night At The Opera. Gerry Rafferty City To City. Suzanne Vega 99.9F.

There is some overlap with both Jay and Michelle's lists, on artists if not actual albums. Pink Floyd, not sure if a whole album would make it; probably Dark Side of the Moon, although in the past it would have been The Wall.

Would Fleetwood Mac Rumours make it on now? It wouldn't have in the past, but I hadn't heard it for a long time; associate with Richard at home and Rosalind at university. Steeleye Span All Around My Hat may have been on that list, but wouldn't be now. Abba The Album and Michael Jackson Thriller probably wouldn't have made it onto a list in the past, but would now. Ironically, The Album is the only Abba one I don't have on CD - still holding out for a Fopp fiver purchase. It, along with Greatest Hits Vol 1, was in my small tape collection.

Greatest Hits Vol 1 may have been the first tape I got. I am airbrushing out of history the first two tapes I remember being mine, which were Bay City Rollers Once Upon A Star and The Rubettes Wear Its 'At, because my mother got them from a music club, and I've no memory of ever listening to them. Other tapes I definitely had were a double set of Everly Brothers Pickwick compilations (drawn, as with all the cheap Everly Brothers compilations, from the Cadence years - of which I now have the complete recordings on CD) and the Warner Brothers Walk Right Back compilation. I had ELO Discovery, which was tight and so wobbled a bit on one side. A double tape of Elvis Greatest Hits - the albums were on pink vinyl, so the cassettes were pink plastic in pink boxes; I remember my parents gave them to me for my birthday, and at first I only got one volume because the assistant didn't realise you got both for the money; when my mother went back to buy the second, they realised their mistake. I had a Connie Francis Greatest Hits and Sings Country and Western Greats, which I transferred from my mother's collection. I had a Walt Disney Greatest Hits, which I continued listening until it was chewed up in the car earlier this year. I've got it beside me just now, it was a Ronco issue, with 24 tracks; I'm keeping it until I compare it with the triple Walt Disney hits CD I got subsequently, to see what the CD's missing; the obvious one it's missing is Whistle Stop, which was one of my favourites. What's also missing, which I've noticed for a number of years, is the dialogue from the Jungle Book songs (and perhaps others), which was on that tape but never on the versions you hear now. I guess they stripped the dialogue out so they didn't have to pay royalties to the speaking but non-singing actors. What I also realise now from the CDs is how ruthlessly the 24 songs were edited to fit them onto the tape. Blondie Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat on tape also.

I've probably mentioned all the tapes I can remember having now.

And of course there are vast swathes of artists who I listen to a lot who wouldn't figure on an album list; The Everly Brothers, The Corries, Simon and Garfunkel and They Might Be Giants, off the top of my head. I've got a complete Buddy Holly boxset on tape, waiting in vain so far for it to come out on CD.

There's a couple of albums there I need to keep an eye out for, to be reacquainted with. I had to remind myself of some of the above by looking through my CDs now.


I popped into Fopp today for a price comparison, and bought a wodge just from their £3 section, which they've introduced recently - 11 CDs, five of them doubles, and the Rutles film on DVD.

There's a new out-of-copyright compilations label on the block, Not Now Music, and I've had a few interesting ones from them. The out-of-copyright stuff has got more interesting in the last couple of years, as we've started to reach the rock and roll years. There was a bit of fuss about it last year - BBC stories from last May and July, when it came up in parliament - and, surprisingly, this from yesterday, which suggests that the copyright coverage might be re-extended. In which case, I'd better snap up those compilations now. As with all these, you have to watch out for small print indications that they include live recordings or re-recordings. Interesting that some people have started putting out whole early albums rather than random compilations, perhaps just because they're the albums which have gone out of copyright, perhaps thinking they'll work through the artists' catalogues as they become available.

