Sunday, August 31, 2008

To spin tales and bend truths through the evening

Last post of the day.

And time for another song from Bowerbirds. (Previous song here.)



'Bur Oak'

Good night, friends.

Party on...

The latest from the festival circuit....

From Spain (h/t The Wife):


'If you've ever lived within earshot of a newborn child, it's no stretch to imagine they can have something devilish inside. The inhabitants of the northern Spanish town of Castrillo de Murcia have developed an ingenious technique for exorcising seemingly innocent children. Just spread them on mattresses in the middle of the street, and have a bunch of demons leap over them.'
From Italy:

'Orange fetishists are well advised to visit the northern Italian town of Ivrea, 35 kilometers from Turin, on the Sunday before Lent when the townsfolk stage their annual Battle of the Oranges, the country's largest fruit fight.'

It involves around 3,000 revellers on foot and in carts drawn by decorated horses and lasts for three days, after which everyone is covered in pulp and orange juice, and the streets are slippery with squashed orange peel.'

From America:


'Wild rides, fireworks and letting it all hang out. That's the updated American dream at Burning Man 2008.

The annual desert gathering always celebrates that most-American ideal: freedom. Freedom to ride a giant red, white and blue tricycle across the playa; freedom to blow your mind however you want; freedom to traipse around wearing nothing but body paint.'

Even a hippie's home is his or her castle

Glenn Greenwald reports on what appears to be a series of pre-emptive police raids on homes in Minneapolis in the run-up to the Republican National Convention.

Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff's department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than "fire code violations," and early this morning, the Sheriff's department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

Greenwald also offers video interviews with people involved, whether residents of what one neighbour refers to as 'hippie houses' ('they're really great' she notes approvingly) or someone in the National Lawyers Guild, Minnesota, which represents at least a few of the people who have been arrested and harassed.

Elsewhere...

Firedoglake offers a phone interview with Mike Whelan, 'waiter and army veteran', (at one point, Whelan identifies himself as a former Military Police officer) whose house was raided by police.

Whelan said he'd invited independent observers from the group LegalWatch stay in one half of his side-by-side duplex while they monitored RNC protests. [...]

When I spoke to him, Whelan was waiting in one half of the duplex with his roommates, Dan and Julian. The three were afraid to go outside because the police were still there. Whelan said he thought that the police were inside the opposite side of the duplex, where the legal observers were staying. "I think they are detaining people," he added.

Whelan, who seemed remarkably calm for a guy whose flower garden had just been trampled by police with drawn automatic weapons, said he'd just returned from a morning of garage sale shopping when the commotion started. That would have been about one o'clock local time. He described what happened:

"About an hour and a half ago 20 to 30 heavily armed police officers surrounded the house," Whelan said. "One of my roommates said 'I want to see a warrant' and she was immediately detained."

"Are they still outside?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, they're still outside," Whelan replied cheerfully, "The streets are blocked off."

"How you did figure out there was a raid going on?" I asked.

"It sounded like people were falling down on my porch," he said, "Cops were running up both sides of the house onto the porch.

Whelan says his roommate, Erin Stalmaker, went out to talk to talk to the police. She asked the officers why they were there. The officers asked why people were running away from them. Erin reportedly told the officers that their drawn automatic weapons probably had something to do with it. She was detained after asking to see a warrant.

As I was taught, growing up, 'asking to see a warrant' is the first thing you should do when the police come knocking at your door. You see, there's a little rule anchored in the constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures.

It's very all-American. I would imagine that even members of the 'party of small government' would agree.

The people reportedly staying with Whelan and Stalmaker? Anarchist rabble-rousers from Legal Watch.

Theoretically, there might be a good reason for these raids.

But I would like to see one that comes with conclusive proof.

Until then, I agree with Greenwald:

This is truly repugnant, extreme police behavior designed to intimidate protesters, police critics and others, and it ought to infuriate anyone and everyone who cares about basic liberties.

Seriously silly art

Like everything else in life, I like my art self-deprecating and silly. For instance, I have a penchant for Claes Oldenburg, who is probably the only artist whose work has ever made me laugh out loud.

In a museum, that is. I do laugh plenty in other contexts and settings.

Which is why an exhibition by the Danish environmentalist and artist (or: artist and environmentalist) Tue Greenfort - who makes sculptures from recycled materials, takes photographs of Italian waste before and after incineration, and breeds a type of South American jellyfish (which has been unsettling the ecosystem of the Bay of Kiel ever since it was accidentally introduced to the Baltic sea by container vessels) in water that is gradually being warmed up - sounds as if it was right up my street. Despite (or is it because of?) the absurdity of his installations and projects, Greenfort seems to bring across a serious message without being dogmatic.

I was also happy to read in this Frieze Magazine article that Greenfort enjoyed watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries as a child. Kindred spirit? I'd like to think that he is also a fan of The Life Aquatic.

Greenfort's exhibition Linear Deflection is on show in Braunschweig until November - too far away for me for a nice afternoon out, I'm afraid (but then we'll be on holiday soon anyway, in search of our own jellyfish).

Home is where the Smart is

I was born and spent a good part of my life in a place with a stupid name. The kind of name that features in silly party games and causes spontaneous, hysterical laughter in those who hear it for the first time ("You are from ... [splutter, splutter] wheeeere? [splutter, splutter, heee .... heee]").

That is not fair. The place where I come from is quite a nice place (though, hell, am I happy to be able to say that I've already spent more time of my life anywhere but there). It brought forth the German B-poet, translator and orientalist Friedrich Rückert, yours truly and, as Der Spiegel kindly informs us, the Smart avant la lettre.

And ain't I proud?

We all deserve better

In a post on John McCain's choice of vice-presidential running mate, Francis helpfully points to the website of the organisation Feminists for Life, of which Sarah Palin is a long-standing member.

I had never heard of them before, but they will no doubt be getting a lot more attention with the nomination of Palin--who, like the organisation, opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

It's worthwhile poking around a bit to see what they have on offer, not least the transparently disingenuous co-opting of modern feminist language (i.e., 'women deserve better'...a phrase they appear to have trademarked...see here...how bizarre is that?) to what is essentially a deeply traditionalist and conservative agenda.

The claims of 'nonpartisanship' are equally bogus, as is the half-hearted effort to depict themselves as largely secular. Their stated opposition to capital punishment has a distinctly tacked-on feel -- how vigorously will they be pushing that issue among Republicans in the upcoming weeks, I wonder.

One might nod at their calls for progressive, family-friendly workplace legislation and efforts to combat violence against women while also wondering exactly which party has a better track record on those fronts. (Hint: it's not the one that has long been seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade.)

However, their ambiguity about contraception -- which is no doubt less ambiguous than they make out in their PR material -- makes their stated commitment to reducing the frequency of abortions laughable.

In the end, FFL -- like the candidate they're so giddy about -- appears to put a friendly face on what is essentially a very nasty agenda. The feel-good rhetoric about offering women more choices conceals a fundamental(ist) goal of limiting those choices. (Moreover, their rhetoric infantilises women by suggesting that those who have abortions are uniformly forced into them.)

More comment on FFL available from Ruth Rosen. At Daily Kos, you can find a long post suggesting that Palin and her church have more than a passing connection to Dominionism or Christian Nationalism. I need to spend some time reading through that and catching up on my knowledge about wacko religious movements, but there's plenty there to keep you busy.

Finally, I was also struck by the letters in large type that are today screaming forth from the FFL website: 'Perception is Reality'.

