Thursday, 31 January 2008
Thank you, Francesco, for directing me to this.
In 1999 a New York-bound EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic shortly after the co-pilot, who was controlling the plane, was heard to say "I put my faith in God" as the autopilot was switched off. The plane then plunged into a steep dive and crashed into the sea, killing 217 people.If talking to God is so dangerous when pilots do it, shouldn't we be a little more worried when political leaders do the same? Why should it be a sign of mental breakdown in mid-air and moral integrity at mid-term? I rather like the idea of a handcuffed Blair being escorted through the Arrivals lounge of Brussels airport.
Wednesday, 30 January 2008
‘When you have seen that flaccid old woman waving his ridiculous fingers over the prostrate multitude & have duly felt the picturesqueness of the scene – & then turn away sickened by its absolute obscenity – you may climb the steps of the Capitol & contemplate the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.’
Plus ca change... Unless of course Marcus Aurelius is intended to represent the glories of an independent and secular state, in which priests were allowed to advise but not to rule.
Tuesday, 29 January 2008
Monday, 28 January 2008
And talking of spelling, does any other language mark the connection between language and magic as closely as English? Spell. The shared root of grammar and glamour. Witch and which (OK, I'm being silly now.)
Sunday, 27 January 2008
Stephen P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, has nothing to fear from the Kindle. No one would regard it as competition for the iPod. It displays text in four exciting shades of gray, and does that one thing very well. It can do a few other things: for instance, it has a headphone jack and can play MP3 files, but it is not well suited for navigating a large collection of music tracks.
Yet, when Mr. Jobs was asked two weeks ago at the Macworld Expo what he thought of the Kindle, he heaped scorn on the book industry. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read any more,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”
I've often wondered if the air of superiority that characterises most Mac users is purely coincidental - the way some evolutionary traits just happen to appear side-by-side - or whether, like all the bits needed to expand Apple computers, it's product-specific, up its own arse and basically anti-literate.
It looks like the latter.
Saturday, 26 January 2008
On a wet day last week Knut stood alone in his enclosure playing to his gallery of adoring visitors like an accomplished Rada graduate. Somebody had thrown him a six-inch-long plastic toy. Knut rolled it around in his mouth, threw it into a pool and dived after it, snatched it up with his paw and then rose up on to his hind legs before quickly flipping the object back into his mouth again. He did this for half an hour and his audience roared with approval. It was more circus than zoo.When Knut was taken away from his mother, to save him from being eaten by her, his rescuers claimed that they were doing it for Knut. Now, with furry toys on sale depicting Knut in the days when he actually looked like a furry toy, rather than the hulking brown monster he's become (see photo), it's increasingly evident that Knut wasn't hand-reared for his own good, but for ours. From the moment of birth, the cub's socio-ecological niche depended on us.
Animal activists complained about this, but their gripe is not with whether Knut should have been deprived of his mother and a 'natural' death, but with the zoo itself. And, in one sense, they're absolutely right. Tony Paterson, the author of the article, makes a distinction between circus and zoo that seems altogether too fine for what actually happens. We all know that, in theory, zoos are the loci of scientific research and conservation. What we also know is that both circuses - those that remain - and zoos exist primarily to satisfy our natural curiosity about what animals are like - a curiosity that isn't sated by National Geographic and Discovery Channel. We want to get up close and see them unedited; we want to smell the dung and see them see us: we want to relate.
It's a shameful and tyrannical need in some ways, but it serves a human purpose. The truth is that all our animals, whether at home or in zoos, in farms or wildlife parks, even, arguably in reserves the size of the Serengeti, are there to meet our needs. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't love them, care for them, consider their needs; on the contrary, the more they're involved with us on a daily basis, the greater our responsibility becomes. But it's sentimentalism to say that we shouldn't interfere.
Of course we're responsible for Knut, but so would we have been responsible for his death. We can choose what to do with our power, and our responsibility, but we can't pretend we don't possess it. We can't return to some prelapsarian world in which we're all equal and what we think doesn't matter, because we have already made the choice, or had the choice made for us. Loving animals can be the most rewarding, and the hardest, thing we do. Let's not trivialise it by inventing some notion of nature, from which they can be 'divorced'.
Thursday, 24 January 2008
It doesn't take that much Italian to understand what this nameless Italian senator (National Alliance, i.e. post-fascist) is shouting at another senator, a certain Dottor Cusumano who has just voted for the coalition to which his party belonged until, let's see, 63 hours before. And was subsequently expelled from that same party. By its capo supremo, Clemente Mastella (see below).