My last Fopp expedition got me a Not Now double CD, Music Inspired By O Brother Where Art Thou, this time I got Music Inspired By American Graffiti. Of course neither of them are any such thing, which annoys a pedant like me, since in both cases they contain music recorded decades before those films were released. They should of course be called Compilations Inspired By...

Quite a few of the other cheap compilations they have are ones which are date tied, so I guess harder to sell when they appear to be out of date. Today I got two double CDs of music relating to the Radio 3 World Music Awards 2003 and 2006.

Others are those which I suspect are being cleared out in relation to the bringing out of a new version - remastered, or extra tracks. Sometimes I hold off buying these in anticipation that the newer versions will eventually come out, or come down in price - because others, conversely, are special editions which have had extra material but they've reverted to the regular version.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

blackfriars bridge barge thing

I saw this mysterious engineering barge thing in the river between the Blackfriars Bridges on Saturday and took some photos of it. This Notice to Mariners refers: 'On about 23 June 2008, for a period of about six months, a structural inspection will be carried out on Blackfriars Railway Bridge using the jack-up barge'.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

moonlight and magnolias

On Tuesday I went to the Tricycle Theatre to see Moonlight and Magnolias, a play about the turning of Gone With The Wind from a book into a film. It was as I'd expected, a mixture of cultural history lesson and reflection on the nature of 30s filmmaking, and I enjoyed it. Andy Nyman (as David O Selznick) and Nicholas Woodeson (as Ben Hecht) were particularly good. The actor playing the director seemed a smidgin away from doing Jimmy Stewart a few times. As the interview with the author, and the Telegraph review, say, the play is unusual in valuing the role of the producer rather than the writer or director.

Some reviews; mostly of the original run rather than this revival, so the cast's not exactly the same. British Theatre Guide. The Times. West End Whingers. Evening Standard. The Guardian. Interview with Andy Nyman, who played David O Selznick (and who reminded me from time to time of Ricky Gervais). Sunday Times. Tricycle's review page. The Times. Daily Telegraph. Time Out. Financial Times. Reviewsgate. Jewish Chronicle. Ron Hutchinson article in the Daily Telegraph. Evening Standard on the revival.

henry viii

This evening I saw an abridged, rehearsed/staged reading of Henry VIII at the site of the Rose Theatre (modern official site here), part of the National Archaeology Week. It's most famous for the fact that it was during a performance of it that the Globe theatre burned down when one of the cannons set fire to the thatch. Also thought to be one of his last plays, possibly his last, possibly a co-write. The actor who introduced it said that when it was performed - which it is rarely - it was usually political bits that were cut rather than personal bits, but they'd be doing the reverse, hence Ann Boleyn wouldn't be in this version.

The production, such as it was (cast on the same floor as we thirty or forty £5 donaters, dressed in black, the occasional hat, scripts in hand), was pretty good. The lady who played Queen Catherine was very good. There wasn't even a cast list, though, so I've no idea who she or any of the others were; a bunch of young actors getting something on their CVs, at least. The play itself seemed fine, nothing startling.

It's a kind of half-tick for my list, and will do until I get a proper one. This and King John remain.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

