Monday, June 30, 2008

Of Babies and Bathwater

Francis Sedgemore quotes the following passage from a New Scientist article by Lawrence Krauss, in which the physicist at Case Western Reserve University tackles contemporary anti-scientism:

If this poetry of nature does not change the way we view our place in the universe, providing not mere facts but new meaning, then we are truly spiritually bereft. Yet too many people feel that they must invent alternative realities to justify human existence.

As a literary scholar - i.e. a person who makes a living from "alternative realities" - I find the latter statement not only bewilderingly naïve, but also fundamentally offputting. Krauss may make this point in the context of a more general critique of religious thinking, but, as Francis rightly points out, by extending a critique of religion to an attack on myth (i.e. the literary imagination) as a whole, Krauss fails to acknowledge the more general cognitive significance of our ability to create alternative realities.

I find this surprising, as I have been under the impression that the human mind’s fiction-making abilities have been one of the pet interests in the cognitive sciences in recent years – giving an entirely new (and timely) meaning to the term “constructionism”. Take the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, for instance, who has long emphasised the (unconscious) constructive and interpretive processes of the brain that allow humans to successfully navigate the world.

Furthermore, it seems plausible that our more conscious engagement in fiction-making may have cognitive and hence evolutionary significance, too. Storymaking and -telling are cross-cultural universals, a fact that has led evolutionary psychologists and humanities scholars influenced by evolutionary psychology to speculate on their adaptive significance. Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, for instance, suggests that (in our ancestral past) selection might have favoured groups in which vital information could be exchanged in particularly effective ways, notably in the form of stories.

Our storytelling ability seems to be related to the human brain's cognitive specificity. The cognitive psychologist Alan Leslie and the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have explored the implications of our brain's apparent and reliable ability to distinguish between fact and fiction - what is known as "decoupled cognition". Cosmides and Tooby have used this capacity as their point of departure to argue that our ability to create fictional realities is crucial to the ongoing (and pleasure-inducing) training of the human brain’s evolved architecture. We are not only able to create and enter fictional worlds, we have evolved to do so - and get a kick out of it to boot (see their essay "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?").

As the narratologist H. Porter Abbott put it in an essay on the evolutionary basis of the human capacity for storytelling (in Narrative 8/2000), this evolved capacity has helped shape human consciousness, developing not only our ability to represent lived experience, but also to imagine that which we have not yet experienced (and maybe never will):

Historical narrative, by its nature, extends away from what we are empirically aware of in the present; it goes back into the past where we cannot see or touch things yet still affirm them as true. It is a habit of mind that allows us to do what no other animal would think of doing – construct the truth. And it is also, of course, only a short remove from the fashioning of the immense analepsis which we call history to extend a world of time proleptically into the future, often with the same remarkable ability to make it true, despite a complete absence of empirical verifiability.

Religion, too, takes place on the level of narrative prolepsis; in that sense, it is intrinsically related to literature - and ought to be seen in this light. It is a fallacious argumentative leap to conclude (as Krauss seems to be doing) that all alternative worlds inevitably lead to dangerous scientific naivety. To the contrary (and that is the anti-ideology message that I torture my poor students with), the engagement with fictional worlds may actually train our critical abilities, asking us to explore the sources and intentions of ideas put forward within alternative worlds - however pleasant and comfortable we might find them.

Stop the presses

Following the blatant election farce in Zimbabwe, there are signs that the German government is finally putting pressure on the Munich-based company Giesecke & Devrient to cease its dealings with the Mugabe regime.

Among other activities, Giesecke & Devrient, according to their corporate website, 'is a leading supplier of banknote paper, banknote printing, [and] currency automation systems'. Among their many customers (such as the European Central Bank and the U.S. Government) is the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

As the Sunday Times reported back in March, cash (even rapidly devaluing cash -- the inflation rate in Zimbabwe is currently running at something like 160,000 percent) has been a crucial tool in the efforts by Mugabe and the Joint Operations Command to curry favour with key institutions, especially the military:
According to a source at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, G&D delivers 432,000 sheets of banknotes every week to Fidelity printers in Harare, where they are stamped with the denomination. Each sheet contains 40 notes and the current production is entirely in Z$10m notes.

Last week some of this money was used to award huge pay rises to the army in an apparent move to buy their loyalty ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections on March 29. Teachers belonging to a union supportive of the government were also given large sums.

Soldiers received windfalls of between Z$1.2 billion for privates and Z$3 billion for officers, while teachers received Z$500m on average. Those belonging to the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, which criticises Mugabe, were excluded.

Even despite such open bribery, as we know, the regime lost the election, though it succeeded in forcing through a run-off, then using terror and violence to ensure a result that would be laughable if it hadn't cost so many lives.

Pressure on Giesecke & Devrient has since grown, with increasing press attention in Germany and abroad and criticism from politicians becoming more vocal.

Now, according to Der Spiegel, development minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul (SDP) wrote to the company on Friday, strongly requesting that it cease delivering money to Zimbabwe. This may sound weak, but the government states it has no legal authority to take more direct steps in the absence of stronger EU or UN sanctions. The company also claims that it is abiding by World Bank rules.

Nonetheless, there are signs that a rising tide of political pressure, press coverage and public outcry might be working. After weeks of steadfastly denying that there was anything wrong in their dealings with Zimbabwe, Der Spiegel reports that the company has now agreed, following Wieczorek-Zeul's letter and further discussions with the Development Ministry, that they have to 'reconsider the situation'.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports a German government spokesperson's statement that the 'whole German government stands behind Ms. Wieczorek-Zeul.'

This could be significant.

This is Zimbabwe (via) has provided excellent background on this issue and information for taking action, such as e-mail addresses and sample letters.

This seems a good moment to up the pressure on Giesecke & Devrient. See This is Zimbabwe for (continuously updated) suggestions.

[UPDATE] For what it's worth, I sent the following to some of the senior management contact addresses at Giesecke & Devrient, along with the general contact address, provided at This is Zimbabwe. (Background on the names provided there is available from the company's website.)

Feel free to re-use, adapt and improve as you wish (it's not perfect, I know, and I didn't have the time to come up with a German version. I'm sure that English will get the message through just as well...)

Dear ______

According to an article in Der Spiegel online (‘Deutsche Firma soll kein Banknotenpapier mehr liefern’, 27.6.2008), Development Minister Wieczorek-Zeul wrote to your company last Friday requesting that it cease its deliveries to Zimbabwe. This request has come, you are no doubt aware, in the wake of what Chancellor Merkel and many others have described as an electoral ‘farce’ engineered by Robert Mugabe and his supporters in the military.