It's a very odd thing when the fundamentalist right takes over a slogan of the post-structural left.

But it certainly might make a succinct slogan for the McCain-Palin campaign this year.

How else, just to name one example, could two fairly conventional Republicans adopt the 'maverick' label? And why is it that the press is so willing to go along with this?

And it fits right in with their seeking to wish away science (on evolution, say, or global warming, or stem-cell research) in favour of less reality-based thinking.

One thing I do know: reality will become a less pleasant place should these two -- and the folks they'll bring with them -- take office next January.

And that will not just be a perception.

We All Deserve Better®.

[UPDATE]: In 2005, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote an illuminating profile of Feminists for Life, based partly on what sounds like a lengthy conversation with its president, Serrin Foster.

It's worth reading.

From her conclusion:

For FFL there's only one right decision: Have that baby. And since women's moral judgment cannot be trusted, abortion must be outlawed, whatever the consequences for women's lives and health--for rape victims and 12-year-olds and 50-year-olds, women carrying Tay-Sachs fetuses and women at risk of heart attack or stroke, women who have all the children they can handle and women who don't want children at all. FFL argues that abortion harms women--that's why it clings to the outdated cancer claims. But it would oppose abortion just as strongly if it prevented breast cancer, filled every woman's heart with joy, lowered the national deficit and found Jimmy Hoffa. That's because they aren't really feminists--a feminist could not force another woman to bear a child, any more than she could turn a pregnant teenager out into a snowstorm. They are fetalists.

Of course: 'Fetalists for Life' doesn't have quite the ring to it.

[UPDATE] It occurred to me, reading this post by Ezra Klein, that some commentators might be missing something when they focus on Sarah Palin's lack of foreign policy experience.

It doesn't seem that she has much in the way of national policy experience either:

As the day wears on, I'm growing ever more convinced this was an insane pick. Palin isn't well vetted. McCain has only met her twice. She's not well briefed -- a month ago she didn't know McCain's position on Iraq. And she doesn't come prepared for the scrutiny. Palin isn't in a political position that exposes her to the full range of issues. She's not been running for president for two years, working with sprawling policy teams and being exposed to every concern of every voter willing to write an e-mail or grab the mic at a townhall. She's not been in office long enough to dig in on many issues, and she's not been in the sort of office where she'd have been exposed to many of them naturally.
In the coming weeks, she's going to get questions on the following topics: Preexisting conditions in health care, anthropogenic global warming, prison reform, NAFTA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the name of the president of Georgia, the construction of a fence along Mexico border, the struggle in Kadima between Tzipi Livni against Shaul Mofaz, the trade deficit with China, the Social Security trust fund, net neutrality, the correct size and composition of the army.

Conservative, liberal, independent, whatever: I would imagine you'd want the person one heartbeat away (as the evocative and accurate but somewhat overworked phrase goes) from the presidency to have at least some experience with such things...

[UPDATE]

A very relevant and pertinent question is raised (via Last Place for Jakarta).

Friday, August 29, 2008

The choice gets even easier. A lot easier.

There I was contemplating Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech (Andrew has helpfully offered a version that is complete and doesn't necessitate clicking from one segment to another...continuity is important, you know) when some other important news interrupted the news cycle.

I speak, of course, of Liz Hurley's upstaging of Eva Herzigova at the Venice Film Festival.

Yes, like all of you, no doubt, I'm shocked and utterly bewildered, believe me.

Elsewhere of course, John McCain has named the unknown-in-49-states Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential candidate.

But more on that in a moment.

I agree with Andrew and lots of other people that Obama's speech was extremely effective. There were bits that I found a tad cringeworthy--such as the relentless 'only in America' exceptionalism --but these are the same bits that are pretty much standard equipment for any American political speech. And while they're a minor irritant in Obama's speeches, they'll be full-on vomit-inducing at what is likely to be an entertaining right-wing freak-show in Minnesota.

Many things are relative, you know.

I also found the laundry list of policy initiatives to be both welcome and strategically necessary. Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking that in 4 (or with any luck 8) years they might be replayed as a reminder of what was not accomplished during the Obama presidency.

Still, it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and all that.

Thus, despite the above I'm willing to admit that I succumbed to the inspirational qualities of the speech: there are parts of it (the scathing repetition of 'you're on your own' to summarise Republican social policy, that single word 'enough!', the 'America is better than this' trope which, I think, effectively combines critique with optimism) that even made me think this campaign might actually work.

You see, I've been quietly despairing for some time now that Obama has no chance of winning. In some way or another, I think I have internalised the Deleuze-Marvin Spectrum Theory that Andrew so persuasively put forward some time ago and combined it with my sense that any president who might really appeal to me has no chance in most of America.

So, it was great to see Obama come out swinging, whether via sarcasm or direct attacks, against the other guy and to assert--in language that, yes, was somewhat overblown, but this is not a context for intellectual subtlety--that liberal values are American values.

I have known for some time that I would be voting for Obama. But I have to say that after the convention I--for reasons I can't quite articulate at the moment--will do so with far more optimism than hitherto.

The fact that there are indications that the Democratic Party has also learned to play tough in a practical sense is also very encouraging.

I, for one, am tired of seeing the Democrats in the position of the noble losers.

So, now for the Republican newsflash.

I am among those many, many people who have never heard of Sarah Palin. So I have no special insight into her personality or policies.

At LG&M, Alaskan 'davenoon' has a collection of quick thoughts about her that are helpful in thinking about what her selection brings (or doesn't) to the McCain ticket.

She is apparently 'likeable'--an absolutely essential quality for running the world, don'cha know--but that might be the only thing that sane people find to like about her. There are, after all, a few negatives, of which the two most important might be:

She's fanatically anti-choice and believes my wife's colleagues in the public school system should be teaching their kids to doubt the existence of dinosaurs. Which is of course why she's with McCain right now in Ohio. She's not going to yank any women from the Democrats; she's there to mobilize the nutter base of the Republican party. But since the nutter base of the Republican party will be mobilized enough by the knowledge that Barack Obama drinks pureed fetus each morning before throwing himself prostrate to Mecca, I don't see how Palin is going to accomplish anything more along these lines.
And:

Sarah Palin is profoundly, staggeringly ignorant about foreign policy. It's impossible overstate this. When President McCain strokes out over some third-tier international crisis, the erstwhile Mayor of Wasilla will be responsible for bombing Iran, maintaining our century-long imperial project in Mesopotamia, and delivering the severed equine heads to Vladimir Putin's bed.
John Dickerson, at Slate, puts this latter point slightly less vividly but no less succinctly:

But Palin is 44 and has been governor for less than two years. She has no foreign policy experience. For a candidate who turns 72 today, the heartbeat-away question carries weight. It also seems to undercut a key line of attack against Obama. If Sara Palin is ready to be commander in chief, then so is Barack Obama.

Bing points us to some information about Palin's views on abortion and creationism (that first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News):

A significant part of Palin's base of support lies among social and Christian conservatives. Her positions on social issues emerged slowly during the campaign: on abortion (should be banned for anything other than saving the life of the mother), stem cell research (opposed), physician-assisted suicide (opposed), creationism (should be discussed in schools), state health benefits for same-sex partners (opposed, and supports a constitutional amendment to bar them).

As Bing correctly points out:

This seems about as "maverick" as anything George Bush supported. Hell, she's as conventional a Republican as any I have ever heard of. Plus, she is a religious wackaloon, exempting herself from reason and compassion in the name of a parasitic meme.

Of course, I have no idea--pretty much like everyone else--how this is going to play out.

