Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kenny pledges to ‘get tough’ with the bankers - well, it’s expected of him isn’t it, that nice Mr Obama (and one more short film)

With a bit of luck, Ireland’s bankers are getting a little bit nervous this weekend with a pledge by the incoming taoiseach Enda Kenny to launch a probe into the banking crisis which brought the country to its knees. (Great words ‘probe’ and ‘pledge’, I use them now as a matter of course after a life of dedicated hackery. In fact, ‘pledge’ means nothing more than a chap announcing that all things being equal and not to be too premature, he might - and don't necessarily hold him to this - he might well be considering doing something or there again he might not. But the word does give reports of that announcement a harder, tougher edge. This morning, I got up and ‘pledged’ to make a cup of tea, and it was quite obvious that my family were deeply impressed. As for ‘probe’, it, too, implies a no-nonsense attitude and that no stone will be left unturned in the quest for truth and decency. This morning, I probed where a clean pair of socks might be. And it, too, is largely spurious. Invariably, people only ‘pledge’ and ‘probe’ in the media.)
But luck is not what the Irish seem to have on their side at the moment, and I doubt that the ice cubes in innumerable glasses of Jameson being drunk in smart villas around Dublin are rattling any more than they would do otherwise. The trouble is - and the bankers know this - the Irish government needs them, just as the British government say all sorts of nasty things about Britain’s bankers but very wisely holds back from actually doing anything nasty. So I wish Mr Kenny very good luck as he sets about trying to convince the electorate that he is actually doing something.
He has also announced that he wants to re-negotiate the terms of the bailout imposed on Ireland at the beginning of the year, and he might just have more luck with that. Ireland might have voted to accept the Lisbon Treaty a while ago, but only after a second vote was held because the voters didn’t provide the result Brussels was looking for. After being kicked from pillar to post by the moneymen and Brussels, I can’t see the EU having even a tenth of the support is once had in the Republic. And Brussels knows it now has to keep the Irish sweet if it doesn’t want to risk a real upset.
I don’t know a great deal about Mr Kenny, except that he has a great Christian name, and has benefited from the single fact that
he is not Fianna Fail. From his pic he seems to have it all: politician's good looks, sincerity and a winning smile, though he might need a bit more than that in the coming months and years. I read somewhere that FF has been in government in the Republic for 60 of the past 80 years, but as they are universally regarded as a busted flush, the glory days might well now be over. Sinn Fein have gained seats this time around, so they might become more vocal. Gerry Adams has been elected to represent Louth in the Dail. I wonder whether he will give up his House of Commons seat. (Quaintly, British MPs can’t resign. They have to apply for to appointed Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham or Steward and Deputy Steward of the Manor of Northstead in Yorkshire. This is always granted and they then cease to be an MP, because MPs can’t hold a Crown office which pays. But somehow I can’t see Adams going down that road if he decides to resign, which will, with a bit of luck, lead to a constitutional crisis. We haven’t had one of those for ages, and they are always very amusing.

. . .

News reaches me from the White House (they like to keep me up to speed) that Barak and Michelle have appointed Jeremy Bernard as their social secretary. Commenting on the appointment, the White House said: ‘Jeremy shares our vision for the White House as the People's House, one that celebrates our history and culture in dynamic and inclusive ways.’ ‘Dynamic and inclusive’ eh? I’m sure I would be mightily impressed if I had the slightest clue as to what that meand. Informally, Michelle said: ‘We [she meant ‘I’, but remember she is now Mrs President] have every confidence that Jeremy will not fuck up like the last two who had that job, and will make sure the Obama White House outglams that of the Kennedys.’
What is notable about the appointment is that Jeremy, who is from Texas and is said to have a ‘big laugh’ and an outrageuos sense of humour, is ‘openly gay’. And that, ironically, could cause the Obama’s a little embarrassment. I, for one, would have been rather more impressed if an ‘openly gay’ man or woman was appointed Secretary of State or head of the Fed or the CIA’s new boss. But ‘White House social secretary’ does rather smack of gay stereotyping, as in gays ‘make great wedding planners, interior designers and hairdressers’, whereas it is now pretty much established that gay men and women are represented in all jobs and walks of life and do every job as well or as badly as heterosexuals. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s many enemies, both among the Republicans and Democrats, will pick up on that.
Here in Britain, the England cricket team’s wicketkeeper, a chap called Steve Davies, has just come out, and he says he did so after a former Wales rugby international Gareth Thomas came out last year. And one would be hard-pushed to typify either of those sports or their ethos as in any way effeminate. Roll on the days when about the least newsworthy aspect of a man or woman’s life and achievements is their sexuality.

. . .