But, just in case your Italian doesn't run to insults, let me help. Sei = You are. Una merda = A shit. You are a shit. Thank god we have the Senate to show us how to behave. Cusumano was also spat at by one of his ex-colleagues and called a queer (frocio) and dirty faggot (checca squallida). How patrician.
And that's the end of Prodi, for now at least. (Though, in Italy, one never knows.) There may be sadder ways for a relatively decent government to come to a close, though it's hard to think of one that doesn't involve bloodshed.
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
Sunday, 20 January 2008
If you want to know the answer to that question, ask Clemente Mastella, centre-left Minister of Justice until three days ago. Having been told that both he and his wife were under investigation for big-time favouritism, he actually did the decent thing and resigned. The gloss of this good action is slightly tarnished by three considerations.
First, he's been itching to do it for months and can now position himself for the next government, increasingly likely as a result of his resignation. Second, he said that neither he nor his wife (president of Campania regional council) had done anything wrong, as in: hey, everyone does it. He can't see why it's wrong to use his power to fill important positions with his friends and hangers-on. He just doesn't get it. Third, he made a speech in parliament in which he declared his own innocence, obviously, and accused the investigating magistrate of, to say the least, malicious incompetence. This, from the (ex-)Minister of Justice.
In any normal parliament, his speech would have been met with embarrassment, scattered boos, a general drift towards the bar. Here, it was greeted with wild cross-party applause. The man's a hero.
God help us. Pass the party hats.
Written in tight, sparkling prose, Little Monsters is an extraordinary tale of murder and its aftermath. Haunting, powerful and brilliantly evocative of teenage life, this is a must read for fans of Alice Sebold.
I haven't read any Alice Sebold. Maybe I should. But whether I do or not, the idea that I should be a 'must read' for fans of any author who's sold as many copies as Sebold has is, to say the least, exciting.
But I'm getting distracted from the purpose of this post, which is to draw your attention to a post on the fabulous Jesus' General blog. It's entitled 'Family Values: Proud that Working People Can't Make Ends Meet'. Anyone who's read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (and if you haven't I recommend it) will know what it's like to survive as a low wage earner in the States, but even Ehrenreich doesn't mention that, for some politicians and, er, Christians, people who need to do more than one or two jobs to survive are a sign of just how great the country is. I've stolen the picture from it. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:
President George W. Bush himself told a divorced mother of three on Feb. 4, 2005: "You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that."
Saturday, 19 January 2008
Friday, 18 January 2008
You can find more details in today's Independent here.
Thursday, 17 January 2008
I thought I'd write to La Repubblica to point out that the rest of the world (pace the horrified wailing of the Italian media) is actually not that interested in Ratzinger's failure to show at la Sapienza. On the assumption that it won't be appearing in tomorrow's edition, this is what I wrote:
Contrariamente a quanto detto da quasi tutti i giornali e telegiornali italiani, la rinuncia del papa di presentarsi all'inaugurazione del anno accademico della Sapienza ha avuto pochissimo risalto nei media internazionali, almeno quelli di lingua inglese. L'assenza del papa, per motivi squisitamente politici, e lo scompiglio creato all’interno del mondo politico sono affari che riguardano il Vaticano e il governo italiano e poco altro. Meglio così? O l'amore proprio nazionale vuole che anche i piccoli disaccordi di famiglia attirino gli occhi del mondo intero?
(Contrary to what has been said by practically every Italian newspaper and programme, very little attention has been given by the foreign press to the pope's decision not to appear at the inauguration of the academic year of the Sapienza. The pope's absence, for purely political reasons, and the upset this has caused in political circles interest the Vatican and the Italian government and practically no one else. This is no bad thing. Unless, of course, Italian amour propre would prefer every family tiff to draw the attention of the entire world?)
If it isn't published, I will, of course, claim to have been censored. Even better, I might just withdraw the letter first and then claim to have been censored!
You need to read the comments to find out what an SP is, but you've probably been one all your life and don't even know it.
Tuesday, 15 January 2008
Oh yes. Italian state television devoted over half (16 minutes!) of its news programme (TG1) to this story. As if that weren't enough, it twisted the facts to suggest that the pope had in some way been prevented from appearing at the event. He chose not to come. Repeat. He chose not to come. How many times does this need saying? He chose not to come.