But, while I can appreciate the choice of Palin will generate some short-term buzz as the first female VP candidate chosen by the Republicans (for which they shouldn't necessarily get all that much credit, it being a bit late and all...), I can't see her advantages--which seems to be essentially confined to her sex and appeal to the Christian right--outweighing her shortcomings.

Anti-abortion, creationist true-believers are likely to be thrilled...but I find it hard to believe they weren't going to vote against Barack 'Anti-Christ' Obama in any case. Meanwhile, could it be that more than a few centrist voters might wonder whether taking the risk of handing over the nation to someone with absolutely no foreign policy experience is a Good Idea?

I can't see how this can give the Republicans more than a bit of a brief buzz that will disappear--at the latest--by the time of the first VP debates.

Having watched video of Palin's acceptance speech, I have to say that she comes across as a bit...insipid. A lightweight. And her gushing reliance on the John McCain-as-hero meme suggests that she's representing a party that has run out of ideas.

Put me down with the geeks as cautiously optimistic as of today.

On another issue, Dahlia Lithwick makes a point worth keeping in mind when perusing the rightish sector of the media over the coming weeks:

What would Chris Matthews and Rush Limbaugh be saying about Palin had she been Obama’s veep choice instead of McCain’s? Would we be seeing Sarah Palin nutcrackers by the weekend? Would Fox News be airing a segment next week about her “nagging voice” in which so-called experts opine that ‘“men won’t vote for Sarah Palin because she reminds them of their nagging wives.” Would Chris Matthews liken her not-yet-ready for primetime voice to “fingernails on a blackboard?”
No, I don't think we'll see that, for some strange reason.

But I do think we'll see a lot of not very good-faith right-wing commentary labelling any liberal criticism of Palin as a betrayal of feminism.

And I think this will make me laugh very hard.

Friday Music Blog

I'm really not into World Music or whatever you want to call it, and I think Peter Gabriel has a lot to answer for, but when I heard this on the radio the other day I was sort of intrigued:



Linna Gong, "Ni Zai Nali?"

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Glee of the day

I know one shouldn't laugh - we're all human and prone to make mistakes (don't I know it?) - but these exam howlers are very funny indeed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Evolutionary literary criticism

One of the research interests that I have been pursuing over the past year (time and energy permitting) is what might broadly be called "evolutionary literary criticism".

In other words, what I'm interested in is the question of whether and how insights from the sciences - notably the field of evolutionary psychology - can be fruitfully applied to literary scholarship. Still being a novice in this field - which is not quite as recent a phenomenon as the heated debate currently taking place in the American academic context in particular may suggest - I haven't really produced anything concrete yet. But I'm working on it.

The scope and state of the debate around evo-lit-crit is documented by a Symposium on the topic, to be published in the next issue of the journal Style. PDF's of all articles in this issue can be found at the website of one of the contributor's to this collection: Joseph Carroll, Professor of English Literature at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and one of the famous names associated with this field.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ferry very good?

After the first, positive reviews of his film Somers Town, which was released last week, Shane Meadows is now beginning to get some stick from the critics. Well, it had to happen, especially as Meadows had never made any bones about the film’s financing by Eurostar.

For David Cox in today’s Guardian, this is unforgivable. Somers Town, he writes, is a terrible precedent in cinema history and a despicable sell-out. Unlike the more benevolent critics writing warmly about the film during the past week, he refuses to see is as anything other than a cheesy ad disguised as art. Which is also why he relentlessly harps on about the film’s oh-so flawed and flimsy plot (Eurostar employees do not get free Eurostar tickets!) – as though a lack in plot had ever kept a Hollywood movie from becoming a blockbuster (quite to the contrary, I would think), or a nouvelle vague flick a cinema classic.

I haven’t seen the film yet – but really, what do you expect from this kind of improvisation filmed in two-weeks on 16mm (and which even with its Eurostar funding hardly went beyond the low budget)?

Or is there summat else involved? From the start, Mr Cox's slightly over the top grudge against all things Eurostar seems to betray a hidden agenda. Halfway through the article, one is suddenly struck by his quaintly phrased praise of “those excellent ferryboats provided by P&O”, which he thinks the film’s protagonists ought to have boarded to get to France.

Now, that would have made the film more convincing! Only on P&O, though. In wellies and flat cap. Plus whippet.

If Somers Town is advertising disguising as art, surely here we have an instance of advertising disguising as journalism (and investigative journalism, too, as Cox apparently had to make a couple of phone calls in the course of writing his piece). The murky waters of the Channel are criss-crossed daily by dozens of ferries from a variety of lines – both British and continental – so there’s no need to be quite so specific. Why not refer to Transmanche Ferries or SeaFrance? This unwarranted foregrounding of the excellence of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. is suspicious to say the least.

It also seems to me that Mr Cox is idealising the pleasures of travel by ferry. I’m sure he’s never spent a cold night in a deep and dark December waiting in Dieppe for a ship that hasn’t even left Newhaven by the time you were meant to board it in France, navigated the pools of vomit on the staircases during a particularly rough crossing (or in the wake of particularly heavy boozing) or tried to doze away the endless hours before you get to Dover or wherever, wedged in a quiet corner between the toilets and the fruit machines.

Knowing full well that you still have several hours on a dodgy train before you get to London!

Believe me, the twenty minute Channel Tunnel ride beats the ferry every single time. Why should such a clean, swift and civilised service not be advertised? No need to be quite so irate, Mr Cox.

The title of this post? There is a Dutch transport firm that uses this slogan. I cringe every time I see one of their lorries on the motorway.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Following the herd down to Greece...

And now, a brief word from Konstantinos Lagoudakis, mayor of Malia on the island of Crete:

'They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit.'
Who might 'they' be?

Bet you'd never guess...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

On not broadening your mind

In around 1584, the Elizabethan statesman William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had some sound advice to give to his son regarding travel on the European continent:
Suffer not thy sons to pass the Alps, for they shall learn nothing but pride, blasphemy, and atheism.
Oh glory days when foreign travel was still deemed hazardous enough to incite such heart-felt paternal admonitions! Were Cecil - her Majesty's Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer - to be transported to the 21st century, he would be a happier man forsooth. For in 2008, journeying abroad seems to have exactly the opposite effect than the psychological metamorphosis feared by the Renaissance politician. You need a workout for your petty nationalism and naive xenophobia (aside from some serious exercise for your liver)? Go travel - the further afield the better.

The evidence: Rebecca Adlington, a broad-shouldered lass from marvellous Mansfield, who recently was whisked away to China to win a few gold medals for the UK.

This is what the buxom blonde has to say about Team GB (the term's synecdochic significance is of course unmissable) and its intrinsic superiority to the rest of the world:
For me being British is about politeness, kindness and fair play. You see it in the athletes’ village: people from other countries can be quite aggressive, pushing in queues and not treating each other with respect – but our lot are the complete opposite and I love that.
Er, do the names Tom Daley and Blake Aldridge ring a bell, Miss Adlington, and their rather embarrassing (and far from respectful) post-botched-competition squabbles?

And this in the week that brought us the splendiferous news that the King of London has a German background! Ethnic hybridity, here we come - only not to Mansfield, apparently.

I think I might have to take back my facetious comments from earlier this year and hereby predict that soon more people in Germany will know who Boris Johnson is.

Though we won't take him back, whatever he offers!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Absurdity of the day

I spent a good part of my working day today at the dentist's. Bloody inlay my old quack apparently fucked up needs replacing - and a vicious, painful and time-consuming business this is.