The same article reports a spokesperson for your company as saying that Giesecke & Devrient are ‘reconsidering’ their relationship with Zimbabwe (To quote the article: ‘“Wir müssen die Lage neu bewerten”, sagte er.’)

I find this statement encouraging, and am writing to urge that your company suspend its contract with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe immediately.

As the London-based Sunday Times reported in an article in March (‘Planeloads of cash prop up Mugabe’, 2.3.2008), the brutal and illegitimate regime in Zimbabwe is assisted in maintaining its grip on power through its control of the money supply. In that article, a Zimbabwean professor points out that ‘The regime is surviving by printing money’ and opposition politicians describe how the banknotes your company provides have assisted the government’s efforts to stamp out opposition to its rule.

As a Zimbabwean banker quoted in that article observes, Giesecke & Devrient are, ultimately, ‘bankrolling the regime’: ‘These notes are being used to buy votes, to purchase foreign exchange to import electricity and vehicles to keep their regime going, and to fund the import of Chinese water cannons and police equipment to keep us intimidated.’

This article was written – you may note – before the more recent escalation in intimidation, violence and outright murder that Mugabe and his allies have unleashed upon the people of Zimbabwe and which has received detailed coverage in the German press.

Previous statements by Giesecke & Devrient spokespeople have argued that your company only deals with central banks rather than governments and that the transactions are made in accordance with World Bank rules. While both these statements may be true, they miss the point.

First, the Mugabe regime has effective control of the central bank, so the distinction is meaningless. Second, while your company’s relationship with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe may fit within current World Bank guidelines, these guidelines do not require your company to continue activities that clearly violate Giesecke & Devrient’s stated commitment – in its code of conduct – to ‘respect the personal dignity, privacy, and rights of every individual, regardless of their origin, nationality, culture, religion, or gender.’

Your company proudly claims that this commitment is valid ‘worldwide’.

If this is not to be seen as rank hypocrisy, I urge you to demonstrate this commitment to the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe by ceasing to deal with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe until such time as a legitimate, democratically elected government is in place.


[Name and Address]

Articles referenced above:,1518,562644,00.html

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hinkende Vergleiche

Although we here (and others elsewhere) have commented on Angela Merkel's apparent authority over the German national soccer team, it is important that one's comparisons remain appropriate and fair. Just as a cuddly bat cannot be compared to batty Nicole Kidman, so furry Angela Merkel (photographed on a good hair day) cannot be compared to the hirsute (and happily deceased) Uday Hussein.

Of course, we know how to take a joke. Honestly, we do!

But we will not rise to the bait.

And vee vill vin!

Related Matters

On the day that Anglican traditionalists, driven not least by their dismay about the increasingly liberal attitudes of their Church vis-à-vis gay clergy and same-sex marriages, found a conservative "church within the church" at a meeting in Jerusalem, nationalist groups in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic stage violent protests against Christopher Street Day parades.

Yes, I am suggesting that a certain structural (and not only that) similarity exists between the anxious representatives of Gafcon (Global Anglican Future Conference) and the homophobic extremists throwing bottles and eggs in Sofia and Brno.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Weekend puzzle

How do you explain this, after having read this?

Vive la différence!

I am happy and relieved to learn, via the Guardian, that the letter "ß" (read: "Eszett"), probably the most idiosyncratic feature of the German language, has been granted the status of "special consonant found in western European languages" by the International Organisation of Standardisation (ISO).

Never heard of that organisation. But I guess it's an occasion to celebrate.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Winning by losing

The zen of German football is described by Steven Howard in The Sun, where he points out that the team has revealed to us 'the most important quality':

Winning when you are playing badly.

Now that is an approach to life that I can wholeheartedly embrace.

And, now that I think about it, this very same message reminds me of my favourite film.

Bad press

Today's Independent has an article with the following headline: "UFO sightings should be taken more seriously."

Intrigued by this promising piece of tabloidy trash, you read on and learn that David Clarke, lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, "believes that UFOs are a worthy subject for academic study."

So you continue further, mildly aghast at the fact that The Independent - which you naively thought to be one of the last few halfway serious papers around in the UK - would pay and publish such ... stuff (and completely muddled ... stuff at that).

Mr Clarke complains that he has so far failed to obtain funding for his UFO research:

Nobody's interested in it because it's got this image. It's a real shame, because there's massive amounts of interesting material, but we're too close to the material in time. It's perfectly acceptable for historians to study witchcraft mania in the Middle Ages, but because this is happening here and now, and these are people we can go and speak to, it's a little too close.

The "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio/Than are dream't of in our Philosophy" argument is of course a long-standing strategy amongst sectarian maniacs who wish to construe scientifically-minded rationalists as dangerously blinkered positivists and a serious threat to the progress of science.

The aim of such arguments, however, is exactly the opposite of the alleged salvation of scientific knowledge. "There are always mysteries in life," Van Helsing tells Dr Seward in Stoker's Dracula, brandishing his host and rosary and positively salivating at the opportunity to drive a stake through the hearts of the undead. The Professor's credo functions as a powerful peer group adhesive for his annoying posse of Aryan Vampire hunters, who thereby seek to assert their superiority over all others - be they vampires, rural Romanians or women.

One general point needs to be made here, though: to study the medieval witchcraft mania does not mean that you also believe in witchcraft per se. Methinks Mr Clarke is confusing things a little.

In a similarly confusing twist, he then aligns the belief in UFOs with other types of religious belief:

People used to come up to the astronomer Carl Sagan after lectures and ask: "Do you believe?" He was struck by the question. Not, is there evidence? But, do you believe? It's a matter of faith to a lot of people and UFOs can become a substitute for religion. What they like is the mystery, they don't want a solution. In 1956, an American sociologist joined a flying saucer cult, predicting the end of the world. Obviously this didn't come to pass, but rather than the people who followed this cult saying what a load of rubbish, they went on to strengthen their belief.

Fair enough, Mr Clarke seems to have a point there. But he is clearly jumping to all sorts of conclusions when he interprets the pyschological phenomenon of heightened stubbornness in the face of critical resistance as a proof of the existance of UFOs. Some people - among them sociologists, apparently - may be manic enought to believe in flying saucers. This does not mean that flying saucers really did hover over Shropshire last week. And so all scholars can do (if they absolutely must) is research the apparently widespread belief in UFOs as an expression of an individual and/or collective mania that bears structural similarities to religious belief.