mickey mouse and bugs bunny

Comedy writers have a long-running debate, one that lasts through bottles of wine and into the early morning hours. It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this. Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, he has no point of view, no real character, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise-guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of thin air, kissing his enemy on the lips and, in the face of death and torture, calling out a cheery, 'What's up, Doc?' Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star? People don't seem to be able to get their fill of that little rat, him with his squeaky voice and gee-whiz attitude. Mickey is completely inoffensive, involved in a long-term, caring relationship, optimistic. Bugs is the opposite: he's a wild man with a raging carrot-dependency, big with the exploding props and the verbal abuse, and one of these days he's going to go over the edge. Mickey never will. He and his girlfriend will spend their days in inoffensive, unfunny bliss. But it is Bugs who makes up laugh, and isn't that, after all, enough?
Creating a television sit-com means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likeable, not terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend, on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sit-com would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugses with a Mickey around to say things like, 'What's going on here? Are you all out of your minds?'
The networks like things likeable. The writer like things funny. Sometimes - rarely - these two forces mesh and create a funny, likeable show. Sometimes - usually - the network gets its way and another show hits the airwaves set in the Village of the Happy People, where characters learn things and share and hug and make everyone sick. And sometimes - with roughly the frequency of Halley's Comet - something slips through the sticky machine and comes out both funny, likeable,sharp and new. Seinfeld, say. Or Cheers.
Cheers had only one guiding principle: be funny. When in doubt, be funny. Don't go too long without a laugh. The underlying philosophy of this attitude is a kind of humility: the audience, more or less, was as intelligent as we were. They had roughly the same sense of humor, had roughly the same level of cultural awareness, were as loath to be preached to as we were. As difficult as it is for a cultural elitist - a writer! an educated person! - to admit, we were no smarter than our audience. And this, I think, is what ensnared the intellectuals into the Cheers trap - and make no mistake, Cheers was an officially approved show for highbrows and smarty-pants. We lured them into the tent with intellectual references, a few Kierkegaard jokes, a pun here or there, but what kept them watching was what kept the rest of the audience watching: we did a show about a bunch of people who hung out in a bar, an guy who chases women, another guy who talks all the time, and another guy who drinks beer after beer with remorseless, unmitigated monotony.
- p21, Rob Long, Conversations With My Agent; Faber and Faber, 1996. An interesting book, but pretty short, shorter than it appears, even, because of the script format of so much of it

rude old lady

'No,' said Tommy. 'Why should you [come too]? She's not your aunt. No, I'll go.'
'Not atl all,' said Mrs Beresford. 'I like to suffer too. We'll suffer together. You won't enjoy it and I shan't enjoy it and I don't think for one moment that Aunt Ada will enjoy it. but I quite see it is one of those things that has got to be done.'
'No, I don't want you to go. After all, the last time, reember how frightfully rude she was to you?'
'Oh, I didn't mind that,' said Tuppence. 'It's probably the only bit of the visit that the poor old girl enjoyed. I don't grudge it to her, not for a moment.'
- p11, By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, Agatha Christie, 1968; Fontana, 1974 edition

more jarhead

During our second trip from the Triangle to the rear-rear, in the middle of October, I become rather sick over the realisation that the base we've been ordered to enjoy - showers, private toilets ..., two bunks and air conditioner per room, sidewalks, televisions, VCRs, chow hall, pogey-shack - is probably not, as we've been told, an abandoned oil company camp, but actually a military base that had sat vacant for years, waiting for the American protectors to arrive in the event of a regional conflict, protectors who'd be tolerated until they obliterated the threat and returned the region's massive oil reserves to their proper owners. We are soldiers for the vast fortunes of others.
- p63

We stayed drunk for many months. There was the problem of cause. Why was our friend dead? In the PI he'd been on hot jungle patrols against Islamic rebels. He'd lived through the Gulf War with us. We blamed the Marine Corps at first: if they'd allowed him to reenlist, he'd never have been driving down that cold road. We blamed the economy and the failing town of Greenville: if the nearest worthwhile job wasn't thirty miles away, he wouldn't have been driving down that cold road. We blamed his fiancee: if she hadn't postponed the marriage, he would've been living near San Diego, where there is no such thing as black ice on cold roads. And then there is the realisation that the cause of a death like Troy's is ineffable, everywhere and nowhere at once, unknowable, like the mirage. I'd been prepared to watch many of my friends die in combat. Just before we engaged the Iraqis, I'd decided that I would soon die and this was okay, and I went forward into battle with the dumb death stare of the dead walking. But after the war I was shocked back to life, and to the glory of my friends still living, and so I was unable to comprehend that one of us was dead. The problem with living through war is the false sense that after combat you are untouchable. We stayed drunk for many months.
- p83