Incidentally, it has long been the contention of British hacks that American hacks and the newspapers they produce are at best downright crumby and at worst fucking awful. I have only spent a week in the U.S., in New York, and I remember buying a copy of the New York Post to see how a Yank tabloid could stack up
against ours. I have to report it was no contest: the front page lead, about the horrible murder in some suburb or other, read like the blurb on the side of a breakfast cereal packet. I know New York and Chicago once had tabloid newspapers that were regarded as the template of the yellow press, but those days are long gone. It’s all ‘responsible journalism’ now. It makes you despair. Where’s the crassness, where’s the entertainment, where’s the fun? A case in point in how America’s finest apparently seem to do their best to outdull each other would be the Washington Post’s report on the appointment of Jeremy Bernard (you can find it here). Here is the intro: ‘It could have been a blast, another chapter in the life of an irreverent, shrewd insider who can get away with playfully tossing an ornamental gourd in a fancy Washington restaurant without any repercussions.’
It’s bloody awful. The difference is that too many American print hacks are novelist manque. For all our other faults - which are, admittedly legion - we British hacks aren’t.

. . .

And here’s a little something I knocked up this evening. The soundtrack is a short Vaughan Williams piece reversed with a little reverb and delay. Thought you’d like to know.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ireland voters manage without Simon Cowell. For the very chic: human breast milk ice-cream. And let the bad times roll...

It must be very much like cleaning up a house after a flood and equally dispiriting. Today, voters in the Republic go to the polls to vote in a new government but all they will be doing is, as someone pointed out, to elect a loser. For whether the incoming government is formed by Fine Gael on its own or a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour, whatever it does will be deeply unpopular. You can almost hear all the candidates for once urging the voters ‘don’t vote for me, for Christ’s sake’. In that sense, candidates standing for Fianna Fail, which presided over the financial debacle of these past few years are in a winning situation: their party has no hope whatsoever of forming the new government, so those lucky enough to win a seat in the Dail will be quids in. They will have prime of place at the public trough and be able to trouser several billion euros each, yet all they will be required to do is to jeer from the guidelines as the government becomes ever more unpopular instigating cuts to salvage the economy.
Many eyes, not least mine, will be on Sinn Fein and how they will do. As far as I know, they do reasonably well in local elections and have quite a number of councillors, but never seem to have much success in general elections. That nice Mr Adams will, I’m sure, win whatever seat he is hoping for, but just how many of his Sinn Fein colleagues will make it to the Dail remains to be seen. (Incidentally, surely that last sentence of mine is a classic in that it seems to say something, but actually says fuck all. ) I am off work this week for a short break from helping the Fourth Estate defence democracy (or, as we usually put it, flog newspapers), and while I was briefly considering a week away from home, I did think of taking of to Ireland in my car for a mini tour. But bearing in mind money and the need to save it, I have decided to stay at home. So my loss is Ireland’s gain. Another putative destination was Jerusalem, as I would like to see both Israel and the Gaza Strip for myself, but that plan also succumbed to a desire not to spend too much money.
One interesting statistic is that what might, were I an unscrupulous hack, be termed as ‘almost half’ of all the candidates have forsaken the main political parties and are standing as independents. In fact, the figures are 233 of 566 candidates, not quite ‘almost half’ but still an impressive 41 per cent have completely lost faith in the established political
structure. (Oh, all right, ‘almost half’ – there, happy?). The BBC is reporting that turnout was 70 per cent, which is more than we have been managing here in Britain. I think the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent voting figures were higher than for last May’s general election, so the Irish obviously have a lot more self-respect than we Brits. The latest news is that Jedward did rather well and have jointly taken Dublin South for the Moron Party.

. . .

Most recherchĂ© product of the week has to be the ice-cream made from human breast milk. It’s naturally not cheap, but Lord is it cool. It is on sale in London’s Covent Garden, and it seem every wealthy idiot worth that title as well as many not worth it are queuing up to pay £15 for a ten ounce portion, according to the Guardian. When I saw the headline, I immediately looked at the date on my laptop to reassure myself it wasn’t April 1. It wasn’t.

. . .

A friend commented the other day that 2011 seems to be shaping up as ‘one of those years’. Other such years were 1848, which saw several revolutions throughout Europe; 1956, which saw the Russian - ahem, Soviet, though it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two - suppression of the Hungarian revolution as well as the Suez crisis; and 1989, which saw the universal collapse of communism throughout the Soviet bloc. I can imagine that exterior ministry analysists throughout Europe will be working overtime on reports ‘looking forward’ and keeping their fingers crossed they don’t get it all too wrong. On top of that, of course, is the decidedly dodgy economic outlook - not just the euro crisis which is still bubbling under, but also the banking crisis and the danger of a double-dip recession - which means for many the good, peaceful times are over. It will probably also show the claim that the EU ‘has ensured peace in Europe for the past 40 years’ as the self-delusional bullshit it always was. Certainly, times have been peaceful and the vast majority of Europeans have enjoyed - and increasingly taken for granted - growing prosperity, but the existence of the EU is concomitant and arguably a result of that peace and prosperity, not its cause. I have yet to be persuaded that the German people -as opposed to the German government - will happily throw good money after bad when and if Spain and Portugal go to the wall, and Greece goes even further to the wall. Incidentally, all the excitement in North Africa and has rather overshadowed an reports of serious rioting in Athens (see pictures). It seems a 24-hour strike and associated demonstration got seriously out-of-hand. What find quite amazing is that a search on the Telegraph and Guardian websites did not turn up any stories reporting the riots. Surely they are not too concerned with Libya?
It is at times such as this that I wonder what life was like for the ordinary Joe such as me in, say, 1847 or 1913. Just how much advance warning did he have of the shitstorm which was about to be unleashed?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Our pal Gaddafi - taking the rough with the smooth. He's reformed, don't you know. Oh, and another video