Mr Clarke however, doesn't quite seem to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction, which kind of also shows in the style of his concluding passage:

So there is a massive amount of material for sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to study. And the Ministry of Defence itself has come to the conclusion that UFOs do exist, but are not spaceships. So these are reports of some kind of natural phenomenon we do not understand, which could be studied by atmospheric physicists. It's a pity no one takes it seriously.

Can someone tell me what this man is saying? Material to study what? Real existing maniacs or real existing alien spacecraft?

Is that the style of journalism taught at Sheffield Hallam?

And what the hell drove the editors of a serious paper to print this ... stuff?

[UPDATE: After this brief encounter with the "Flying Saucers are for Real" set, today's Independent appears to assert the paper's rational credentials with an article by David Randall which puts the alleged recent spate of UK UFO sightings in perspective. So what now? I really think the editors at the Independent have to make up their mind whether they are on the side of the sane or the silly.]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why we love Philip Lahm


See what I mean?


Philipp Lahm are my hero.

Well done, Jungs!

An excellent game. And the Turks were amazing. Hard luck.

[Update] Someone, just now, found us via a Google search for "Philipp Lahm wife". From Phoenix, Arizona.

What are you thinking? No, I'm really wondering. The man scores an incredible last minute goal, and you're immediately thinking WAG??

Nature still wins

So, here we are, our shiny happy Planet Football shut down by...a thunderstorm?

I am annoyed.

Still, as long as it stays 2-1, I'm content....

[Update] A nice summary via the Guardian.

The last word goes to Ravi Hiranand. "Here's how the game ended on TV in Hong Kong," writes Ravi. "Five guys in a studio listening in on a phone call between one of the presenters and someone sitting in the stands attempting to describe what's happened over the noise of the crowd and an awful mobile phone connection. Of course, it's all in Cantonese. Brilliant."

And another really meaningful Machtwort

Interesting. The British government has finally gotten around to stripping President Mugabe of Zimbabwe of his honorary knighthood.

First of all, I didn't know that Mugabe was an honorary knight. Did you? But then I also didn't know that Nicolae Ceausescu belonged to this illustrious circle of worthies before the knighthood was taken away from him in 1989.

What is the mysterious link between receiving a knighthood and being a dictator (or ageing pop star, for that matter)? Is it causal or merely coincidental?

And second: That's of course one hell of an effective political measure to take. I'm sure Mr Mugabe will be impressed.

[UPDATE: Nice touch in the Mail, where the front page screams: "Queen strips dictator Mugabe of his knighthood". You can just imagine the scene, can't you .... Oddly enough, the relevant article puts things in perspective. Oh, words, words, words.]

Wer das Machtwort spricht

From today's Guardian: comments from German national team player Sebastian Schweinsteiger about advice given to him by Angela Merkel in the run-up to tonight's match against Turkey:

"When Frau Chancellor says you have to do something you have to do it."

No comment.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Safe at home

As a follow up to my brief comments on George Carlin's death, I bring your attention to this wonderful clip (via Norm) in which he examines the linguistic differences between baseball and (American) football.

I think it demonstrates one of the qualities that I was trying to get at in my response to Francis's astute question about what distinguished Carlin from countless other ranters in the media and online.

Although anger and swearing were key parts of Carlin's act, they were not the point at which his talent ended. He was also a subtle observer (and manipulator) of language.

I don't know the rest of the show in which the baseball/football comparisons are made, but I'm wondering: does anyone think they can identify which sport Carlin preferred after watching that?

I have the feeling that partisans of either sport could walk away from that portion of the act and feel confirmed in their prejudices.

(In my experience, the baseball/football divide can sometimes be a very wide one. Declaration of interest: I used to be far more a baseball fan and really had no interest in football. In recent years, however, I have been more open to seeing the merits of football. I am aware of how utterly unimportant this topic is, but I thought I'd mention it...)

Recent Study Challenges Group Selectionism

The good news comes via Francis Sedgemore.

On Names and Diets

The Times has an article about very young children, boys as well as girls, obsessing unnecessarily about their weight. That is a disturbing fad indeed and goes with the whole sexualisation of childhood thing that was unheard of when I was small. I wish someone gave these kids back their childhood.

Maybe a good way to begin that process would be to start giving children serious first names, rather than burden them with fantasy labels that come dangerously close to sounding super-bling:
Teleisha Coulson, from Northampton, is a ten-year-old girl who is acutely conscious of her body and weight. “I don't like my stomach area because I think I'm fat. I worry about my stomach.” Teleisha monitors the fat and calorie content of what she eats; she swims three times a week, regularly works out on a cross trainer and runs and cycles constantly. “I think it's important to look good because it sets a good impression. I want to look good so that other people think nice things about me. If not, I think maybe people would talk behind my back and say things such as ‘Oh she's big'.”
Teleisha? Teleisha?? Might that name be the root of all evil?

I reckon it's about time for a major, EU-funded academic study investigating the first name/body sensitivity nexus.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Orwell für Zwischendurch

I'm afraid I have no time to comment at length on the following passage from an essay on W. B. Yeats by George Orwell. But then again, Orwell tends to speak for himself:

How do Yeats's political ideas link up with his leaning towards occultism? It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together. Mr Menon only discusses this rather shortly, but it is possible to make two guesses. To begin with, the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that “all this”, or something like it, “has happened before”, then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes for ever impossible. It does not much matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny. Yeats is by no means alone in this outlook. If the universe is moving round on a wheel, the future must be foreseeable, perhaps even in some detail. It is merely a question of discovering the laws of its motion, as the early astronomers discovered the solar year. Believe that, and it becomes difficult not to believe in astrology or some similar system. A year before the war, examining a copy of Gringoire, the French Fascist weekly, much read by army officers, I found in it no less than thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants. Secondly, the very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates. But the same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults. There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound hostility of both to the Christian ethical code.
No doubt Yeats wavered in his beliefs and held at different times many different opinions, some enlightened, some not. Mr Menon repeats for him Eliot's claim that he had the longest period of development of any poet who has ever lived. But there is one thing that seems constant, at least in all of his work that I can remember, and that is his hatred of modern western civilisation and desire to return to the Bronze Age, or perhaps to the Middle Ages. Like all such thinkers, he tends to write in praise of ignorance. The Fool in his remarkable play, The Hour-Glass, is a Chestertonian figure, “God's fool”, the “natural born innocent”, who is always wiser than the wise man. The philosopher in the play dies on the knowledge that all his lifetime of thought has been wasted (I am quoting from memory again):

The stream of the world has changed its course,
And with the stream my thoughts have run
Into some cloudly, thunderous spring
That is its mountain-source;
Ay, to a frenzy of the mind,
That all that we have done's undone
Our speculation but as the wind.