Anyway: they have a new trick at my dentist's. Instead of letting me while away the seven minutes or so until the anaesthetic kicks in (and Doc can start wielding his manifold drill bits) with an extended meditation on the "Doors of Tuscany" poster opposite the torture chair (all German dentists have at least one of those posters in their establishments - it's a law), the assistant firmly pressed a remote control in my hand and told me to watch some TV via the computer.

I was verily flummoxed by this act, especially since as far as I am concerned, there is no need for this kind of, er, service. I can spend five minutes totally unentertained and not feel bored. I could have taken Bill Bryson's book on Shakespeare out of my bag and read a couple of pages. I could have looked at the cherry tree outside the window or watched the cloud formations drift in over the Hunsrück. I could have contemplated the unnatural sensation of feeling half of your face go numb and explored the accompanying sense of unease and latent fear.

Is it safe?

But you know what the worst thing was? I did as I was told! Patient patient that I am I obediently flicked through the channels - because that was what I was asked to do, right? Though I am proud to say that after one round through 24 or so programmes of extortionate tele-shopping and sanctimonious CNN-style reportage I was bored enough to switch back to the silent screen-saver and returned to the blooming Tuscan doors.

Still, what a weird way to start the weekend ....

Just for the record

I hate the whole "Team GB" business.

"Team Zissou" is a far more charming alternative:

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A brief note on the generation gap

I spent this afternoon preparing a team-taught seminar with a friend who is an English teacher. Before getting down to the nitty gritty we had a bit of a moan about life, the universe and people in general. Some of her misery related to an apparently failed attempt at teaching the following well-known and characteristically straightforward poem by Philip Larkin:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

It seems that her pupils - all A-level students of a certain intelligence and enough adolescent experience behind them to have been through a few good tiffs with their producers - couldn't see the point of this poem and found its depiction of family life "too negative."

Houston, I think we have a serious generational problem here. Some of these kids will eventually become university students; in fact, a few of them might end up in one of my classes, where they might be confronted with even "more negative" stuff (Hamlet - William Shakespeare's comforting portrayal of family life in feudal Denmark). How the hell am I going to relate to them if there is no common code between us, no shared store of experience on which we could base our communication?

I don't expect everyone to become a misanthropic cynic like me. But how can anyone read and understand literature without having at least a passive grasp of loneliness, conflict and pain?

But I guess I'm getting old ....

Another orwellian ad

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which" (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living in the past

Speaking of which. Yesterday I found this disturbing image at The Institute of Jurassic Technology:





Is this real? Is this recent? Is this some kind of a Boris (he of the bouffant hair) scheme? And is the saucery object above "beneath the" meant to represent a U.F.O.?

Of course, the poster deliberately recalls 1930s advertisements like this one:





Via.

Which in turn are echoed by other posters from the period, even though they have nothing to do with public transport in the narrow sense:



Via.

UPDATE: For more spooky Big Brother stuff, check out this post by Francis Sedgemore.

Suggestive journalism

Just the title ... just the frigging title!

UPDATE: John (who currently is in Blighty on a secret mission but keeps checking what's going on at the homefront) just informs me that the Mail has changed the headline that had enraged me a trifle. The original version can still be found on their homepage, however:

"Father and Daughter, 8, killed in holiday jeep crash after '4x4 driver is blinded by German during water pistol fight."

"Blinded by German", you see. Not "by a German tourist" or just "blinded during water pistol fight". We want to be right specific here, don't we, just to make sure that the bleeding finest hour will never come to an end (even if we have to defend it with ... water pistols!).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gospel Aerobics

Mens sana in spiritui sancto? Here an article (in German) about American Christians strutting their stuff to beautify their temples of the holy spirit. Might become an olympic discipline - next time the games are in the US.

UPDATE: Oh my ... Gaawddnatural selection! I also found a couple of videos to go with the article!






God will be so damn pleased.

Sprachzweifel

In Die Zeit Ulrich Greiner voices his dissatisfaction with contemporary German fiction, which he thinks suffers from a surfeit of realism - or "neorealism", to be precise.

Since German literature and I don't really get along, I'm not qualified to judge this criticism. But my guess is that the target of Greiner's attack is not unlike the kind of nerve-rackingly banal "and then, and then, and then" novels that have been popular in the Anglophone literatures for a while (and upon which I have already heaped a fair amount of scorn), and I think I know enough about this literature to make informed comments.

You know - the simplistic quasi-fiction recounting the meaningless lives of dull and dreary protagonists, typically involving little more than detailed descriptions of facial blemishes, bowel movements and the making of jam and marg sandwiches/fish fingers (while in the ashtray a lonely cigarette smoulders towards oblivion). Dogme 95 in print (only not quite as good). The New Puritans (and who remembers them?).

Agreed, agreed - much of this stuff is awful. However, I'm just not so sure that books carrying their (or their authors') "doubts about language" (Sprachzweifel) on their sleeves are necessarily "better", which is what Greiner seems to suggest (and a very "German" idea this is: I have heard very similar statements from various colleagues in my institution) . The "Look: All language!" novel has become something of a bore. As has the underlying notion of the linguistic construction of identity. As though there weren't other relevant aspects of identity-shaping experience one could be sceptical of or reflect upon in literature:

What do I understand? Now? About anything? Even the simplest things in front of my eyes? What do I understand about the geraniums in that tub?
Only that they're geraniums in a tub. About the biological, chemical, and molecular processes that lie behind that flaunting scarlet, or even the commercial and economic arrangements that create the market in bedding plants, or the sociological, psychological and aesthetic explanations for the planting out of geraniums in general and these geraniums in particular, I understand more or less nothing.
I don't need to. I simply glance in that direction and at once I've got the general story: geraniums in a tub.
I'm not sure, now the question's been raised, if I really understand even what it means to understand something (Michael Frayn, Spies 138).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mens sana in corpore sano, dammit!

The cultured trog who finds sports a brainless "antithesis to art" is making the blog rounds (see here and here).

Well, what's this then? (H/T Dale)





Or this?

"The most famous person in Grimsby"

Morbid fan of urban Brit grit that I am, I find the trailer to Shane Meadows's new film, Somers Town - which will be out later this week - promising.




No doubt the film won't be shown anywhere near us, but I guess there will be a DVD soon.

Charming interviews with actor Thomas Turgoose, the sweet and tender hooligan discovered by Meadows for This Is England, can be found here, here and here. He hails from Grimsby, hence the title, which is a line from one of the articles I've linked to.

You go girl!

"When it comes on the radio I bow my head and pray."

No comment!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rose Tremain's The Road Home

Well, I’ve just finished The Road HomeRose Tremain's prize-winning novel about the fortunes of an East European migrant in contemporary Britain. And a seductive little page turner it is.

The book is also a great instruction manual for writers who aspire to become prize-winning authors. Rule number one if you want to win one of the commercial literary awards: make your book like a song by Meatloaf. Put everything in.

The Road Home seems to want to achieve exactly this and, in doing so, is not unlike a certain type of contemporary American novel ranted about in the past at this very blog. Granted, it is exactly because of its behemothian comprehensiveness that Tremain's novel seems to work (even for me): the encounter with this colourful pageant of human suffering and joy makes you feel oddly elated - but this sense of elation is short-lived. What remains is a stale, sugary aftertaste of ... what? I can’t seem to put my finger on it.

I think the one thing that bothers me most about the novel is its staunchly multicultural message, which clearly could do with a dose of Žižek (who, incidentally, has fewer facial ticks than some people claim).