One consequence of this job is that you do tend to have heard it all before. Add to that the fact that whichever way I look at it, I shall never again celebrate my 60th birthday, and a lot of what people say sounds horribly familiar. And, of course, familiarity proverbally breeds that if becomes ever harder to take some people seriously. Which neatly brings me to the situation in North Africa and not least Libya.
(Incidentally, spelled ‘Lybia’ on the front page of the first edition of The Mirror (Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - see my picture below), not a conventional spelling but, who knows,

one which might catch on. There’s also the – most certainly apocryphal story of the sub-editor in the early Nineties who in a loud voice asked the rest of the desk: ‘What’s our style – Iraq or Iran?’ In fact, less apocryphal is the version in which he asks: ‘What’s our style – Oman or Amman?’ But, as the advice is, why ruin a good story by getting it right?)
So we have calls to Gaddafi from the White House, Downing St., Paris, Berlin and I don’t know where else ‘not to kill too many people’. The broadcasting media wheel out the experts (I prefer styling them ‘experts’) who intone that ‘the situation is serious’ and that ‘it could get worse’. Politicians of every stripe grasp with both hands the opportunity to insist that ‘democracy must be established’, and environmentalist bemoan the amount of carbon dioxide being released every time a gun is fired by Gaddafi loyalists.
OK, so it’s easy to sneer – though not quite as satisfying as it should be – but I can’t help remembering how the West cast Gaddafi into the outer wilderness for many years, but then embraced him with both arms and persuaded themselves that he was a reformed character when they needed to do deals. Our security services, who not being quite as useless and efficient as they are often portrayed, will have known full well that Gaddaffi was still the same ruthless dictator he has always been and will have told their respective governments, but a deal is a deal. My pictures below should demonstrate just how difficult various Western leaders found it to deal with Gaddafi.

Blair greets his old mucker Muammar - God, I've missed you - no, I dont have a gun in my pocket

Anything Tony can do - well, so can Barak. He manages to look sincere - go team Obama

... and don't forget good ol' Nicolas - can't let those bloody roast beefs steal all the glory

When it comes to reformed characters guys like Putin will yield to no one. How's it going, my old mate Muammar?

Finally, of course, Brown might have come late to the office of Prime Minister - or later than he demanded - but he was just as willing to kiss arse as his predecessor

Someone observed on the radio the other day that if the West stopped talking to dictators throughout the world, it would be talking to rather few people and that dialogue is the best way to encourage reform. That makes sense. But actively sucking the dicks of various cutthroats such as Gaddaffi is surely another matter. Or perhaps is was all to the best that I decided not to try for a career in the Foreign Office. Making a good G&T is not all diplomats are required to do.

. . .

In Libya and Egypt the demand for democratic elections to return a democratically elected government which will rule democratically and ensure the country is a democracy is deafening. Democracy rules, it seems – except, of course, if the peoples of those countries choose to be ruled by a government of a more islamist bent. That is something the West doesn’t want, and you can bet your bottom dollar that as I write the security services of the ‘leading Western nations’ are racking their brains as to how they can ensure that whatever democratic government is elected it is a democratic government to its liking. On that issue the U.S and Britain have form. One reason why to this day even Iranians opposed to the mullahs’ rule are extremely wary of the U.S. and Britain is because those two brought down the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh the people had elected democratically and installed the Shah instead. It made perfect commercial sense, of course, in that the Shah was far more amenable to selling the West Iran’s oil than Mosaddegh was likely to be, but it made us no friends in Iran. So there you have it: Egypt, Libya and whoever are perfectly free to elect a democratic government and we are actively encouraging them to do so, but what we can’t have is a islamist democratically elected government.

. . .