Beautiful words, but by implication profoundly obscurantist and reactionary; for if it is really true that a village idiot, as such, is wiser than a philosopher, then it would be better if the alphabet had never been invented. Of course, all praise of the past is partly sentimental, because we do not live in the past. The poor do not praise poverty. Before you can despise the machine, the machine must set you free from brute labour.

On a related topic see here.

Garden city

The EinesTages section at Der Spiegel has a striking series of photos recounting the efforts by CARE to bring humanitarian relief to postwar Europe. (Those who cannot read German can still enjoy the images. Click on each picture to move forward.)

Among them is this image of a street garden in Berlin.
From the Spiegel caption: 'Vegetables between the tracks: Many people tried to help themselves in devastated postwar Berlin and planted little vegetable gardens all over the city. Along with packed groceries, the CARE packages sent from the USA often contained several varieties of seeds.'

I know that this image captures people simply trying to survive and is a document of hunger and deprivation.

Still, I can't help finding it somehow beautiful.

Although that might be because last night we cooked up the first vegetables we have harvested from our own little garden.

And they were very good indeed.

Just make us be brave

George Carlin -- hell-raiser, comedian and self-described 'old fuck' -- has died.

I learned this via Kris, who has some choice words on the matter.

I am tempted to make some kind of inappropriately sentimental comment, not least since I was floored this morning by finding out that a dear friend and much admired scholar is in the midst of a fight against cancer. I'm still reeling a bit from this, and not sure what to say about it.

So it's a bit of a relief to hear someone say some very rude things about people who say sentimental things about death, like, 'If there's anything I can do, don't hesitate to ask.'

George Carlin, from 'It's Bad For Ya', 2008

There's a nice comment in the New York Times obituary:

Still, when pushed to explain the pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints and grievances. “I don’t have pet peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer. And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic hatreds.”

And that, George, is one of the reasons we (well, some of us, I won't speak for you all) loved you.

As some of you know, related issues (mainly death, but also, actually, Carlin) have been much on my mind in recent times.

And I'm more of an overt sentimentalist than he was.

'Don't Let Us Get Sick', by Warren Zevon, sung by Jill Sobule

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday reading matter

I have too much to do right now to find the time for serious blogging, so a few links to news items that caught my eye as I was scanning the web will have to do.

1) German public TV-channel ARD messes up the German flag in a spectacular way (just out of stupidity or by way of retaliating for a recent Swiss blunder, I wonder? This might be another case of "young colleagues" at work ....).

2) A Dutch insurer pays its insured members sickness-related trips to the shrine of her holy whatsit? at Lourdes.

3) Most Britons doubt the sources and significance of climate change.

4) In a controversial interview with Corriere della Sera, Ian McEwan voices his critique and fear of Islamism.

Considering the bloody battles currently being waged at other sites, all this may indeed appear trivial. But then we are in birthday mood over here at OD, today, and too concerned with licking the wounds of old age. And celebrating, of course.

And, no, it ain’t my birthday ….

Friday, June 20, 2008

Nobody does it better

When it's not warning Britons about the threats to their lives and liberties posed by foreigners, Eurocrats, feminists, and recycling, the Daily Mail is a very enjoyable paper indeed.

Why, just today, you could choose among the following fascinating stories.

'The incredible moment Sky TV presenter Kay Burley grabbed a rival by the throat and pinned her to a wall'

'The bikini-clad Cambridge student arrested for attacking spectator at jelly-wrestling match'

'It's 3.30am and Amanda Holden is still clubbing in her Ascot glad rags'

And the especially mysterious:

'Quirky Cameron Diaz reveals her unusually bumpy elbow'

I, for one, ladies and gentlemen, feel richly entertained.

Friday Book Blogging

On the day after Francis Sedgemore acknowledged that my perpetual ranting about Britain’s obsession with all things Nazi might not be entirely unwarranted (on that note ...), The Telegraph kindly provides more (unsolicited) evidence to support my point.

In a mere slip of an article we are informed that a pre-war essay by a German schoolboy celebrating Hitler will be auctioned at Ludlow Racecourse next Wednesday (so, if this is your kind of habit - nudge, nudge, wink, wink - and you want to feed it, make sure that you get there in time). Sadly, no information is given as to the owner of the essay, which leaves room for speculation.

And why Ludlow?

The auctioneer’s historical documents expert, Richard Westwood-Brookes, explains the fascination of this item in the following contorted way:

"You never cease to be amazed at [the?] depths the Nazi propaganda machine plunged in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Here you have a ten-year-old schoolboy who should be involving himself with childhood things, instead being used as a political pawn in the Nazis' evil game."

Oh please, Mr Westwood-Brookes, don’t you watch the telly? Using people – especially, to quote Miss Jean Brodie, people at an impressionable age – as political pawns is what all dictatorships do. This is why all totalitarian regimes have youth movements that work according to the principle of “get them while they’re young.” Once you have them, you make use of their low adolescent violence threshold, cater to their fascination with uniforms, tap their surging testosterone to fill them with masculinist ideology and turn them against family, friends and any other scapegoat of the day whom they then seemingly voluntarily betray, harrass and violate (for more on the human - especially male - potential for violence see here).

Of course, it’s terrible when children are manipulated in the name of some crazy ideology or other, however only the most naïve follower of Rousseau would find the notion of a child soldier inherently oxymoronic.

What is more, why should this kind of historical document – of which no doubt thousands were composed in schools across Germany between 1933 and 1945 – be sale- and newsworthy? Only because of the latent fascination on the part of potential buyers and Telegraph readers with anything that mildly whiffs of goosestepping jackboots.

The obsession with Nazi Germany echoes gratingly in the labyrinthine corridors of British culture (popular and otherwise, Tory as well as Labour). In the context of pulp fiction, it mainfests itself in offhand Nazi references, such as the one by Bridget Jones’s mother in Helen Fielding’s novel, who comments on her daughter’s eating habits:

Nobody wants a girlfriend looking like someone from Auschwitz, darling.