It is multicultural Britain that initially helps Tremain's protagonist, middle-aged widower Lev, to find his bearings in a country so strange it might be on another planet. There's the Indian proprietor of a B&B where he spends his first night, the Arab kebab shop owner for whom he distributes leaflets, the Irish self-employed workman whose digs he shares, various members of the Russian diaspora, all of whom contribute in their own small ways to Lev's survival in London - be it by providing information, material support and/or solace when he is feeling low.

Tremain's benevolent view of this diasporic microcosm is not without its absurdities, however: In what is probably the novel's most puzzling scene, Lev, sozzled beyond sanity, is "comforted" by the gay Chinese couple with whom he shares a caravan at the farm where they all work as vegetable pickers. That this "sexual healing" momentarily seems to do the trick does not make the scene any less silly.

This generous netherworld of exotic others is almost completely separate from the white and wealthy Britain that its representatives wait on - a grotesque caricature that might have been lifted from the pages of papers like The Daily Mail. Britain is a greedy, ruthless and superficial country inhabited by fat people. The police are a Gestapo-type money-spinning programme. English women are tattooed sluts in turquoise thongs who like to do it doggy-style and milk their guys for every penny they own after they have dumped them. The British cultural scene consists of shallow drama queens feeding the punters sensationalist rubbish disguised as radicalism. For instance, in a somewhat stilted episode, Lev disses a pretentious In-Yer-Face play he had seen with his his lover Sophie and is duly excoriated for doubting the cultural superiority of Royal Court cool.

Tremain's assessment that Cool Britannia is merely the sleek flip side of a parochial narrow-mindedness always on the brink of morphing into full-blown racism is astute. However, her insistence that this culture is doomed because of its inability to appreciate the beneficial influence of its migrant population comes across as patronising. Where would Britain be without the honest, hard-working ambition and natural intelligence of the foreigners willing to slave for the minimum wage your average yob would sneer at, Tremain asks. But she is so at pains to assert that migrant workers bring out the best in Britons of all ages and classes that she instrumentalises them. Hence Lev is portrayed as a sounding-board for the English psyche, a lay psychotherapist for a disturbed culture. It is in his presence (calm when he's not gripped by alcohol-induced bouts of violent rage) that Britain is able to live up to its own ingrained goodness and decency.

This seems to be one message to be gleaned from The Road Home. That's what migrant workers are good for. To make us feel better.

At the same time, the novel is an unashamedly blunt rags-to-riches story. If you want to, the novel pontificates without a hint of irony, you can make it in this world. You just need to be canny, keep your eyes open, learn from others, and, most importantly, work double shifts and forget about sleeping. Lev's willingness and ability to do precisely this is part of this character's attractiveness; it also pulls the reader along on his journey. The depiction of his progress is compelling, any set-back painful - we want him to reach the goals set by his new world, we desperately desire him to embody virtues we like to associate with ourselves.

Just where this journey leads him, however, is a more difficult question, to which Tremain offers mainly literary (or metaliterary) answers. For The Road Home, as behooves a prize-winning novel, is full of intertextual allusions that provide a running commentary on the plot. Hamlet is the novel's most concrete literary point of reference, introducing themes such as guilt, obligation and the power of the past over the present. There are also faint echoes of Lem’s Solaris, especially in the vivid memories of his dead wife that haunt Lev. Generically, The Road Home can be seen as a picaresque novel, complete with a clownish Sancho Panza figure: Lev’s friend Rudi, whose comic views, communicated via mobile phone, put some of Lev's hurtful London experiences in perspective.

Above all, however, the novel is a Bildungsroman, endorsing principles like growth, learning and development. Tremain seems to suggest that this learning process is both collective and individual: just like Lev, Britain has a lot to learn. Yet while Lev's development is obvious and tangible, the country's learning process remains somewhat uncertain. For Lev, by contrast, Britain is a catalyst for his own ambition, uncovering secret dreams and desires that eventually drive him back to his homeland.

And it is this aspect of this novel (as well as any other Bildungsroman), the return to the point of departure, that is probably its most bothersome feature. Because The Road Home, as the title states clearly, is about returning to the place where you came from. Lev is, to introduce a German term typically frowned upon by British multiculturalists, a Gastarbeiter - expected from the novel's outset not to settle in the UK for good.

The point of departure to which he returns is a homeland that is in the process of radical, possibly detrimental change (symbolised by the building of a dam that will lead to the flooding of his village and the relocation of his family to another town). Although the return of this prodigal son turns out to be a success story - back home, Lev opens a restaurant with the money earned and the skills developed in London - this achievement is accompanied by this very physical blotting out of a part of his past.

What is most irritating about this idea, however, is not the underlying notion of change, or the weird eastward translatio imperii that Lev's journey home entails, but rather the sense of relief that the reader is invited to feel at the turn the novel takes at the end. Unwittingly, perhaps, but in a way that seems typical of the way migrant workers are depicted in some parts of the public debate in Britain today, Tremain entices her readers to wish her protagonist well - as long as his well-being takes place elsewhere.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

You win some, you lose some

Two brief references - I'm frightfully busy right now - to noteworthy items in the German press today.

1. In Augsburg, Southern Germany, an atheist teacher loses his court case against the Free State of Bavaria (where the trees are made of wood). He had sued the state, demanding that the Christian crosses that are displayed in all Bavarian classrooms (don't I know it?) be removed. They constituted, he argued, an unacceptable emotional strain.

Der Spiegel quotes the court's decision:

Im Grundgesetz sei nicht nur die Glaubensfreiheit verankert, sondern auch die besondere Gehorsams- und Tolerierungspflicht des Beamten.

In rough translation, the court argued that the constitution not only lays down civil liberties (such as religious freedom), but also the civil servant's specific duties of obedience and tolerance. For Bavarian Minister of Justice Beate Merk (CSU), duly jubilant about the decision, the crucifix symbolises the specific values of the Christian West, to which "personal tastes" have to be submitted.

Oh my .... This problematic decision - problematic because the notorious "Kruzifix-Beschluss" of 1995 actually determined that the display of crucifixes in classrooms is against the German constitution - brings back bad memories. After all, I grew up in Bavaria and remember those haphazard classroom prayers in the shadow of a (more or less) stylised male figure, contorted and in a loincloth, led by bored teachers who clearly couldn't care less (well, apart from the obvious fanatics). Dutiful and obedient civil servants all right!

2. In Leipzig, Saxony (NB: in the comparatively atheist east of this country), Daniel Haun, a scientist investigating primate behaviour, has found out fascinating things about the ability of bonobos, chimps, gorillas and orang-outangs to see themselves as "individuals", recognise others as "others" and understand that they can influence these others through their behaviour.

The article in Süddeutsche Zeitung doesn't say it in so many words, but it sounds as if non-human primates have a Theory of Mind of sorts, even though they don't exploit that ability in the way Homo Sapiens do.

Guess which of the two stories makes me happier!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We're only human, this at least we've learned

Street music.



Bowerbirds, 'In Our Talons'.

In concert on the Lower East Side.

German word of the week: "Schaulustige"

Last night three people were killed in a shooting in a busy pedestrianised area in nearby Rüsselsheim (the home of car manufacturer Opel). One of the victims, a woman who appears to have been in the firing line only by accident, bled to death at the scene of the crime.

In the initial absence of any substantial information about the whys and wherefores of this event, a terse, speculative piece in Der Spiegel curiously foregrounds a minor detail that nevertheless speaks volumes about human nature:

Vor Ort versammelten sich nach kurzer Zeit Hunderte Schaulustige.