Friday, 4 July 2008


We used Skype for the first time a couple of weeks ago, phoning a friend in Australia. Good sound quality, a little delay, and we could see each other pretty well using the tiny cameras in our computers. I don't know how it's free.

birthday party snub sparks debate

Birthday party snub sparks debate: An eight-year-old boy has sparked an unlikely outcry in Sweden after failing to invite two of his classmates to his birthday party. The boy's school says he has violated the children's rights and has complained to the Swedish Parliament. The school, in Lund, southern Sweden, argues that if invitations are handed out on school premises then it must ensure there is no discrimination. The boy's father has lodged a complaint with the parliamentary ombudsman. He says the two children were left out because one did not invite his son to his own party and he had fallen out with the other one. The boy handed out his birthday invitations during class-time and when the teacher spotted that two children had not received one the invitations were confiscated. "My son has taken it pretty hard," the boy's father told the newspaper Sydsvenskan. "No one has the right to confiscate someone's property in this way, it's like taking someone's post," he added. A verdict on the matter is likely to be reached in September, in time for the next school year.
- BBC, 29 June

smoking ban has saved forty thousand lives

Smoking ban has saved 40,000 lives: The nationwide smoking ban has triggered the biggest fall in smoking ever seen in England, a report says today. More than two billion fewer cigarettes were smoked and 400,000 people quit the habit since the ban was introduced a year ago, which researchers say will prevent 40,000 deaths over the next 10 years. Smoking was outlawed in all enclosed public spaces in England, including pubs and restaurants, on 1 July 2007 after a prolonged political battle that split the Government and inflamed critics of Britain as a nanny state. But longer term opposition to the ban never materialised: more than three out of four people support the law, and compliance has been virtually 100 per cent. Similar bans were introduced in Scotland on 26 March 2006 and in Wales on 2 April 2007. Doctors said they were astonished by the numbers quitting. Robert West, director of tobacco studies at the Health Behaviour Research Unit, University College London, who carried out the study, said: "These figures show the largest fall in the number of smokers on record. The effect has been as large in all social groups – poor as well as rich. I never expected such a dramatic impact." There was no guarantee that smoking rates would not start to rise again, after falling, and it was crucial to maintain the downward pressure, Professor West said. Currently around 22 per cent of the adult population smoke in Britain.
- Independent, 30 June

mandela taken off us terror list

Mandela taken off US terror list: US President George W Bush has signed a bill removing Nelson Mandela and South African leaders from the US terror watch list, officials say. Mr Mandela and ANC party members will now be able to visit the US without a waiver from the secretary of state. The African National Congress (ANC) was designated as a terrorist organisation by South Africa's old apartheid regime. A US senator said the new legislation was a step towards removing the "shame of dishonouring this great leader". Under the legislation, members of the ANC could travel to the United Nations headquarters in New York but not to Washington DC or other parts of the United States.
- BBC, 1 July 2008. Yes, that's 2008.

the florence nightingales of the internet

The Florence Nightingales of the internet: From the study of their Kent home, a British couple are saving lives by putting the sick and injured from war zones in touch with expert medical opinion
- Independent, 30 June

four days in november

John F Kennedy's death: the sad, chilling truth: Dominic Sandbrook reviews Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi
- book review in Daily Telegraph of 21 June

knife crime

Two BBC articles on knife crime, both of which indicate that things aren't as bad as we probably think:

- Is knife crime as common as we think? A spate of stabbing incidents have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. But what are the facts behind knife crime and which young people are in greatest danger? (27 May)