Now, this is of course serious bad taste, but one guesses that Fielding's taboo-breaking is meant to underline what a total idiot Bridget's mother is. Indeed, the comparison with nasty historical personae, from Mao to Genghis Khan, seems to be Fielding's main means of character portrayal throughout the novel. But that just goes to show how sad and bad her writing really is - just as sad as her protagonist and the thousands of young women who like to see Bridget as a role model and heroine.

A more sustained Hun-hysteria can be found in Tony Parsons' Man and Boy, which contains – if I remember rightly (I couldn’t trace the passage for want of trying) – the narrator-protagonist's description of a particularly bad day with his son as a “parenting Kristallnacht.”

Of course, Parsons once was married to Julie “Bomber Harris” Burchill, which gives us an inkling as to what kind of topics were discussed in their household when it still existed. Today, relations between the two are notoriously strained. Judging by the novel’s second plot strand, which involves the protagonist’s own war-hero father (who dies at the end of the novel, not without having provided the cue for manifold reflections, on the part of the protagonist, on stalwart British unity during WWII, however), one might assume that (Nazi-)Germany might be an issue that Mr Parsons and his former missus would agree on to this day.

However celebrated, Parsons' novel is illustrative of bad popular "literature," whose metaphoric range does not reach beyond the “history according to Rupert Murdoch and his stooges” limit. This is referential realism at its worst – literature condemned to the reflection of facts, and facts that are presented in such undifferentiated black and white terms that it makes one weep.

Even serious ficition is not immune to the temptations of WWII. Toby Litt, a very talented contemporary author whom I admire greatly, oddly enough participates in this fad. His (highly recommended) novel Deadkidsongs concludes on an obscure section set in a Nazi-occupied Britain that seems to be a figment of one the characters' imagination.

In a short story, “Rare Books and Manuscripts” Litt imagines the wooing by a shy and unassuming staff member in the British Library of a young British woman who pines for an aristocratic-looking German academic called Heinz Feldman (faint echoes of Sylvia Plath's hysterical lines in "Daddy" here: "Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you"). Needless to say, thanks to his superior flirtation skills (involving the library's lending system and the little notification lights on the desks) the kind and clever Brit finally wins his lady.

Granted, this story might be a facetious little arabesque, but I still find the use of a German antagonist gratuitous.

I'm not saying that there aren't post WWII authors who don't give a damn and avoid references to the war at all cost - though, come to think of it, that is a rather rare phenomenon. Writing this I had to think of Angela Carter's otherwise complex coming-of-age novel The Magic Toyshop, in which the omnipotent patriarchal figure of Uncle Philip, under whose yoke the protagonist, Melanie, and her family, suffer passively, exudes "the casual brutality of Nazi soldiers moving corpses in films of concentration camps."

At its best, contemporary fiction dealing with WWII deploys history as a McGuffin - as a device that is in itself insignificant, but which speeds the plot along. In this kind of writing - represented for example by McEwan (Atonement), Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and Frayn (Spies), WWII appears to be the central theme; ultimately, however, it should be seen as a backdrop against which other, more general (indeed: universal) human concerns can unfold: topics such as individual guilt and responsibility, the experience of fear and shame, of being haunted by memories and the past. Readers might buy these novels because of their historical feel, but that feel is sophisticated enough to dispel any easy nostalgia for Britain's finest hour.

Well, I must say we've come a long way from a reference to the Telegraph - and I guess that's not a bad place to be. Keep reading!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Oh yeah

We don't have TV. (Long story.)

But that was just as exciting on radio.

Old school.

Es gibt nur einen Jogi Löw...

The glass: half full or half empty?

A long way to go.

Still, I hadn't expected to be this optimistic at the halfway mark.

Weiter so!

Bring your own lampshade, somewhere there's a party

I am thankful to The Moment blog at the New York Times for making me aware of Sorry I Missed Your Party, which posts and wittily comments upon photos people have uploaded to Flickr which show them having a good time.

Or not, as the case may be.

And this is one of the weirdly compelling things about the site.

All these presumably candid moments of human beings engaged in celebrating...well, whatever...certainly do, of course, provoke plenty of laughter.

But there is a distinct current of something else in many cases. Something grotesque and unpleasant.

Something sad.

And you even get a glimpse of true existential despair, such as this photo from a Christmas party held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL Library last December:


More proof, were any needed, that there are few things that provide a better vantage point for viewing the abyss of existence than your typical office party.

Other than -- maybe -- this photo (note: involves nudity. Really rather unpleasant nudity.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Media glitch of the day

WW II-infatuated Brits (with a smattering of German) might like this one: During the Monday match between Austria and Germany, Swiss TV subtitled the German national anthem with the words from the wrong stanza.

Well you know which one. The one we don't sing. The one about Adige, Meuse and Neman.

The TV-station is apologetic and blames this faux-pas on two "young colleagues" who had researched the lyrics in the internet and copied the wrong stanza.

They were given a good talking-to.

We are grateful for this piece of effective authoritarianism (running smoothly like a Swiss watch?).

But where the heck have they been spending their lives? Britain?

Open the pod bay door Hal...

Somehow,I don't find this at all encouraging:

How long could you survive in the vacuum of space?
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

Via David Thompson.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sei glücklich, verdammt noch mal!

While we're on the topic of happifying German rock... (no, not an oxymoron...)

Olli Schulz und der Hund Marie 'Der Moment'

Funny van Dannen, 'Integrieren'

Erdmöbel, 'Nah bei Dir'

Na ja, freuen Sie sich!

Onward..., probably defeat against Portugal.

But we should enjoy it whilst we can.


...well, it's in German and (sort of) about football.

And it's not the more obvious choice (which, actually, we also quite like).


A passage from a Guardian article about the Belgian author Amélie Nothomb struck a chord:

She's always considered herself to be an outsider, though less so since publication. "Before I had this feeling everywhere, with everybody," she says, "I felt marginalised by the whole world. Whereas since I've been published, at least I'm not marginalised by my readers, and since I have a lot of readers that limits how much I can be marginal." Many of her readers identify strongly with her characters, she continues. It seems that the feeling of being marginal is very widespread. "There are many of us outsiders."

I wonder whether this doesn't capture the dubious desire that drives many of us sad bloggers? Find the other outsiders?

I reckon I'll have to get back to Nothomb's books. I have a few on the shelf but never really got into them.

Handle with care

An interview with J. G. Ballard published at the Guardian a couple of days ago doesn't break much new ground; however, with Ballard, as ever, the old ground is interesting enough to hold your attention rather well.
Seated before his reconstituted Delvaux, Ballard is at home with his paradoxes. "Just because you're right, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be viewed with great suspicion." The gifts of modern life, the "mod cons" that have brought a kind of freedom to the inhabitants of the western world, "are gifts that come in poisonous wrapping paper. One has to handle them very carefully. But that's true of most of the valuable things in life."
Too true.