Your heart has to go out to the millions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain who believe themselves to be on the brink of a better life. And perhaps they are, but it is questionable whether they are aware of the difficulties which lie ahead of them as the strive to establish a democratic state. I shan’t insult any of them by claiming that ‘they have no democratic history and so they have no democratic instincts’. The concept of suffrage is not hard to grasp and these people are not stupid. There are a great deal of highly educated men and women in their ranks – ironically, a universal education for the Libyan people became on of Gaddafi’s priorities when he seized power in 1996. But a democracy is not established overnight and, as has been pointed out more than once, the newly freed people have very high expectations. They want jobs, but the situation in any country after a revolution is inherently unstable and not exactly ideal for investing by foreign companies.
In Tunisia there is anger because some of those who served in the previous regime are now serving in the interim government. Yet how else can it be if the mechanisms of state are to continue functioning?
Then there is the rule of law: just how easy will it be to establish a judiciary independent of the state which is the sine qua non of all democracies?
And will the West, which after all will do its damndest to ensure all developments serve what it feels are its best interests, be caught interfering? If it is, it will alienate from the outset people who should be its friends and ensure nothing except that what it was trying to avoid being established at all costs will be most certainly established. And will Iran get up to mischief? The Mahgreb is pretty much beyond its sphere of influence, but it will certainly be worrying that if healthy democracies are established there, its on suppressed people will want the same for themselves.
All we can do is, lamely though sincerely, wish them all the very best of luck

. . .

And finally:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Very bad or very good? I really don't know. Smokin’ Aces – could there really something which might be called ‘abstract filmmaking’? Oh, odd stats

What with the unprecedented unrest sweeping the Middle East, it would be perverse of me not to add my two ha’porth worth. So let me instead ignore the issue entirely and tell you about I film I watched on DVD last night which was either very good or very bad. These judgments are, of course, subjective, and on the IMDB website there are plenty reviews which claim the film I’m talking about, Smokin’ Aces, is ‘awesome man’ or, for variation, ‘awesome dude’. I am, I should admit, inclined to think it is rather good, but I’m really not sure, and I am quite aware that that sounds ineffably daft. Let me start at the beginning.

A few years ago, a guy called Joe Carnahan, who had made two or three shorts, persuaded several people to part with their money to back a big independent production of his called Narc. The budget was only just over $7 million, which in film terms, I understand, is not a great deal. The film also got the enthusiastic support of Ray Liotta, who I have always thought to be a great actor, and for the part he plays in Narc he gained several stone in weight. You always know an actor is serious and sincere when he or she agrees to look like a repulsive fatty in a film. Robert De Niro did it for Raging Bull, Toni Collette did it for Muriel’s Wedding and Charlize Theron, something of a looker, did it to play a lesbian serial killer in Monster. (Incidentally, time will one day be when a man or woman’s sexuality is so utterly irrelevant that it will not be mentioned. So the above would then read ‘did it to play a serial killer’. However, that time has not yet come, more’s the pity. Oh, and Sue and Jaime, two women who already have two children - Jaime giving birth to them – now also twins. Good luck, Sue and Jaime.) But back to Narc and Joe Carnahan.

Narc was fresh and different, but not different in a way which was wilful as in ‘hey man, look how different this film is. Awesome’. It was obvious that, given the relatively small budget, a lot of thought had gone into it in order to get the necessary effects at bargain basement prices. It seems to be a rule of Hollywood that the bigger the budget, the more likely a film will tend to the mediocre. I made a mental note of Joe Carnahan’s name and soon found out that a follow-up to Narc was Smokin’ Aces. That film, however, was reputed by many not to be very good, and by some to be something of a stinker. I was intrigued, but accepted that that was possible. After all, a guy called Robert Rodriguez mad a film called El Mariachi, which must have defined the concept of made on a shoestring – it is reputed to have been made for under $5,000. It was a joy.

Rodriguez was then picked up by Hollywood, who know very well how to spoil a talent when they come across one, and financed a remake of El Mariachi to the tune of several million dollars. It starred Antonio Banderas and was, to put it bluntly, not very good. But young chaps being young chaps and enjoying seeing macho gunslingers blasting other men to buggery, it made money, so RR got to make more films. The last of these I saw was a complete abortion of a film – starring George Clooney and Harvey Keitel, no less – called From Dusk Till Dawn. By all accounts the same had happened to Joe Carnahan with Smokin’ Aces. So I didn’t bother getting it.

Every so often I saw it for sale at either Asda or Tesco, but just couldn’t chivvy myself up to buying it. I only did so yesterday when it had come down in price to £2. And as you can’t really even get a decent cup of coffee for £2 these days, I decided it was now cheap enough to have a punt.

Well, as I said it is either rather good or rather bad. If, as many assume, it was intended as a more or less conventional thriller, which these days means quirky characters are obligatory, then it is simply not very good. It begins in a welter of confusion with the ‘plot’ and the film’s characters – rather a lot of them and almost all of them hired killers – being introduced. These include a pair of lesbian hitwomen, a master of disguise, of Spanish hitman who is apparently so hard, he chewed off his fingertips so that he could not be identified by his fingerprints, a trio of brothers who are utterly whacky neo-Nazi hitmen, a Mafia godfather on his death bed and a Las Vegas magician who fancied himself as
a Mafioso but is now on the brink of turning stool pigeon and a trio of bondsmen. Oh, then there are two tough FBI G men (pictured), Ray Liotta, being one, who are tasked with getting to the Mafioso turned would-be informant before anyone else. Well, so far, so much complete bollocks. In fact, I was so utterly bewildered by the initial exposition (all done in that ‘cool’ buddy-buddy cop jive which Hollywood created and – a la life imitating art – young hipsters about town imitate) that I watched the first 15 minutes twice. But there was something about Smokin’ Aces which kept me watching, things such as the camera angles, the colour, which made me think that even if this guy has sold out and can’t really tell an interesting story anymore, at least he can film interesting film.