- Knives, guns and teens: There has been a flurry of headlines in the press this week reporting statistics which, according to the Press Association, reveal "a massive rise in child stab victims." Given the paucity of hard facts to back up the claims that knife crime is soaring, I was hopeful that these new numbers would shed some light on what has become a matter of huge public and political concern. The data, it turns out, was actually published last month by the Health Secretary following a Parliamentary Question. It relates to youngsters admitted to hospital in England with stab wounds. And it won't surprise many to learn that the numbers do indeed illustrate a story of rising knife injuries involving children. But the MP who asked about teenage stab wounds also asked about gunshot wounds. And here I found a rather different story - although it seems in our current moral panic about teenage violence, few are interested in hearing it. (4 July)

twenty-six candidates

Here's the full list of candidates in David Davis's by-election, which of course includes neither Labour nor Lib Dem.

labour fifth in henley

Labour fifth as Tories win Henley: Conservative leader David Cameron has hailed an "excellent result" in the Henley by-election, which saw Labour beaten into fifth place. Tory candidate John Howell won with a majority of 10,116 to replace Boris Johnson as the town's MP. The Lib Dems came second, slightly increasing their vote share. Labour's Richard McKenzie trailed in behind the Greens and the BNP and lost his deposit, as Gordon Brown marked his first year in Downing Street.
- BBC, 27 June. However big a Henley Tory I was, I'd be ashamed rather than triumphant that I lived in a constituency where more people voted for the BNP than Labour (just as I would be if the Tories came fifth after the BNP in my constituency)

anglican rift

Anglican rift: Conservative v Liberal. The Anglican Communion is closer than ever before to a major split, as conservative bishops gather in Jerusalem to discuss their vision for the future. Most of those attending the Jerusalem conference (Gafcon) will be boycotting July's Lambeth Conference - held once every 10 years. A range of views exists within both the conservative and liberal wings of the church. Here a conservative and a liberal - Paul Eddy, of the Conservative Anglican network in the UK and Bishop Marc Andrus of the Episcopal diocese of California - spell out their views on six key points of disagreement. Neither is a spokesman for Gafcon or the Lambeth Conference; they are writing in a personal capacity.
- BBC article, 23 June. Their responses are at the end of the link, of course. Almost as interesting as what they say is the very different styles in which they say it.


Want to know if waterboarding is torture? Ask Christopher Hitchens

Late last year, the writer, polemicist and fierce proponent of the US-led invasion of Iraq Christopher Hitchens attempted, in a piece for the online magazine Slate, to draw a distinction between what he called techniques of "extreme interrogation" and "outright torture". From this, his foes inferred that since it was Hitchens' belief that America did not stoop to the latter, the practice of waterboarding - known to be perpetrated by US forces against certain "high-value clients" in Iraq and elsewhere - must fall under the former heading. Enraged by what they saw as an exercise in elegant but offensive sophistry, some of the writer's critics suggested that Hitchens give waterboarding (which may sound like some kind of fun aquatic pastime, but is probably best summarised as enforced partial drowning) a whirl, just to see what it was like. Did the experience feel like torture? And amazingly, he has done just that. In August's edition of Vanity Fair, you can read all about it, and see more photographs of the "wheezing, paunchy, 59-year-old scribbler", his head hooded, being subjected to this most terrifying of ordeals by veterans of the US Special Forces. A video is due to be posted soon at, though that may be a bit too much to bear.

So what did it feel like? Hitchens recounts how he was lashed tightly to a sloping board, then, "on top of the hood, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose ... I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and - as you might expect - inhale in turn." That, he says, "brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, flooded more with sheer panic than with water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal" and felt the "unbelievable relief" of being pulled upright. The "official lie" about waterboarding, Hitchens says, is that it "simulates the feeling of drowning". In fact, "you are drowning - or rather, being drowned". He rehearses the intellectual arguments, both for ("It's nothing compared to what they do to us") and against ("It opens a door that can't be closed"). But the Hitch's thoroughly empirical conclusion is simple. As Vanity Fair's title puts it: "Believe me, it's torture."
- Guardian article, 2 July

piper alpha

Articles relating to the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster make me realise it's the twentieth anniversary of my graduation, which was the day after, in Aberdeen.