Selected previous posts on Ballard:

"Nightmares at Noon"

"More thoughts on rampant pathologies, modernist ziggurats and countless rabbits"

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The twangy dark heart of the American century

Dana Jennings on country music:

"Country music knows that the dark heart of the American Century beat in oil-field roadhouses in Texas and in dim-lit Detroit bars where country boys in exile gathered after another shift at Ford or GM. Bobby Bare might've pleaded in 'Detroit City' that he wanted to go home. But we all knew he wouldn't, that he couldn't. Country profoundly understands what it's like to be trapped in a culture of alienation: by poverty, by a [lousy] job, by lust, by booze. . . . If you truly want to understand the whole United States of America in the twentieth century, you need to understand country music and the working people who lived their lives by it."

Obviously, that wouldn't give you a complete understanding (and certainly, understanding jazz, blues, folk and rock would also be necessary stops on the musical culture trail), but there is much truth to that sentiment.

The above quote comes from a review by Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post of Dana Jennings's new book Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music. It sounds like a fascinating book, but Yardley points out a few flaws as well. The review is well worth reading if these kind of things interest you.

It also sparked a bit of YouTube searching, which brought up a very nice version of Bobby Bare singing 'The Streets of Baltimore', which, for personal reasons, was quite nice to find.

Bobby Bare, 'Streets of Baltimore', live in Zurich.

One of my favourite country artists wasn't mentioned in the review (but is undoubtedly in the book): George Jones.

Here's one of his best:

George Jones, 'If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)'

See y'all later.

Previous post on a related topic: 'Till things are brighter...'

Misrepresenting headlines

Just to get things straight: it is not the EU that "tries to isolate Irish after treaty rejection." It is Ireland that has chosen to isolate itself by rejecting the EU.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More musical meanderings

I was in London (and ever-scenic Milton Keynes) for most of last week, hence my lack of saying things on this here humble blog.

However, not wanting to be left behind in this weekend's music frenzy here, I thought I'd add a few things from bands that I was listening to rather a lot on the old MP3 player over the past several days.

First up, two live videos from OD favourites, The Mountain Goats.

The sound is a bit iffy on both, but the energy makes up for it. The lyrics are worth paying attention to and are linked in both cases via the song names.


'The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton'

And second...

'Dance Music'


The Jam, 'Absolute Beginners'


Pink Floyd, 'Pigs on the Wing' (parts one and two)

Speaking of music ...

... which seems to be all we're doing over here at the moment. So John McCain has changed his campaign tune from Chuck Berry to Abba's "Take a Chance on Me." Cute, that. Is he seriously thinking that he is going to wow the masses with a piece of Scandinavian post-glamrock?

Is this the sound of modern republicanism?

In defiance of the Irish referendum ....

I don't know anything about Gunslinger Girl, but here's is a rather sweet appropriation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", aka "The European anthem", from the series:

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday Music

The album I currently listen to on my way to and back from work is The Last Shadow Puppets' lovely The Age of the Understatement. It's nicely retro without being overtly derivative and Alex Turner and Miles Kane pull off the drainpipe pant and turned-up collar combo extremely well. Especially against a background of ominous looking tanks and other cold war paraphernalia:

Where the heck does the current flirtation with the iron curtain come from?

Anyway, here's my little popular association for the day: Gilbert Becaud's "Nathalie" (1964). Voilà an early piece of video art which manages to be even more meaningless (albeit in a picturesque way) than the one for the Puppets' "The Age of the Understatement". Watch out for the shot with Becaud and his blonde comrade in the Moscow métro, which is identical to one in the other video (I'm convinced that I'm the first to have noticed this reference and would like to be credited for this discovery from now on into all eternity):


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harry Pearson is a good man

An unexpectedly generous article in The Guardian tries to flog the pleasures of rural Germany to the discerning British tourist. The author, Harry Pearson, waxes (maybe a little too?) lyrical about a particularly pleasant visit to the Odenwald, a minor mountain range in the south-west of Germany (and really not that far from here). Reminiscing about the mild climate, mellow sights and pleasant (albeit exotic) food that he enjoyed there, Pearson contemplates upon the British reticence regarding travel to and in Germany.

And he reminds us that
at one time the Black Forest and Rhine cruises were immensely popular with British tourists.
Yes indeed: exactly where we live once was a British tourist hot spot. Had Wayne and Coleen tied the knot in the early nineteenth-century, they probably would have taken a cruise on the Rhine, rather than the Riviera. But then again: had Wayne and Coleen lived in the early nineteenth century, they probably wouldn't have had a high-end wedding sponsored by a glossy magazine, the details of which we can't avoid knowing thanks to the press hysteria surrounding it.

In fact, had Wayne and Coleen been early nineteenth-century people, they would probably have lived, slogged, bred and died without anyone noticing.

Literary evidence of the past popularity of Germany can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818/1831), where the eponymous hero - partly in order to shake off the monstrous creation that haunts him and to finally find "tranquillity" (a word which appears on almost every single page in the novel) - travels (grand tour style) across Europe with his friend Henry Clerval.

And you know what: on their way North (because they're England bound), they come past here (i.e. roughly where we are):