You might have gathered that I had already concluded that the horribly convoluted storyline and what passed for a plot really weren’t bothering with. For some odd reason, for some very odd reason, Andy Garcia, as a deputy director of the FBI affects a southern drawl. Why? But I had kept watching, not least because I have a lot of respect for Ray Liotta’s acting and just couldn’t work out what he would be doing in a duff film, especially as he was doing it pretty prominently in Smokin’ Aces. And there were some rather
witty scenes, as, for example, the one with the three bondsmen and a scumbag lawyer who like dressing up in women’s clothes. He only figured in two scenes, but those two scenes are priceless. Or what to make of the bizarre young lad with utterly manic attention deficit disorder at whose house one of the bondsmen (the three had all been gunned down by the trio of neo-Nazi hitmen for no reason whatsoever and dumped in Lake Tahoe) washes up. These scenes seem to play absolutely no part in the plot. He, however, survives though the fingers of his left hand don’t.

And then the penny dropped: the film wasn’t supposed to be taken at face value at all. The horribly convoluted, not to say completely ludicrous storyline, was intended to be beyond the pale. Smokin’ Aces was – is – pretty much film for film’s sake. And in that sense it made perfect sense. And if that really is the case – I must admit, the jury really is still out on that one – it is rather good. In fact, very good. It struck me as what I might call ‘abstract filmmaking’, filmmaking which celebrates filmmaking, but using all the conventional strokes at a director’s disposal and applying them, though not in the way you might expect.

At this point you might think me as a pretentious prick and Smokin’ Aces as just another piece of OTT Tinseltown schlock. Well, I would like to deny I am pretentious, or at least I don’t mean to be, but as for Smokin’ Aces being … I honestly do not know. It is either pretty good or pretty bad. To be honest, I think the odds are that I am reading a little too much into it, but I still like to think I am right. Narc was very good, and I would be surprised if this was very bad. I would be interested in hearing other opinions.

What is this mess? Or is it good? Jeremy Pivens as the Las Vegas magician turned would-be Mafioso (or something, sort it out for yourselves) tackles one of the weightier questions facing the human condition in the Year Of Our Lord 2011

. . .

Courtesy of the ‘stats’, which I am addicted to as it tells me how many people are inclined to read all this shit, I have discovered that someone happened upon this blog via Google. Nothing particularly startling in that, but what makes it a little odd is that the search terms he entered which brought him or her here were ‘Paul Dacre’ and ‘Oratory School’. Now, I went to the Oratory, which we knew as the OS, but Paul Dacre didn’t. But I work for a newspaper of which Paul Dacre is the editor. And I am bound to ask myself: what exactly was he or she (or, if you like, she or he) hunting down by entering those search terms.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bloody Blair off the hook as – ironically - defector admits ‘it was all a lie’

Irony of irony: there’s great excitement in the media that an Iraqi defector has come clean and admitted he lied about Saddam Hussein having a stockpile of biologicial weapons. This will finally nail Blair and Bush, they say. Well, think again. What it means as those two will actually get away with it.
A chap called Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, who was known to the West’s security services as Curveball, made the claim to German secret service agents after he sought asylum in German. He was told that his wife would not be granted asylum if he did not cooperate and give then inside information about the Military Industries Commission for whom he had worked. So he spun the line about the biological weapons and mobile factories producing them which could be swiftly moved to evade detection by UN weapons inspectors. According to the BBC, the BND (Bundes Nachrichten Dienst – the Federal News Service, a title which deserves an Oscar for imagination in the cause of euphemism) checked with al-Janabi’s former boss who told them it was all complete cobblers, but the Germans carried on believing he was telling him the truth, most probably because they wanted to, and passed on the info to the US and Britain.
So – and this comes as no surprise to anyone over the age of four – the invasion of Iraq was justified by an untruth. Thus there is great jubilation among hacks and hackettes in the Western world that ‘Tony Blair can finally be nailed’. Poor saps. He can’t be nailed at all. On the contrary he is now finally off the hook. All he need to is stick to his line that what he decided was done in accordance with military intelligence and in good faith, and if that military intelligence was now shown to be of no more value than last month’s laundry list – well, he can’t be blamed can he. End of story.
It all naturally begs the question as to whether the truth about the claim came out a lot sooner than now – or indeed not – and why alarm bells didn’t ring at the time when it could not be corroborated – which, being completely untrue, it couldn’t of course. But that wasn’t the point. Bush wanted to go to war, for whatever reason – and it is still a mystery – and the bullshit invented by al-Janabi came like manna from heaven. Blair was intent on supporting Bush – again for whatever reason that might have been (I think it was something as shallow conceit and vanity to be seen playing with the big boys. I’m afraid I’ve concluded that conceti and vanity are more or less the sole motivation for almost all of Blair’s politics), so he wouldn’t have been too hard to be persuaded that the bio weapons bullshit was the long-sought for smoking gun. But the upshot is that he has finally and irrvocably got away with it. From now on it is between him and his conscience. And as I have also concluded that he is the sort of conman who succeeds by believing his own bullshit, that, I’m sorry to say, will be no contest. Al-Janabi says his motive was straightforward: to topple Saddam and his regime. In that he succeeded. But unfortunately more than 100,000 innocent Iraqis have lost their lives because of him. I wonder how that makes him feel?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The new planet, hoax or not, and my dream about Evelyn Waugh (in tweed)

