Sunday, August 29, 2010

'Germany does not stand alone in organizing for good looks'

I'm not entirely sure exactly what sparked this item from the editorial page of The Times in 1929, but it seems likely to have been a move by Berlin doctors to offer cosmetic surgery to disfigured people; somehow (at least in the mind of The Times's editorial writer) this was generalised into an 'anti-ugliness league' and provided inspiration for the following (paragraph breaks have been added):

An Anti-Ugliness League

There is plenty to be said for the newest movement in Germany. To form a League to raise the standard of human looks is but to apply to a very important field that principle of cooperation which has worked so well elsewhere. Nothing will strike posterity as more absurd than the way movement after movement is started in England to preserve or beautify buildings or places that are only seen at rare intervals, while nothing whatever is done to improve the faces which everybody sits opposite in tramcars and omnibuses or passes in procession in the street.

For town dwellers the face of England is a human face endlessly repeated, and we shall do well to watch the new League in Germany and to regard with eager expectancy each slight improvement it brings about in the national face and figure over there. It is an old and deep-rooted belief that ugliness and sin go hand in hand, and that the beautiful face goes with the beautiful nature. Remembering this, we may find the motive power behind the new League in Germany in a recent announcement by the Berlin police of their next step in the war against crime.

Hitherto they have broadcast finger prints, but that is boring work and the patterns on fingers rarely give much aesthetic satisfaction. They seldom suggest a new and successful wallpaper and the fun of tracing their unique differences soon palls. So the Berlin police are going to broadcast faces, and they have a double inducement to raise the standard of the German face. If a nation can be produced whose most hardened criminals are good to look at, the policeman who spends his days scrutinizing countenances, broadcasting them and measuring them, will live his life amid beautiful surroundings, which is well known to be worth a large salary in itself. A more beautiful nation will enjoy a cheaper police force.

What is more, it will need fewer policemen, for it is the teaching of psychology, which the Germans at any rate are not likely to disobey, that the way to gain a good character is to behave cold-bloodedly as if you had it. Men of noble mien, such as the League will aim at producing, will find their lower natures overcome by their fine faces and will cease first to do wrong and then to wish to do it.

Germany does not stand alone in organizing for good looks, for there has been talk in Italy of providing free plastic surgery at the state’s expense for those who think that alterations would improve their prospects in business or marriage. Nothing has yet been said about how many signature of neighbours, hotel proprietors and the like, will be needed to bring about compulsory alterations in the interests of the locality where an ugly person resides, but the highly controversial question will soon arise who is fix the norm of beauty and lay down the German, or Italian, or English face.

Aesthetics generally lead to blows from lack of fixed standards, and the best solution will probably be a strict adherence to the standards of antiquity. The arms of the Venus de Milo are still being fished for in the Aegean, and if they are found it will be a great help. The future in this, as in other matters, must be built upon the past, and it will only be by starting with the ship-launching features of Helen of Troy as the type that we shall learn to build the two-thousand-ship face of the future.

The Times, Saturday, 6 April 1929, p. 11

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Crazier than the craziest satirist’s dreams"

There are lots of responses that are possible to today's march for 'honor', or whatever, in Washington, DC.

One of the ones I've found most insightful comes from MGK:

These guys have found the exploit that allows them to game the system of civilized conduct. That’s why irony is dead: Stephen Colbert and his fellow comedians are trying to make an absurd statement in a serious way, but all they can ever hope to do is match the stuff Glenn Beck is trying to say for real. You can’t even make fun of these guys, because they’re crazier than the craziest satirist’s dreams. All you can really do is hope that people get smart enough to see through their bullshit, and that’s a pipe dream.

Someone broke human behavior. We need a patch.

Sadly, I don't think such a patch is going to be available soon.

Further insight.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Milton Keynes: Satan's Lay-by

Sticking for a moment with our heavy metal theme and with reference to a town I know all too well:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The metal concert at the end of the universe, and other poems

As is oft his wont, John Darnielle has been writing poetry about metal bands.