We had agreed to descend the Rhine in a boat from Strasbourg to Rotterdam, whence we might take shipping for London. During this voyage we passed many willowy islands and saw several beautiful towns.We stayed a day at Mannheim, and on the fifth from our departure from Strasbourg, arrived at Mainz. The course of the Rhine below Mainz becomes much more picturesque. The river descends rapidly and winds between hills, not high, but steep, and of beautiful forms. We saw many ruined castles standing on the edges of precipices, surrounded by black woods, high and inaccessible. This part of the Rhine, indeed,presents a singularly variegated landscape. In one spot you view rugged hills, ruined castles overlooking tremendous precipices, with the dark Rhine rushing beneath; and on the sudden turn of a promontory,flourishing vineyards with green sloping banks and a meandering river and populous towns occupy the scene.
We travelled at the time of the vintage and heard the song of the labourers as we glided down the stream. Even I, depressed in mind, and my spirits continually agitated by gloomy feelings, even I was pleased. I lay at the bottom of the boat, and as I gazed on the cloudless blue sky, I seemed to drink in a tranquillity to which I had long been a stranger. And if these were my sensations, who can describe those of Henry? He felt as if he had been transported to fairy-land and enjoyed a happiness seldom tasted by man. "I have seen," he said, "the most beautiful scenes of my own country; I have visited the lakes of Lucerne and Uri, where the snowy mountains descend almost perpendicularly to the water, casting black and impenetrable shades, which would cause a gloomy and mournful appearance were it not for the most verdant islands that believe the eye by their gay appearance; I have seen this lake agitated by a tempest, when the wind tore up whirlwinds of water and gave you an idea of what the water-spout must be on the great ocean; and the waves dash with fury the base of the mountain, where the priest and his mistress were overwhelmed by an avalanche and where their dying voices are still said to be heard amid the pauses of the nightly wind; I have seen the mountains of La Valais, and the Pays de Vaud; but this country, Victor, pleases me more than all those wonders. The mountains of Switzerland are more majestic and strange, but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river that I never before saw equalled. Look at that castle which overhangs yon precipice; and that also on the island,almost concealed amongst the foliage of those lovely trees; and now that group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village half hid in the recess of the mountain. Oh, surely the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man than those who pile the glacier or retire to the inaccessible peaks of themountains of our own country."
Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the "very poetry of nature." His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. But even human sympathies were not sufficient to satisfy his eager mind.

The scenery of external nature, which others regard only with admiration, he loved with ardour

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to him
An appetite; a feeling, and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrow'd from the eye.

(Wordsworth "Tintern Abbey")
And where does he now exist? Is this gentle and lovely being lost forever? Has this mind, so replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent, which formed a world, whose existence depended on the life of its creator; - has this mind perished? Does it now only exist in my memory? No, it is not thus; your form so divinely wrought, and beaming with beauty, has decayed, but your spirit still visits and consoles your unhappy friend.
It is a pity, given the sublimity that she had ascribed to the German landscape in her first novel, that Mary Shelley, when she travelled in Germany in 1842, wasn't too impressed by the country (let alone the language, of which she only had a passive knowledge). Which is why I worry that Mr. Pearson's praise might not have the intended effect, but lead to great disappointment. No deckchairs, no towels, no Yoga in German. Oh dear ....

Still: nice one. Though I have to point out that if you want to get to the Odenwald, Hamburg is about the least convenient place to fly to, as the article suggests, even if it might be the German airport closest to London.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday reading (humorous)

Two related articles of note and interest:

1) The Express claims to have rock-solid evidence that one Jesus of Nazareth once came over to England for a visit, where apparently he had a particularly good time in Stonehenge - where the druids, or demons, or whatever, dwell.

As Glyn Lewis, author of the promising page turner Did Christ Come to Britain?, puts it in an awe-inspiring instance of, ahem, "historical" reasoning, Christmas carols like "I Saw Three Ships," which mention Christ sailing into the country, are “un-likely to be fanciful” because they “survived in the canon of carols.”

Full marks Mr Lewis, full marks for this lovely piece of religious ratiocination!

2) The Spiegel has a bit of a laugh about Erich von Däniken's equally rock- (or pyramid-/petroglyph-) solid evidence that our good old Earth witnessed several visits by aliens from outer space, who left us their various pieces of obscure artwork to ponder over for all eternity.

See what I mean?

Let reason prevail, today and any other day.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Pop goes the Sausage

There seems to have been a steep increase in food writing in the British press recently (well beyond the usual Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall "Your kids will love my watercress, sorrel and lobster soufflé, too" kind of waffle shored up by the posher end of Little Britain against European prejudices about the quality of British nosh). It's all "food here" and "no food there" at the moment.

Now, why might that be the case?

Explanation I: There is a global food crisis in the making and a nasty one it is going to be.

Explanation II: There's an international sporting event going on in Southern Europe in which England does not participate.

Personally, I believe the latter to be the right answer. Which kind of suggests that all that food jazz is in fact a "displacement activity" of sorts.

Anyway, to give the whole gourmet talk a grimmer edge, today's Mail takes the launch of the ASDA 2p sausage as the opportunity to put some heroic volunteers through a bit of banger testing.

When I suggested the other day that grubs and locusts will not be on sale in ASDA stores in the near future, I didn't quite envisage just how spot on I was. Why eat earthworms and maggots when you can have the 2p "pork" sausage, consisting of ... well ... I don't know.

Apparently, star-studded chef Marcus Wareing finds these sausages "surprisingly good" despite their "fatty and processed texture":

They were like the sausages I ate as a child at school. My children would love them with a load of ketchup.

"The sausages I ate as a child at school." How are we to take this statement, given that Mr Wareing spent his childhood in Southport, Lancashire (this is where his Wikipedia entry locates Southport, which is of course terribly, terribly wrong, as a faithful reader of this blog has kindly pointed out, just as it is equally terribly, terribly bad of me to uncritically appropriate this flawed piece of information. Mea maxima culpa.), where even today school dinners probably remain stuck in the age of austerity that he here nostalgically reveres?

And "a load of ketchup." Is that the what gourmet chefs from Merseyside (where Southport really is) allow their kids to eat when the food situation is really bad? (NB: I love Merseyside, honest. I love especially the famous Merseyside sense of humour. Pity - not petty - that Mark David Chapman put an end to all that).

But anyway, what would Hugh say to all that?

But as always, we've seen it all before. Once again I have to direct your attention to George Orwell's underrated masterpiece, Coming Up For Air, in which the phlegmatic protagonist George Bowling is forced to enter an American-style milk-bar (for want of other available eateries):

There's a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined, mirrors, enamel and chromium-plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can't taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it's hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube.

In this place, Bowling orders coffee and frankfurters - in the naive expectation to get the real thing. What is dumped in front of him, however, is ... ASDA's 2p sausage, I guess:

The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren't much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly - pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn't believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.

At least when it comes to the skin texture, the ASDA sausage scores better, as a youthful guinea pig in aforementioned food-tasting from hell suggests:

This was like cereal - it was hard to taste the meat. But I liked the crunchy, golden skin - it helped make up for the lack of flavour inside.

That's all I can take. I'm off to buy some veg and cheese ....

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Of pets and pots

This makes sense to me:

There's never as much blood as I think there's going to be, either, which is vaguely disappointing. If I'm going to kill what I love, I want as much as possible to show for it, including ruined clothing.

So says L.E. Leone.

At Slate, she offers some very interesting thoughts on do-it-yourself chicken raising.