Interesting news this week about a possible ‘giant planet’ being discovered. It is said to be apparently part of our solar system but is so far away and hidden in something called the Oort Cloud that it hasn’t been spotted before. The report I read comes from the impeccably po-faced Independent, which is not known for sensationalism (it’s readers are far too well-behaved to fall for that kind of thing, and anyway as almost all of them – 52 at the last count, according to ABC circulation figures, although doesn’t included the editor’s extended family – can tell a shiraz from a merlot merely by the way it moves in the glass, they are naturally more accustomed to higher stuff).
You can find another report here and here.
The planet, which has been called Tyche, is said to be made of hydrogen and helium and has a surface temperature of -73c, although quite how they can know all this stuff if they haven’t yet even seen it is beyond me. It’s rather like all those claims about dinosaurs: we can apparently tell what its diet was, whether or not it lived in groups and how ferocious it was just from a 2cm slither of shin bone. Yeah, right.
The discovery – make that ‘discovery’ – is excellent news for those who believe in ‘aliens’ and suchlike, because although the planet Tyche is said to be wholly made of gas, it is likely, claim Bill and Ben Tugendhat, from the Wichita Academy of Space Exploration, Cancer Cures and Stem Cell Research Inc., who are behind all this nonsense, that it will have loads and loads of moons. And where to the aliens come from who spend most of their waking moments visiting the third rock from the Sun? Got it in one: the moons of various planets in our solar system. Case closed.
You’ll have gathered that I don’t believe in little green men or any other kinds of aliens, but I must confess that I find it utterly implausible, which is to say, a complete certainty, that life has evolved elsewhere in the universe, given its size. By life, of course, I include the kind of single-cell life forms from which we (and, I’m told even Tony Blair) evolved. And given the size of the universe, I think it is also highly likely that somewhere out their such single-cell life forms have also evolved into what we laughingly called intelligent life. However, and there’s always a however, given the size of the universe and given, for example, how long intelligent life has been around on Earth – the common comparison is that if the time life has existed on Earth is compared to a 12-hour clock, intelligent life has existed hereabouts for the last minute of the last hour of the day – it is also highly unlikely, not to say downright impossible, that one such form of intelligent life will come into contact with another form. The chances are that we do not coincide, and if we do, we are so bloody far away from each other, there is no danger that we will come across each other by chance. Many folk, of course, talk of ‘travelling through dimensions’ which would, if true, solve the problem of our astronauts dying out (and most certainly of boredom) before they got anywhere close to anywhere else, but I think it is complete cobblers.
According to the Independent’s report, more data on the new plant Tyche is due to be released in April, and in the meantime Bill and Ben Tugenhat, of Wichita, wonder whether they couldn’t interest you in a little more life insurance.

. . .

Alongside the report in the ‘Indy’, was a little feature as to why claims that the Apollo Moon landing were faked are bollocks. It goes through ten common charges, for example how come the astronauts’ boots left footprints on the Moon’s

surface then there was no moisture around? I once again belong firmly in the sceptics camp about claims that the whole thing was faked and was filmed in a huge warehouse in Wichita which Nasa rented from Bill and Ben Tugendhat, but looking at the pictures, I was struck by one anomaly. I have included one here: from the astronaut’s shadow, it is clear that the Sun is behind him, though at an angle. Yet from my life as an unsuccessful photographer I know that if the light source is behind your subject, it could well end up being completely underexposed, and unless some form of fill-in flash were used to illuminate the astronaut from the front, we should not be able to see anything at all. He would be an outline and nothing else.
However, we can see quite clearly. In fact, it is rather a good photograph. So some form of flash was used. But for some reason that strikes me as a little implausible, because the astronaut is almost opposite the camera i.e. not at an angle, and if flash had been used, there would most certainly have been a reflection of it in the astronaut’s visor. But there isn’t. One explanation is that flash wasn’t used, but another kind of light source. An objection to that, however, is that it, too, might well be expected to be reflected in the visor and also that it would have to be a light source of the magnitude of a studio arc lamp to cast that much light. On the other hand, the same objections apply if, as the conspiracy theorists claim, the whole thing was photographed in a studio. Then, too, given the strength of the light source behind the astronaut, another light source, whether flash or arc light, would be needed to fill in the detail of the astronaut. But again there is no evidence of it in the man’s visor. So, so far, even stevens. I suspect it’s those bloody little green men again.