I've quite enjoyed a couple of his recent offerings: 'the temple at the end of the cosmos' (on Ride for Revenge) and 'sacred worlds' (on Blind Guardian).

Related: JD talks such topics with The Believer.

And explains here, that death metal rules.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The togetherness of modern technology"

As if summoned from a novel by J.G. Ballard: "China traffic jam stretches 'nine days, 100km'"

The title of this post comes from a 1979 Penthouse interview with Ballard on the prescience of science fiction in which he observed:

I suspect it will also turn out to have been extremely accurate in the way in which it is now predicting or anticipating the peculiar affectless quality of life in the 1980s and 90s.

Penthouse: What kind of things?

Ballard: Well, for example the way in which the traditional togetherness of the village is giving way to the inbuilt loneliness of the new high rises, or the peculiar fact that people nowadays like to be together not in the old-fashioned way of, say, mingling on the piazza of an Italian Renaissance city, but, instead, huddled together in traffic jams, bus queues, on escalators and so on. It's a new kind of togetherness which may seem totally alien, but it's the togetherness of modern technology, and the science fiction writers of the 40s, 50s and 60s picked it out unerringly as being a dominant feature of the future - often without realising what they were doing.

Not that that togetherness is all that cozy, at least going by the Chinese example:

The drivers have complained that locals are over-charging them for food and drink while they are stuck.

Clearly, our Chinese friends have that capitalism thing down pat. Yet, the real traffic jam seems to nevertheless lack, how shall we say, the rampant psychosexual perversion of the Ballardian original.

You can't have everything. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

I won't let go, I won't let go

Friday night music.

'This is the Dream of Evan and Chan', Dntel feat. Ben Gibbard

And while we're talking Ben Gibbard:

'What Sarah Said', Death Cab for Cutie

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Getting it all wrong

There are moments when, at least in a political sense, I find that I'm glad I'm several thousand kilometres away from the land of my birth.

One of them came today: according to a current poll, 18% of Americans believe that openly Christian Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Not, of course, that being a Muslim, in itself, would be anything to be ashamed of.

But since we can imagine that probably nearly every person among that 18 per cent thinks it is something reprehensible -- and since the belief is simply wrong -- it's hardly a good day for those who would want to defend the sanity of the American world of media and politics.

[ADDENDUM]: 'Also, 19% of Americans believe that the sun goes round the earth. Ignorance, probably, though the proposition that truly radical distrust – why, I can see it moving with my own eyes - has permanently lodged itself in a fifth of the US population is quite intriguing.'

From here.

Moral victory

From a comment on the likely membership of the bottom half of the upcoming Bundesliga season in Der Spiegel (my translation):

The real winner of the German championship last season was Mainz, because no other team exceeded their financial potential as much as the one led by Thomas Tuchel. The former second league team had less financial clout than any of the other clubs but ended up in ninth place. That was not only unbelievable but also the greatest success in the club's history.

Just saying, like.

Wir sind nicht nur ein Karnevalsverein!

I am the (minty fresh) law?

Discovered while searching for discussions of police powers in the summer of 1928:

Mr. HAYES asked the Home Secretary the grounds upon which the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has prohibited the use of chewing-gum by police while on duty?

Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS: The Commissioner has prohibited the use of chewing-gum by police officers on duty because the practice seemed to him not only to invite unfavourable comment, but also to be likely to impair an officer's capacity to deal promptly and efficiently with many of the situations which are constantly arising in the course of his duties.

Mr. HAYES: Is the order prohibiting the use of chewing-gum to be extended to a prohibition of the consumption of chocolates by the Commissioner; and, if so, will it have any effect on the administration?

Viscountess ASTOR: Is it not much more difficult to answer questions properly when you are chewing gum?

Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS: That is one of the reasons why the Commissioner has prohibited the practice. I am also informed that in blowing a whistle you may blow the gum into the whistle.