Cause and Effect

It seems that some real change is afoot, as David Leonhardt points out in the New York Times, in comments on the declining sales of the F-series pickup in the US:

For more than two decades, Ford’s F-series pickup trucks have been the most popular line of vehicles in the country, selling more every year than any sedan, station wagon or S.U.V., foreign or domestic. But F-series sales have dropped more than 30 percent since last spring.

Last month, according to the new sales numbers released on Tuesday, the Toyota Corolla and Camry and the Honda Civic and Accord all surged past the F-series. It was the first month since December 1992 that a car — not a truck — was the country’s top-selling vehicle. The world doesn’t seem to have come to an end as a result.

Leonhardt looks at the mid-term comparative costs of buying and operating different vehicles across five-years, emphasising how much concentrating on fuel efficiency can save you:

While the F-250 costs $100,000 and a fully loaded F-150 — the better-known, smaller Ford pickup — costs about $70,000, a Ford Focus still costs less than $40,000 over five years. A Honda Civic Hybrid does, too. A Toyota Prius costs only a little more. A Subaru Outback station wagon runs $50,000 or so.

To put this in perspective, the difference between a Focus and an F-250 over five years is $60,000. The annual pretax income of a typical family in this country is also about $60,000. So choosing a F-250 over a Focus is like volunteering for a 20 percent pay cut. The relative resale values might cushion the blow a little, but not much.

The primary beneficiaries of this shift seem to be Toyota and Honda, who, I think, have pretty much dominated the small car market in the US for decades.

I wonder: is there an opportunity here for European car makers to also expand in the US?

Even...dare one say it...the French? Even if previous efforts in this direction (think 'Le Car', better known to European readers as the Renault 5) have been less than successful.

This was despite the excellent ad campaign for 'Le Car'. (Link leads to an extraordinary ad, on which embedding has sadly been disabled. But take a look. You'll be glad you did.)

I mean, how could Americans have resisted back in 1981?

In the mid-90s, a grad-school roommate had one of these, in the classic yellow colour with 'Le Car' written on the side, as I recall. It was, by that point, about 15 years old, I think, and he continued driving it for about 4 months even after the clutch went out.

(Some American readers may no longer know what a 'clutch' is. Explanation here.)

When I mention to Americans what make of car we have, most seem to think I'm suffering from some kind of speech impediment when I respond.

For a change, I don't think that's a result of my poor French pronunciation. (I've been told by one friend that I now have a German accent when I speak French, which is apparently quite comical.) Rather, Citroën stopped selling cars in America in the 1970s.

Interestingly enough, they are now promoting themselves in Britain by pretending to be German.

(I, actually, find the C5 to be sort of dull: the C4 is much more interesting.)

Happy motoring.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tales from the Middle (-class?) Kingdom

I'm a bit preoccupied with work-related writing and data-entry (as I have embarked on my first ever foray into quantitative history...fortunately, I'm working with someone who knows his stuff...) as well as fighting off an illness that seems to have encased my neurons in some kind of dense, wool-like substance.

Hence the lack of my accustomed level of verbiage on this humble blog.

Not to worry, that will no doubt change soon.

Till then, I can recommend this interesting essay by John Lee (via) on the potential (or lack thereof) for democratic change in China in the wake of its economic reforms over the last few decades.

Lee observes:

To be sure, we have no choice but to continue to engage with China in the hope that continued economic reforms and rising prosperity there will eventually lead to political reform. But we should reject the blind and deterministic logic that a rising China will inevitably become a democratic one. Even if we believe that authoritarian China is on the wrong side of history, so far it is doing a good job of defying it.

Why this might be so is helpfully explained by several passages in the piece, such as this one (I have removed the footnotes, which are available in the original essay):

That the middle classes—from the private and public sectors alike—have little appetite for democratic reform is easily explained: they have much to gain from the current political status quo and potentially much to lose should it change.

Eva Bellin observes that state-led development breeds a dependence on the state in capital and labour, and tends to exacerbate inequality. Within one generation, China has gone from being the most equal to the least equal society in Asia. Its Gini coefficient (a measurement of income inequality) is now 0.47, up from 0.16 in the 1970s. There are between fifty million and two hundred million middle-class people (depending on what definition you use), but around one billion people who have missed out on the benefits of economic liberalisation. Much of China’s progress actually occurred from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Going by the World Bank’s definition of poverty, 80% of people emerging from it in China did so up to the mid-1980s. Since then, of China’s one billion poor, about four hundred million have seen their disposable incomes stagnate or decline.

I was reminded of something that Francis Sedgemore, referring to comments by Slavoj Žižek, recently pointed out:

capitalism doesn’t always bring democracy. Anyone who thinks otherwise is blind to both history and the reality of the world around them today.

Yes indeedy.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

We should all eat the weevils

An article in today's Independent informs us that the humble grub is in fact a highly nutritious little critter. I don't expect them to be sold at ASDA's any time soon, but given the dramatic rise in food prices, we may have to get used to some uncomfortable truths and unfamiliar habits.

In any case, said article reminded me of the following passage in J. G. Ballard's novel Empire of the Sun, which explores the bleak dietary options offered to the inmates in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, one of whom is Ballard's fictional alter ego, Jim:

After counting the eighty-seven weevils -- their numbers, Jim calculated, were falling less steeply than the ration -- he stirred them into the cracked wheat, an animal feed grown in northern China, and swallowed the six spoonfuls. Giving himself a breather, he waited for Mrs Vincent to begin her sweet potato.

'Must you, Jim?' Mr Vincent asked. No taller than Jim, the stockbroker and former amateur jockey sat on his bunk beside his ailing son. With his black hair and lined yellow face like a squeezed lemon, he reminded Jim of Basie, but Mr Vincent had never come to terms with Lunghua. 'You'll miss this camp when the war's over. I wonder how you'll take to school in England.'

'It might be a bit strange,' Jim admitted, finishing the last of the weevils. He felt sensitive about his ragged clothes and his determined efforts to stay alive. He wiped his plate clean with his finger, and remembered a favourite phrase of Basie's. 'All the same, Mr Vincent, the best teacher is the university of life.'

Mrs Vincent lowered her spoon. 'Jim, could we finish our meal? We've heard your views on the university of life.'

'Right. But we should eat the weevils, Mrs Vincent.'
'I know, Jim. Dr Ransome told you so.'
'He said we need the protein.'
'Dr Ransome is right. We should all eat the weevils.'

Hoping to brighten the conversation, Jim asked: 'Mrs Vincent, do you believe in vitamins?'

Bon appétit!