Naturally, there are those who defend his presence, insisting that not to invite him would be tantamout to censorship. How many times must it be said that censorship means preventing someone from communicating his or her ideas in an absolute sense? It isn't censorhip if the Daily Mail chooses not to host the writing of Noam Chomsky. It isn't censorship if the Vatican chooses not to invite Vladimir Luzuria to its Christmas shindig. It's common sense, editorial policy, institutional policy, whatever. It's perfectly licit to prefer not to invite a man whose opnions run counter to everything a university should stand for. In any case, the word of Ratzinger hardly goes unheard. The man's a total media tart, rarely off the TV screen or out of the press, his every querulous fart apparently worthy of national attention.
The amusing thing is that his defenders refer to him as an academic. Of what? Theology? Next year I imagine they'll be inviting an astrologer or someone who can read the entrails of slaughtered goats on the grounds that these are also rigorous academic disciplines. And talking of cultural pluralism and open-mindedness, which is what Ratzinger's critics are accused of lacking (hah!), it's interesting to see that one of Rome's most historic art cimemas, il Labirinto, is being forced to close because the proprietors of the building want to replace it with something more profitable. And who are the proprietors? That's right. The Vatican.
Monday, 14 January 2008
Sunday, 13 January 2008
This piece is basically a table, the awful, terrifying family dinner table headed by the father who sits and gloats. And the others, the wife, the children, what can they do'? They sit there, in silence. The mother, of course, tries to satisfy the tyrant, her husband... So, in exasperation, we grabbed the man, threw him on the table, dismembered him and proceeded to devour him.
Saturday, 12 January 2008
UNDER THE DAY
In the early light of the morning,
for instance, it remained as a wish to be
companionable and was straightaway
erased and there was the pentimento
which was only a come stain on the sheet
fondly ‘remade’ as a model for future
delight-filled emotional hours in the
company, in the company of admiring
stares where you are smaller than,
hiding behind, what is looked at, more
concealed than what is concealed in your
arms, which is merely restless and
anxious to be gone into the dark,
that silvery mind that reflects your
slightest wish and pushes the tentative
on. Into action and the great claims
made for it and pearly days lit from
an almost notional above and, hanging
over that, the pestering and abuse
and the layers of differently coloured
sand in the bottom become oddly
confused as the lowest levels percolate
up, like wanting it hard and often.
And the vigilantes also prefer this hour.
Friday, 11 January 2008
This sounded as though it might be fun, but it also reminded me of something. It took me a moment (and Google) to remember exactly what. I had an image of Orson Welles, and a sailor in a back street of a European port, frantically knocking a closed door. It didn't take long to track the memory down. A Dutch film, made in 1972, called Malpertuis, based on a curious Belgian book of the same name by Jean Ray (aka John Flanders). I saw it in the Electric in Portobello Road, with another film by the same director, Harry Kumel, in a double bill with Daughters of Darkness, of which I recall nothing. Malpertuis, on the other hand, I remember in the way one remembers certain dreams: an atmosphere, a bedroom, the details of the house, an argument about money, an overall disquiet. Colours and moods, and Orson Welles a brooding and presiding spirit.
What brought the film (and book) to mind, though, was an odd coincidence. Like Marie Phillips' novel, Malpertuis describes the travails of the Greek gods imprisoned, far from their time and world, in a dilapidated northern European house. I wonder if Phillips has seen the film, or read the book. Clearly, none of her reviewers has. Maybe it's the kind of good idea that more than one person can come up with. But it would be nice if people were led back by the novel to Jean Ray's weird and forgotten work, and to Harry Kumel's film.
God knows, I'm no fan of Veltroni, nor of the PD, but it's pretty rich when Ratzinger accuses the city's administration of allowing Rome to fall into a state of gravissimo degrado. He was probably too busy
Ratzinger says the city doesn't guarantee the safety of its citizens. According to a recent survey, Rome is the safest major city in Europe. But what are facts to the merchants of revealed truth? He says that Rome has problems of homelessness, low wages, social inequality. He says this from his usual pulpit, dressed in his usual finery, exempt from VAT, the recipient of a slice of Italian tax money that would make a whore blush. He doesn't say it because he cares (he cares? come on!), but because it's what his real supporters - Italy's centre-right - want to hear. He's set his sights so low he's now an unofficial part of the opposition. He's there with Sandro Bondi (ex-communist) and Michela Vittoria Brambilla, Berlusconi totty, rooting around in the political muck for the odd truffle.