. . .

Many years ago, I had a very vivid dream. In it, the novelist Evelyn Waugh was cooking m a fry-up. He was dressed as you see him in the picture, and was obviously at the end of his life (he died at 66 from too much good living). In the
dream he was a very friendly man and very pleasant. I was just an ingĂ©nue pleased to meet a writer I whose work I liked a great deal. This would have been in the mid-Sixties, more or less around the time he died. Apart from having read all his novels up until that point (and having had the very good fortune of starting with Decline And Fall, his first, and then, fortuitously, more or less reading them in the order in which he wrote them, I had read nothing about Waugh. So I didn’t know much about him. I later found out that he wasn’t always very nice, although there is often the suggestion that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, but that if you were courteous to him, he could also be courteous and charming. I find his humour to be unique, and I do think he was able to laugh at himself, which is a trait not quite as common among the famous as it might be.
That dream has always puzzled me. Undoubtedly, by the time I had had it, I had come across the picture I have supplied or a similar one below, or else I would not have dreamed about him wearing a tweed suit. And why did I dream it. Who knows?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An ego writ large? Two of them? And Egypt: perhaps it’s best not to hold one’s breath

Rather a silly situation at work today, with which you might well be familiar even if you don’t work for a newspaper. The situation on the travel desk ever since the then travel editor was promoted to a commissioning editor (but has now left to become deputy editor of a very well-known magazine for genteel women and those who regard themselves as genteel women) is that a freelance journalist is employed as a part-time travel editor, and when he is not there at the beginning of the week, the role is taken up by a woman who was one the travel desk assistant. Before coming to the Mail, she had never worked as a hack and had no journalistic experience. In fact, I don’t know what she did. That she is not pug ugly (though I don’t fancy her – she is one of those tall, willowy types who don’t float my boat and never have done), is impeccably middle-class and graduated in fashion design will not have hindered her first being taken on as the travel desk assistant. She might well have remained in the position for some time to come had management decided not to appoint another full-time travel editor and would have carried on doing what the assistant always did, hunting down pictures, liaising with travel companies and generally – metaphorically – keeping the travel desk tidy. But these days, on Mondays and Tuesdays, she is acting travel editor which means she oversees the paper’s midweek travel feature. That she started in a relatively lowly position doesn’t, of course, mean that she must therefore be incapable. But the converse is also true: that she fulfils the role of travel editor for two days a week doesn’t necessarily mean she is any good. And I’m afraid her lack of previous experience does show time and again. That is not necessarily a bad thing in that the page is read and seen by many people, especially the deputy editor of the day, and they often make changes. But it would help if she didn’t think she could write well and it would help if she could write a headline, which she can’t. I used to get on with her OK, but when she was bumped up a notch to the role she now fulfils after the full-time travel editor left, she developed a bad habit of taking long lunch breaks, often ‘at a meeting’, delivering her ‘marks’ to us late, and then urging me to hurry up because she wanted to go home. I suppose it was that which first got up my nose. I also get rather fed up with women who reckon try to get their way around men with a false smile and by laying on the femininity. I prefer to work with women who are good at their job. Today she read through the page, made her changes and then I read through it, and it was pretty bloody awful. The secret to any feature is to make it interesting, and what she had sent through read like a bus timetable and was even less interesting. There was little I could do about it, but start from scratch, which I did. And this rather got to her. So she decided she ‘wanted the picture to be bigger’, which entailed a cut in the copy, and she set about rewriting again, reducing the piece once more to its previous yawn-inducing state. The whole episode was bullshit from start to finish, because had she ‘wanted the picture bigger’, she could have made it bigger before I set to work and I would simply have had less space. The Mail being the Mail – actually, the Mail being a newspaper, but the Mail has its particular quirks – there’s this idea that the Wednesday travel feature is ‘her page’ and that we subs should bow to her decisions. That would be all fine and dandy, and I would have no problem with it at all if she was any good at what she does, but she isn’t. But I suspect she rather thinks she is. Oh well

. . . .