Which might roughly be translated as: "Shortly after, hundreds of onlookers gathered at the scene of the crime."

The English word "onlooker" of course fails to express the ambiguity of the German term "Schaulustige" – which literally means "people who derive pleasure from looking". While "looking on" constitutes a relatively neutral description of a simple sensory act, the German term clearly entails an undertone of voyeuristic enjoyment, even at the sight of something gruesome, disturbing and painful.

Schaulust is when retired men in grey polyester pants hitched up to their nipples gaze at holes being dug in the street. It is also when you slow down your car on the motorway (thereby forcing others to do so, too) to get a really good look at the accident on the other lane. My own Schaulust has been tickled intermittently over the last three months or so by the unhappy couple who have chosen to stage the dissolution of their relationship in a car parked outside our house.

From a Lacanian perspective, one could explain this scopophilia as a pathological by-product of the split identity incurred during the mirror stage (for Jacques Lacan the constitutive moment of subjectivity). An evolutionist, by contrast, would probably say that Homo Sapiens is merely a nosey old bugger and that curiosity – far from killing the cat – is actually adaptive.

Is the tendency of this constant, everyday desire to tip over into the voyeuristic also visible in the heart-rending images that have been circulating in the wake of the Russian offensive in the Caucasus?

Although pictures like this, this and this would clearly be in the running for the next World Press Photo Award, we should not forget the far more visceral and humble desires to which they cater and on which they rely.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Busted!

And now, a brief historical interlude from the golden age of law and order.

While working my way through the criminal registers from the first decade of the 19th century, I ran across the following trial, involving the seemingly rather hapless Mr. William Pouce, who was tried on 4 July 1804.

Pouce was suspected of a crime involving the Queen Charlotte, a ship anchored in the Thames. Most of the evidence in the brief trial was offered by William Chapman, a 'merchant's agent' who was handling the unloading of the ship's cargo.

Asked whether he had suspected Pouce of something when he saw him leaving the Queen Charlotte, Chapman replied:

I did, by seeing him put his head up the hold two or three times, to look; he had staid behind the rest of the men; he then came up the ladder; I laid hold of him, and asked him what he had about him, and he said he had got some victuals in his coat pocket, which was for his dinner.

Q. What time of the day was it? - A. About one o'clock, the time they go to their dinner; upon that I told him I should see into his pocket and put my hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of opium; I put my hand into his pocket again and found another piece; I then called Corry, who searched him in my presence; he found between his shirt and his flesh another piece of opium; he then said, pray let me go, it is my first offence, and I will do so no more; the captain was then called from on board.


Ah, he was in possession of opium. Clearly, Pouce was in trouble.

Though not for what you might think.

Q. Your vessel was partly laden with opium? - A. Yes; I employed the prisoner as a labourer, and I employed him a quarter of a day on Monday, all day on Tuesday, and half a day on Wednesday, when this happened; in consequence of information, that I received from Mr. Nichols, I went down and discovered that one of the cases, out of five near the hatchway, had been broke open by some iron instrument, a chisel, or a small iron crow.

(- Harding, a constable, produced the opium.)

Chapman. These two pieces were taken out of the prisoner's pocket, and the other from between his shirt and his flesh.

Pouce was found guilty of grand larceny for the theft of four pounds of opium and sentenced to one month's imprisonment and a public whipping.

Which, by the standards of the time, was fairly mild. (No mention was made about whether the opium produced by constable Harding in court was lighter by an ounce or two than when it was confiscated.)

It's interesting to see a court system in action as it protects the property rights of drug dealers. There was a lot wrong with the criminal justice institutions at this time, but this seems at least like the right set of priorities.

(Some decades later, of course, Britain would take further measures to promote the opium trade.)

I'm not an expert on this, but Marek Kohn, author of the excellent book Dope Girls, points out that until the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, drugs were not seen as a policing matter.

Someone should inform the Daily Mail, which otherwise never misses an opportunity to prescribe a spot of old fashioned justice.

They might, in fact, not be aware of what they're asking for.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Needing to say something, though not sure, really, what to say

I have so far refrained from commenting on the war between Russia and Georgia. And I note that most of the blogs I read regularly have also been somewhat reticent on the matter.

I'm not sure why that is, though I suspect it's not that they've all been so mesmerised by watching Olympic synchronised diving that the Conflict in the Caucasus (we don't have TV -- long story -- but I presume CNN has some kind of snappy slogan like that....tell me, do they have theme music already?) has slipped their minds.

In my case, it's partly been because I don't really know all that much about the conflict's background, though I've trying to read up over the last few days. (Worthwhile comments available at the NYT, LG&M and Fistful of Euros).

Secondly, I've been silent since I'm not sure of what, exactly, to make of this war. My sympathies lie with Georgia, which has a few things going for it. It is at least a nascent democracy (though a deeply imperfect one.) It is oriented politically and economically toward the West. It is, additionally, not Russia.

And it is also -- it seems -- having the shit kicked out of it by a vastly superior neighbour in a way that exceeds any of the expressed legitimations issuing from Moscow.

On the other hand, it also seems that the Georgian leadership was unwise (to understate by several orders of magnitude) to try to launch an offensive to recapture the disputed territory of South Ossetia. The latter has had, as I understand it, de facto independence for some time now, and it is largely composed of people who do not want to be part of Georgia. (And there have been some allegations that the Georgian offensive was accompanied by atrocities. I have no idea how many of these sorts of things are true and how much are rumour. On either side.)

It may be that the Georgians, in turn, had been provoked by Russian 'peacekeepers' or local irregular forces for some time. And the Russians, it seems clear, have long been angling to regain control over Georgia. Seeing as though their military operations now appear to have gone beyond securing the disputed territories of South Ossetia or Abkhazia -- or even just reducing or humiliating the US equipped and trained Georgian military -- to what may be an attempt to bring down the government, this suspicion seems confirmed.

The third reason for avoiding this topic has been witnessing the discussion it has provoked at a few other places, which seems to have disintegrated even more quickly than most into name calling (some version of 'Western stooges' vs. 'Russian apologists') and appears -- to me anyway -- to tend toward scoring points on other issues (Kosovo and Iraq mostly) rather than in fairly examining the war at hand. I am really not interested in that.

It felt a bit weird, though, not commenting at all on the rather large elephant in the room, and now that I've brought it up, I'm happy for pointers to worthwhile reading material on the subject that is -- please -- at least reasonably clear-sighted and not too tendentious.

Short conclusion: I can't see this ending well for anyone except for Vladimir Putin and his pals. And that is not a happy thought.

I suppose the only comforting thought was offered by Charlie Whitaker at A Fistful of Euros, in the context of commenting on Russia's less-than-cutting-edge military equipment:

The consequences are still with Russia today, and can be seen at various levels and in various applications, including military applications. For example, shells fired from a Leopard 2 will likely pass clean through the hull of a T-80, but not vice versa.

Not that this helps the Georgians, but writing from here in Germany (home of the Leopard 2) that is -- if true -- vaguely comforting.

If only in a long-term, future-oriented sense.

"I don't want to understand people. I think 95% of the people are stupid idiots"

Well spoken, Slavoj Žižek!




And well posted, Terry Glavin!

I had almost forgotten just how good Žižek is, having briefly given up on him when the whole Slavoj, Slavoj!-hype was beginning to annoy. I still don't think that we really need an International Journal of Žižek Studies as a circus for the auto-erotic performances of Žižek epigones, but then again I too am probably overly wary of the concept of tolerance.