Mr. HAYES: There is a serious question involved here. Is the prohibition of the use of chewing-gum extended to a prohibition of the purchase of chewing-gum? In fact, the purchase of chewing-gum has been prohibited in the service canteens, and, that being so, why is an officer, who may not drink beer while on duty, allowed to buy beer in the canteen when he is off duty?

HC Deb 05 July 1928 vol 219 cc1550-1

It sort of reminded me of something I posted last year, about the dangers of orange peels and anarchists.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Geht raus nach neben deinem Haus"

Today is the first anniversary of my becoming a German citizen.

It's also the 50th anniversary of the first concert the Beatles played in Hamburg.

I thought I would draw the two themes together. As ever, das Internet has proven very helpful in this regard.

Ja, Jackie.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sommerloch* à la LRB

In tune with the overall summer lull, the current issue of the London Review of Books opens on an unusually frivolous note, with Steven Shapin's review of Michael Steinberger's Au Revoir To All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine.

Now don't mock - the review is far more interesting than one might think and after reading it I feel almost inclined to get Steinberger's book. Being a somewhat indifferent eater myself (and a lousy cook to boot), I tend to be intrigued by the exaggerated significance that food seems to have in the lives of so many people. I therefore enjoy a slice of the culinary hyperbole when it's put on a plate before me:

Nouvelle cuisine was betrayed, Steinberger says, by the media-savvy chef Paul Bocuse, wrongly identified as a leader of nouvelle cuisine. The new cuisine revolution needed its Trotsky, but what it got in Bocuse was its Stalin.

Bye, bye, Brie de Meaux, next stop, McDo. Sounds like Steinberger's book is some kind of Fast Food Nation for gourmets:

What Bocuse did was to erode culinary creativity by taking its human source away from the stove. He established a new conception of what it was to be a successful "executive" chef: abandoning the kitchen, launching frozen food lines in France and Japan, and turning himself into a global brand.

But what is at stake here, I wonder: The demise of food appreciation by pragmatic European chefs (or indeed the quality of eating in Europe) or the loss of a powerful source of symbolic capital for a certain type of sophisticated Yank?

*"Sommerloch" = The dearth of newsworthy events, usually political, during the summer months

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Love and taxes

Stirring stuff from Eric, from the dark days of 1940:

Towards the government I feel no scruples and would dodge paying the tax if I could. Yet I would give my life for England readily enough, if I thought it necessary.

I get this sentiment...I even like it.

But then he follows up with...

No one is patriotic about taxes.

...which, yes, I can see the point of, but which also seems an overgeneralisation.

Isn't it possible, after all, to indeed have a certain patriotic feeling about taxes (even grumbling as one pays them...), as long as one has the knowledge that a significant portion of them goes toward maintaining what is -- all things considered, comparatively, by historical and international standards, in spite of the trailer-load of qualifications that I'm not going to bother considering just now -- a decent society?

Or am I just a bit of a freak on this point?

The latter is entirely plausible, I realise.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Farewell Tony Judt

No less saddening for being hardly a surprise: historian Tony Judt has died.

He's been praised here before, especially for his excellent book of essays, Reappraisals, which I can't recommend highly enough.

He had a knack for bringing things to a point.
"History can show you that it was one pile of bad stuff after another," he once declared. "It can also show you that there's been tremendous progress in knowledge, behaviour, laws, civilisation. It cannot show you that there was a meaning behind it.

"And if you can't find a meaning behind history, what would be the meaning of any single life? I was born accidentally. I lived accidentally in London. We nearly migrated to New Zealand. So much of my life has been a product of chance, I can't see a meaning in it at all."

Being someone sensitive to the influence of chance on history (and the historian), I have to say that this speaks to me.


[UPDATE:] a somewhat older video of Tony Judt, at the Guardian, talking about living with motor neurone disease.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Staring death in the eye and not blinking...much

There are many ways of facing mortality; I mean, in the way that it becomes real and immediate.