On a lighter note, the ‘British travel industry’ (or whoever speaks for the ‘British travel industry’) today announced that the ‘troubles in Egypt’ will probably reduce this year’s profits by 20 per cent. My heart bleeds. The turnout in Cairo’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square surprised everyone by being far larger than expected. Until last night many of the media pundits were fearing that the protest movement was running out of steam. Despite today’s turnout, I have a terrible feeling that it will: unless the army in Egypt decides enough is enough and kicks Mubarak out, he can more or less hang on until the time suits him to leave, all the while ensuring that the current regime changes its clothes but then it is business as usual. And so far the army has stayed clear of everything. I heard on the radio last week that things will not be that straightforward anyway, as the army ‘owns’ something like 25 per cent of all ‘private businesses’ and will not want to lose that (although I must admit I am baffled as to how the army can ‘own’ anything). But unless the army decides to throw in its lot with the protest, the regime simply has to sit tight, make all the right noises (i.e. form several ‘committees of investigation’) and wait – it won’t be long – until the rest of the world’s media gets bored and shifts its attention elsewhere There’s lots of woolly talk about the winds of change blowing through the Near and Mid East as they did through the former Communist bloc countries, but that strikes me as mere journalism, cacking up the story to keep it on the boil. I’m not the best informed on either topic, but it does strike me that you can only compare like with like. And given that countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have got the same thugs in charge merely whistling different tunes while they count their fortunes, these winds of change – if the same ones are blowing - don’t necessarily mean the outcome will be any better.
The U.S. is coming horribly unstuck over the upheaval in Egypt and gives the impression it is finding it very difficult distinguishing between its arse and its elbow. (I would write ‘the Obama administration’ instead of ‘the U.S.’, but that would sound far too partisan given the George Dubya wasn’t exactly Mr Competent when it came to foreign affairs and I have no axe to grind.) But all those Brownie points Obama gained over the mass shooting in wherever (there are plenty to choose from) and ‘uniting the nation in its moment of grief’ or whatever miracle he achieved are well and truly down the tubes given his and Hillary Clinton dire and utterly incoherent performance over whether Murbarak should stay, leave or simply buy everyone a round or two, tell a few jokes and go home to his palace. Is the U.S. in favour of democracy or not? Well, actually, the real answer is: only when it suits U.S. interests which would be despicable, except that every other country in the world is equally hypocritical. But it has now lost a great deal of credibility over Egypt.
In a sense it is, in fact, quite unfair of me to single out the U.S. over its response to the crisis in Egypt. The rest of the West has also behaved like a one-legged drunk at a hoedown and in a way you can see al Qaeda’s point when it suggests that bombing’s too good for them, squire, and we had that Satan in the back of our cab once, not as bad as he’s made out to be, quite the reverse, really, got some good ideas, has that Satan, no sorry, I don’t go south of the river. (That last bit will be truly incomprehensible to each and every non-Brit reading this, but do I care? Do I fuck.)

UPDATE — We all like a happy ending but it seems that is not what is in store for Egypt. According to the Guardian, the army, which made great play of ‘remaining neutral’ over these past few weeks has ditched that position and is now firmly playing the regime’s game. It did all seem to good to be true.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Let me clear up a slight misunderstanding...

After I told the anecdote I had heard about Piers Morgan lording it over his one-time deputy, a regular reader has commented that she was glad I had given Piers a write-up as she has a soft spot for me – though she put it far more bluntly and regretted the fact that he is married – and that and very much appreciates his wit. Were I feeling more jaundiced, I would write ‘wit’, but it is the end of the day, I am due off work soon and I’m feeling reasonably mellow. Unfortunately, I am not feeling mellow enough to put my reader straight: sorry, K., but my piece was not intended to be complimentary. As far as I am concerned Piers Morgan is a 24-carat pillock. (‘Pillock’ might be very much an English expression with which non-English readers are unfamiliar, but I’m certain they get the gist of what I am saying.) Morgan’s comment to his former deputy – along the lines of look where all his deputy’s hard work had got Morgan – might well have been funny, but unfortunately a sense of humour is no guarantee that a chap is a straight-up guy, especially in our industry. I have met many lawyers who have had me in stitches but who were also complete bastards. Stalin had a tremendous sense of humour, but no one insists what a lovely chap he was. So, sorry, K., I’m not Piers’s greatest fan (make that second-greatest, as you are claiming the top spot). Nor, I should imagine, is the first Mrs Morgan. Incidentally, a columnist for this paper who I chat to regularly and who once co-hosted a TV programme here in Britain (and who is also no great fan of Piers’s) tells me that the new Mrs Morgan, a Celia Walden, is said to be very nice and sweet, but not the sharpest blade in the box, which explains why the gal hasn’t yet rumbled Piers.

. . .

Like many people, I am rather fond of the very long list of colourful expressions we have in English, but, of course, all languages have their colourful expressions. Not the sharpest blade in the box is one, and along similar lines there are a sandwich short of a picnic, the lights are on but no one’s home and the lift doesn’t go to the top floor. Expressions with other meanings I’m fond of include referring to a man’s wedding tackle and describing a practice men engage in on their own (well, usually, I suppose) as the five-finger shuffle. Then there’s describing shoplifting as a five-finger discount. A neighbour once said of my father-in-law, a retired Cornish farmer who would rather not spend money than spend it, that he would skin a turd to save a penny. Of course, there are all the standard expressions and phrases which you will have heard – a great face for radio, fur coat - no knickers, and up and down faster than a whore’s drawers. Then there’s describing someone one knows who has a tendency to corpulence as having more chins than a Chinese phonebook.
I’ve got to get off now, but if I think of any more, I shall record them here.