As an antidote to self-indulgent liberal academic do-gooding the man himself is unsurpassed (and maybe unsurpassable).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This book is from Mars, the other from Venus?

I'm grateful to Norman Geras for raising the intriguing question, in a post on Anne Tyler, whether her books are written for and marketed to a gendered audience.

Now, since I've never read a single book by Tyler (I'm loath to admit it) I am unable to contribute to this specific (and apparently protracted) debate about her work. However, I agree with Norm on the abstract issue that the notion that there are essentially "men's" and "women's books" is a fallacy (to say the least). In fact, I've always found categories like "das Frauenbuch" or "der Frauenfilm", which abound in German popuspeak, to be lazy clichés, typically used by people unwilling to reach beyond the limits of their clearly pegged out mental horizons. Don't know Book X? Great: just call it a "women's book" and you can happily continue to ignore it!

Sadly, these categories have also infiltrated the academic discussion of literature, where the label "women's book" has been instrumental in the conservative defence of a classic canon. Although the work of women authors has long been a fixture in most EngLit curricula, the use of the term "women's book" under which to subsume this canon of writing guarantees its continuing exclusion from the general debate.

Typically, the term is used in a distinctly derogatory sense, suggesting that women's interests are of necessity more limited, more mundane and therefore less worthy to be written about than those of men. By extension, any book dealing with concerns deemed typically feminine is aesthetically less relevant.

The fact that "women's books" are read in university classrooms at all, however, is meant to be seen as a token of the great open-mindedness and tolerance of the male academics who have made the integration of the work of female authors under the label of "the women's book" possible. What they have essentially done, of course, is to provide a clearly identified niche in which this work can be neatly tucked away without having to be taken seriously.

[UPDATE: On the trouble with tolerance see here.]

In his defence of Tyler, Norm draws on a statement by Cormac McCarthy (allegedly one of the more "masculine" authors around):

Cormac McCarthy has said that he isn't a fan of writers who don't deal with issues of life and death. But Tyler is, if I may adapt McCarthy's meaning, life and death: she shows the lives people lead, and - what is life and death to them - their efforts to get along with those they love and those they are stuck with, their days, their dreams, their fates. If these are women's books, the men who pass them by as being such close off a part of the world to which they all, willy-nilly, belong.
More often, however, McCarthy's "life and death" argument is used by male academics to belittle the work of women authors. One might think that this pattern is typical amongst the older generation of men. In my experience, however, younger male students are no different from their intellectual fathers (and grandfathers) in their proclivity to dismiss the work by female authors as substandard and irrelevant by definition.

The Devil speaks Swedish

Francis Sedgemore’s anti-IKEA missive (itself triggered by a post by Ario) provides me with the cue for a bit of shameless self-promotion.

This solipsistic auto-posting aside, I firmly agree with Francis: IKEA is from hell. Apart from being a place where Obscene Desserts almost inevitably get dangerously close to divorce, the multicolour universe of IKEA is a totalitarian nightmare for anybody in their right mind and endowed with a sense (however rudimentary) of individualism and free will. Those who have been assimilated by the borgifying power of the IKEA catalogue (and such poor lost souls are legion) are beyond salvation.

I was therefore mildly taken aback when, a few years ago, a colleague with a small child suggested that a visit to the big blue box makes for “a nice family afternoon out.”

Poor child, I thought. Poor colleague. My parents would have laughed at the thought that a nice afternoon out means religiously shuffling through an air-conditioned furniture outlet with herds of other consumers like pilgrims around the Kaaba, piling unnecessary items in a typically unwieldy shopping trolley and topping the whole thing by gorging yourself on “original Swedish meatballs” till sick.

Our “nice family afternoons out” usually involved such simple pastimes as going for long walks in the lovely countryside near where I grew up or visiting places of cultural interest, going to the outdoor pool in the summer, ice skating in the winter and crazy-golfing in-between.

Shopping – which was less of a means of self-definition or identity-assertion then than it is now – didn’t come into it. Shopping was something that you wanted to get done in order to get on with life - on a weekend usually before 1pm on Saturday, when everything (and I mean: everything) shut down until Monday morning.

Maybe David Attenborough should extend his litany about British children's lack of knowledge about their country's flora and fauna to incorporate the deleterious influence of a certain Swedish style factory. Primed by their parent’s consumerist desires, lack of ingenuity and knowledge, children today are more likely to know the IKEA catalogue by heart than be able to name indigenous flowers and animals. Which is a shame indeed.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A snake in the garden

Terry Glavin does the great service of drawing our attention to the George Orwell's new 'blog', which begins today.

The organisers of the Orwell Prize will be posting entries from Orwell's diaries 70 years to the day after they were written.

It starts off well, with a brief entry in which Orwell catches a snake. Not least since he uses the phrase 'herbaceous border' -- a favourite expression in this here household -- it makes for a charming start to what should be a fascinating series.

And speaking of herbaceous borders...



'Another Sunny Day,' Belle and Sebastian

Friday, August 08, 2008

TGF posting (so forgive the lack of seriousness)

On the CERN project and the madness surrounding it, see here and Ario (Speedwagon).

For the Large Hadron Collider Rap, see here.

Information on a cute particle accelerator near us can be found here.

Let's not call them anything, let's just ignore them?

In today's Guardian Ian Buruma draws attention to the potential dismantling of Belgium, a scenario that has been on the cards for quite a while. Initially this possibility was mainly driven by Flemish separatism, but it seems that the Walloons increasingly find this an attractive option. Internationally, this smouldering crisis at the heart of Europe is sadly overshadowed by presumably "more important" matters.

The lack of concern about the possible dissolution of what is, after all, one of the founding members of the economic community that eventually became the EU, might have to do with the fact that "the Belgians" are often either seen as hereditary paedophiles or chip-chomping yokels.

But let's face it: what happens to one of our immediate European neighbours cannot be brushed aside with prejudiced nonchalance, but ought to be an issue of great interest - even for rampant Eurosceptics positively salivating at the prospect of the EU being destabilised by such a disruptive event.

I tend to share Buruma's hunch that the effects of this separation, were it to come about, would probably be negative:

Perhaps the citizens of Belgium do not have enough in common any more, and Flemish and Walloons would be better off being divorced. But one hopes not. Divorces are never painless. And ethnic nationalism unleashes emotions that are almost always undesirable.

The other argument for keeping Belgium together is of course that otherwise certain classic Monty Python skits would become incomprehensible to future generations. But I'm just adding this by way of comic relief:

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I'll be watching you ...

I know that I keep harping on about about how I always find the UK somewhat Orwellian, what with the omnipresent announcements on public transport, the CCTV and the sense of rottenness and corruption underneath the "clean, modern surfaces" so beloved by property development shows and the Sunday supplements.

While in London, we watched Children of Men, a movie which is so disturbing precisely because its dystopian set up seems frightfully adjacent to the real world. Of course, contemporary England is not a civil war zone laid barren by decades of infertility. Nevertheless, one is inclined to feel that the country is always on the brink of tipping over into its own uncanny other - a place where nobody can be trusted and your own condition is far from certain (hell, I'm beginning to sound like Peter Hitchens on post-structuralism, something which I'd prefer to avoid).

Maybe, however, this feeling is just conditioned by the ubiquitous undertone of hysteria which to the innocent foreign bystander currently marks the tone of public debate in England - the country where all social commentary comes with a mandatory exclamation mark: "Drinking Women!", "Feral Youth!", "Working Mothers!", "Negative Equity!", "Frogs and Locusts!" - oh, it's bad, bad, bad.