And what's the solution? (Apart from blocking in its tracks a party that might - just might - manage to reform Italy.) That's right. The family. And what kind of family? Right again. The kind based on marriage between a man and a woman. So let's run through this again. Homelessness, poverty, inequality? All it takes to solve them is to stop gay couples having any kind of rights at all. It's all so simple, you wonder why Jesus didn't think of it.
After the first glass of vodka
you can accept just about anything
of life even your own mysteriousness
you think it is nice that a box
of matches is purple and brown and is called
La Petite and comes from Sweden
for they are words that you know and that
is all you know words not their feelings
or what they mean and you write because
you know them not because you understand them
because you don't you are stupid and lazy
and will never be great but you do
what you know because what else is there?
Wednesday, 9 January 2008
Tuesday, 8 January 2008
But it also makes an interesting comment about the way the image that is selected to act as this kind of resonant shorthand reflects not only the actual event - a dying man, a burning girl - but also the way we choose to see it. The example the book (and review) providesis that of the single student facing down the tanks in Tienenman Square. As an event, Tienenman Square was a triumph (and remains so, despite its suppression) not of individualism but of collectivism. It was a triumph of numbers. Yet we've allowed, or preferred, the single image that represents the event to celebrate an act of single heroism. This is perfectly in line with western 'liberal' notions of resistance, but it's an incongruous and even offensive way of commemorating what went on. It's foisting our sense of what matters onto people for whom that sense might be inimical.
It must be that we don't want - or are unequipped - to see the event in those terms, in terms of the single emblematic life. We see them en masse. And I don't know if this is a good thing - because the Holocaust can never finally be understood and to see it in terms of individuals would be, in some terrible sense, a sort of trivialisation - or a bad thing - because we think in numbers and the weight of numbers, and numbers are an avoidance strategy.
Monday, 7 January 2008
Middle-aged man 1: I'm thinking of getting one of these new big tellies.
Middle-aged man 2: I wouldn't bother.
Middle-aged man 1: No? Why not?
Middle-aged man 2: I got one last month. You don't notice they're any bigger after a couple of days. They're a waste of money.
Middle-aged man 1: Oh.
What always strikes me when the need for coffee hits me in England (apart from the price: an espresso in Rome costs, typically, around 50p; in the UK, three times as much) is just how totally incapable the workers in these places tend to be. It's not just Starbucks, it's everywhere. Caffe Nero, Costa, they're all the same. The longer the queue, the worse the service, as though some perverse mechanism were in place to punish the customers for being legion. Half a dozen teenagers in branded tee-shirts faff around from till to coffee-machine to counter with as much sequential logic as decapitated fowl. They squabble over (dirty) trays, put coffee into the filter thingumybob then stand and think about the nature of cups, or life, or something. They wait for the coffee to fill the cup before heating the milk for cappuccino. They put plates of doughnuts on top of other plates of doughnuts. They do everything, all of them, and all of it badly, as though Adam Smith had never lived nor wrote. And the managers are no better than the trainees.
I'm now going to be an Italy bore for a sentence or two, but as I spend so much time criticising the country, it's only fair that you bear with me for a moment. In any ordinary bar in Italy, you'll find a person at the till who takes your money and gives you your receipt (in a bar that doesn't know you, obviously; otherwise, you pay as you leave). You take your receipt to the bar where a barman (rarely a woman) glances at the receipt and puts the appropriate saucer and spoon on the counter. This tells him at a glance how many espressos and cappuccinos he needs to make. He puts the coffee into the filter, slams it home, takes advantage of the time it takes for the coffee to descend to straighten the spoons in the sugar bowl or load the dishwasher or chat about football. When the cup's full (as in half-full; no espresso fills the cup), he puts it instantly on its saucer. You drink it, smile, say Grazie, buon giorno, and off you go. It's taken five minutes at the most. Of course, if you want to, you can dawdle, read the newspaper that's lying around on one of the tables. But what you came in for is a coffee, piping hot, fragrant, and fast. From a clean cup. It isn't difficult. If a country that's famous for not being able to organise can do it, it can't be that hard.