I'd like to think that I'd face this situation with defiance and optimism and quiet confidence.

But if I can't, grim determination will do:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Once again, wishing Christopher the best.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Third Degree

I've just been informed today that an article of mine has made an appearance in an 'advance access' online version. It derives from a project I've been working on about the media and concerns about police powers in 1920s Britain. I'm quite pleased with it (for a change...) and it's been very enjoyable to research and write.

As it will be, I hope, for you to read.

The abstract:

The late 1920s saw a dramatic upsurge in popular concern about the abuse of police powers in Britain, the end result of a longer-term trend. Various aspects of policing were seen as worrying, but the most important concerned illegitimate forms of questioning. The phrase ‘the third degree’—imported from America—came to encapsulate this unease. Before the First World War, the terminology began to be used in British coverage of American crimes and their investigation, typically accompanied by disparaging commentary on American methods as well as the confident assertion of the superiority of British policing. The wartime growth in police powers and broader state regulation caused some to see an erosion in the ‘liberty of the subject’, and a series of scandals seemed to reveal serious problems with police procedure. The popularity of crime dramas featuring ‘third-degree’ interrogations also shaped public images of the police. Scandals in 1928 generated enough of an outcry to force the calling of the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure (1928–29). Even though few concrete procedural changes were undertaken, it appears to have successfully calmed worries about the police, which receded and did not reach a similar level until the late 1950s.

The article: full-text; PDF

(For those of you interested in such things: when the published, paginated version appears, the links will, I am informed, be updated.)

A few things that I learned on vacation

1. It’s good to get away. Away, in particular from the computer. We spend probably a majority of our waking hours every day staring at screens and typing. While in France, however, we were online for about a total of an hour over 2 weeks. This is partly because of the curious absence of internet cafés in this part of the world, which has mystified me ever since I started going there some years ago.

I found the withdrawal difficult for the first two days but then I spent long periods forgetting that the internet exists.

And, as much as I love the internet, this was a Very Good Thing.

But nothing personal, you understand.

2. Jacques Demy was a genius. Not only did he make mind-bendingly beautiful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) but -- thanks to Arte -- we can also report that his The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) is just the thing for getting into that summer vacation state of mind.

Just take a look:

I mean, really: what more do you want?

3. Beaches are a wonderful invention. One has a very different outlook on life when, well, the outlook is like this.

Or this.

And when the most exciting thing that happens all week is the occasional docking of a dredger, you can be reasonably sure that you’re achieving the right level of relaxation.

(Sharp eyes will note that this vessel is the brilliantly named ‘Britannia Beaver’. Further comment, I think, would be superfluous)

4. Reading is a joy. This may seem obvious; however, I mean 'reading' in the sense of ‘reading something from beginning to end for the pure enjoyment of doing so and being able to linger over the better parts for as long as you like while pleasantly lost in thought’ and not, ‘desperately skimming a book or article to get what I need out of it in the shortest time possible.’

I (and we) spend a lot of time doing the latter and not nearly enough doing the former.

And they are very different experiences.

The joy is only increased by being able to focus on beautiful prose, of course, and I thank Erich Kästner, Ian McEwan and Thomas Mann for providing it.

(And, in Herr Mann’s case, in such enormous quantities: Buddenbrooks is pretty epic, and its German – parts of which are in local dialect or a bit archaic or both – is not the easiest for a non-native speaker used to humbler fare. However, it’s a gripping read, both deeply moving and very, very funny. I’m now encouraged to take on Magic Mountain: any advice? For those of you who're looking more simple -- but still beautifully written -- German reading, I can't recommend Erich Kästner's Emil books too highly. They're meant for children, apparently, but I found them to be a delight.)

Finally: The French, in their creativity, civilisation and love of state-supported civic life, have managed to combine point #3 and point #4 by putting libraries on the beach.

How awesome, dear reader, is France!?

Très awesome!