But, to quote Noël Coward, there are good times just around the corner, as the Ministry of Defence has come up with the brilliant idea of using of unmanned drone planes to keep an eye on ... well, how would you call human beings under constant supervision? "Citizens", I feel, would be a euphemism. Subjects, more likely. Or: Suspects?

Now, this isn't exactly supernews (see here and here). But maybe it's the time of the year when the drone story needs to be dug out to keep the rabble in awe and wonder. Lest they forget those exclamation marks and get too comfy.

Tellingly, the the Chinese government will use similar technology during the Olympics. And that is less of a joke.

On finding (something more interesting than) Nemo

Not being in Britain, I didn't have the chance to watch 'The Genius of Darwin' as it was broadcast, and I haven't gotten around to seeing whether the episodes have popped up on YouTube yet.

Charlie Brooker did watch it, and he has also come up with (via) what I think is an original way of describing the creationist belief system:

Since Darwin's death, Dawkins points out, the evidence confirming his discovery has piled up and up and up, many thousand feet above the point of dispute. And yet heroically, many still dispute it. They're like couch potatoes watching Finding Nemo on DVD who've suffered some kind of brain haemorrhage which has led them to believe the story they're watching is real, that their screen is filled with water and talking fish, and that that's all there is to reality - just them and that screen and Nemo - and when you run into the room and point out the DVD player and the cables connecting it to the screen, and you open the windows and point outside and describe how overwhelming the real world is - when you do all that, it only spooks them. So they go on believing in Nemo, with gritted teeth if necessary.

Why do they do that? Well the alternative -- a.k.a. reality -- is not so...nice.

As Dawkins says: "The total amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to say these words, thousands of animals are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, feeling teeth sink into their throats. Thousands are dying from starvation or disease or feeling a parasite rasping away from within. There is no central authority; no safety net. For most animals the reality of life is struggling, suffering and death."

Not that there aren't, of course, many much more pleasant things in life for some animals. A few of which we've blogged about recently, such as...um...well, art, Denny's, heavy metal and zoology museums.

And I think we may just have to include Charlie Brooker among them as well.

The Thin Man

I've not posted very much on the US election so far. That might change as things get closer to The Big Day and after my longed-for absentee ballot arrives. But it might not change either. There are other people who have the energy and interest to follow the somewhat tiresome daily back-and-forth on the campaign trail and who, more importantly, seem to know a lot more than I do about the contemporary political scene in the Homeland.

You will find a few of them on the column to your right.

It's probably not a shock that I'm going to be voting -- with some degree of enthusiasm though without any messianic expectations -- for Barack Obama. But I don't necessarily feel all that compelled to write about it.

But I ran across something yesterday on the campaign which I found odd, from Timothy Noah, at Slate.

Now, along with Noah and others, I have no doubt there is a lot of what has become known as dog-whistle campaigning, particularly by the Republicans, this year. This essentially refers to campaign messages that, while appearing on the surface to be more-or-less innocuous to the uninitiated, contain coded messages of a more unpleasant or extreme nature that are intended for party true-believers to hear.

I've seen this work, being related by blood to at least a couple of people whose hearing is well attuned to these frequencies.

However, in his Slate article, Noah tries to claim that an article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chozick ('Too Fit to Be President') was subtly racist in that it focused on how thin he is.

Such comment, Noah says, draws attention to a distinctive 'physical characteristic' of Obama's, and therefore -- apparently automatically -- brings attention to other traits, such as his skin colour.

Chozick wasn't asking (and, I feel sure, would never ask) whether Americans might think Obama's hair was too kinky or his nose too broad. But it doesn't matter. The sad fact is that any discussion of Obama's physical appearance is going to remind white people of the physical characteristic that's most on their minds. [Emphasis in original.]

I like a lot of what Noah writes normally, but I just find this to be...bizarre. I don't think it is the case that 'any' discussion of Obama's physical appearance -- his height, his weight, his twinkling eyes -- can be seen as a code for his race, let alone for racism.

Thinking back through decades of negative commentary about black people that has been made within my hearing -- and I have heard a lot of it, some of it subtle, some of it less so -- I never once heard anything even remotely like 'You know the problem with them black people: they're just so darn svelte.'

(I mean, yes, the very thin Jimmie Walker was one of the first black TV stars I ever encountered as a child -- and I watched a lot of Good Times, believe me. But that was one TV show that the white adults around me took absolutely no notice of. Which meant they never understood the real subversiveness of my friends and I adding Walker's catchphrase 'Dy-no-MITE!' to our argot.)

In my experience, to take off from Noah's title, 'skinny' has never meant 'black'.

Noah's wrong about this one, and unfortunately he plays a little to easily into the hands of a right-wing who wish to portray all liberals as prissy and hypersensitive.

Not that there is no relevance to references to Obama's weight; however, it has more to do with class than race. Not that this makes it any less stupid an issue.

Image is important to politics wherever you go, but it has taken on a weird playground-level significance in the US, where what you eat at the local Denny's is taken as a measurement of your ability to 'connect' with 'real' people. (Is it elitist to go for a 'French Toast Slam' over an 'All-American Slam'? I tended to order a 'Moons over My Hammy' and a coffee (with milk and sugar...not sure if this revels a latent effeminacy or not these days), though I'm at a loss about where this puts me on the political spectrum, PR-wise.)

I find it almost physically painful to think that these kind of issues have any political relevance whatsoever. Perhaps they don't really: it may be that in many cases this obsession with presidential eating habits or the issue of 'which guy would you rather have a beer with' is a media obsession that really doesn't matter all that much.

On the other hand, it is at least perceived to be important, as Chozick notes:

Sen. Obama drew cringes on a campaign stop in Adel, Iowa, in July 2007, when he asked a crowd of farmers: "Anybody gone into a Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?" The upscale supermarket specializing in organic food doesn't have a single store in Iowa.

Lately, Sen. Obama is more careful. On a campaign stop in Lebanon, Mo., on Wednesday, Sen. Obama visited with voters at Bell's Diner and promptly announced "Well, I've had lunch today but I'm thinking maybe there is some pie."

He settled on fried chicken and told the crowd he's become a junk-food lover. "The healthy people, we'll give them the breasts," he told the waitress. "I'll eat the wings."

Struggles with weight-loss, on the other hand, can make a candidate seem more human. Some aides winced when footage of a sweat-drenched Mr. Clinton jogging into a McDonald's in Little Rock, Ark., aired ahead of the 1992 campaign. But the footage is widely believed to have helped the then-governor of Arkansas connect to voters in conservative-leaning states like Georgia and Tennessee, which eluded Democrats in 2000 and 2004. These states have a statistically higher number of overweight people than Democratic strongholds.

Is this a purely American phenomenon? You do see German politicians (maybe especially in the south, where I have tended to live, and certainly in Bavaria) gobbling up their share of sausage and knocking back a beer or two, true.

But I have a hard time imagining the fact that a candidate is a vegetarian or buys organic food -- which is available at the local Aldi in any case...who needs Whole Foods? -- becoming a campaign issue.

(In any case, neither of the heads of the two largest parties could be said to particularly streamlined, so perhaps the issue just hasn't come up. For a while, watching the Incredibly Expanding and Shrinking and Re-Expanding Joschka Fischer was an interesting pastime in Germany. But it was never, as I recall, something political.)

OK. It's lunch time. All that Denny's talk has made me hungry.