Sunday, 6 January 2008
Your Brain is 47% Female, 53% Male
Your brain is a healthy mix of male and female
You are both sensitive and savvy
Rational and reasonable, you tend to keep level headed
But you also tend to wear your heart on your sleeve
Saturday, 5 January 2008
Coming back to London after Christmas, Jane and I were forced by engineering works on the lines to change at Birmingham. Not just trains, but stations. We had to cross the centre of Birmingham on foot, from New Street to Moor Street. And what an odd place the centre of Birmingham has become, part Blade Runner, part amusement park, part architectural folly, not at all unpleasant, but utterly deracinated, as seems to be the fashion in post-Gehry city centres. Moor Street station, on the other hand, was a rooted joy, and it didn't even feel that refurbished. It felt as though people had simply kept it clean and in working order for all these years. Even the train to London, which took only fifteen minutes longer than the usual Virgin connection, came from an epoch when trains were designed to provide their passengers with decent window space and relatively roomy seats. Unlike the various Pendolinos employed by Virgin, which look more like bloodied suppositories than anything else and provide half the space of their Italian counterparts.
I've always been too much of a hoarder to feel happy about borrowing books, though I valued the opportunity the British Council library in Rome once gave me to sample writers I couldn't afford to buy in the pre-Amazon days when imported books cost the earth. The only person I know who consistently used a library is Jane, who went to the public library in Mare Street, Hackney, at least once a week. She now buys her books almost exclusively from the new and extremely well-stocked Oxfam book shop on Dalston Road. This is great for her and, of course, for Oxfam, particularly as she regularly re-donates the books to the shop. It's less great for the author and publisher, of course, as the copy has already been sold further up the line, although I've often found that a book bought in a charity shop leads on to other works by the same author being bought from retail booksellers, much as downloaded music, in my case at least, leads on to the purchase of a legitimate CD.
Lawson concludes by saying that the success or failure of a book now depends on the vagaries of judging panels. My editor confided in me that prizes can actually make very little difference to sales, and can even have a deleterious effect on them if the effect of the prize is to provoke spitefulness among the winner's rivals and peers. It's also true, though, that a book with a very low profile indeed can't help but benefit from a little attention. I'm obviously thinking about Little Monsters, for which no longlist is too long, no recognition too abject. I remember, some years ago, Hari Kunzru turning down a prize from the Daily Mail and wondering at the time if I'd have his moral integrity. Well, I don't wonder any longer. I haven't.
A couple of last thoughts. One comment was left by someone who published a first novel but had the second one turned down as being 'not good enough'. Gulp. Another contains a link to someone who failed to find a publisher at all and took to droplifting his novel. Droplifting involves leaving copies of the book in booksellers. The piece is entertaining, thought-provoking and worth a read.
PS Pansies, as you know, was the title of DH Lawrence's best known collection of poems. It doesn't refer to flowers, and it certainly doesn't refer to the morally disordered (pace JP2), but is derived from the French pensées - thoughts which, according to Lawrence, come "as much from the heart and the genitals as from the head." In other words, I'm rambling.
Friday, 4 January 2008
Minister for the Family, Rosy Bindi, said the murder was a sign that 'the family has become fragile'. This is the standard response to cases of domestic violence of this type, which are disturbingly frequent in Italy, despite the reiterated insistence on family values by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities (i.e. the people we elect to govern us and those we don't). An insistence that naturally refuses to admit any recognised legal alternative to the traditional family; indeed, that sees attempts to recognise alternative structures as the main threat to it. Ratzinger's annual address harped on in a multitude of languages (and one grating German accent) about the centrality of the one-man-one-woman-one-marriage-licence-n-number-of-children family model to a healthy society and, get this, international peace, as though war were the prerogative of unmarried, and possibly morally disordered, men (and not the god-fearing married variety).
Given that these brutal murders happen so frequently within the family itself, might it not also be the case that the family per se shares some of the responsibility for them? Not the ideal family (whatever that might be), but the family as it's constituted here and now, in modern Italy. In the current Italian context of no affordable housing for young people (or anyone else), no unemployment benefit or social support for young people (or anyone else), no job security for (young) people entering the work market, university degrees that aren't worth the paper they're written on, minimum investment in post-school training and a culture so devoted to acquisition it demands young people change their mobiles once a month or die.
Thursday, 3 January 2008
Wednesday, 2 January 2008
Tuesday, 1 January 2008
As Brockman says: "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science."
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live - like vapors tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
Even the dearest, that I loved the best,
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.