Saturday, December 31, 2011

My New Year message: Smile (you really have no other choice)

It was only by chance that I came across the three pictures below, but I do feel we should take a hint and see in the New Year with a smile. I mean why not? Things are going tits up in the Middle East, things are going tits up in the EU, things
might well go tits up in China, things might also well go tits up in India and about the only place I can’t think of where, as far as I know, things are not going tits up is South America. However, the ‘as far as I know should give you a clue’ in as far as I know more about the normative import of sociologically qualified quantum mechanics than I do about what is going on in South America. And, needless to say (although I’ll say it anyway, which everyone

always does when they use the phrase ‘needless to say’) I know bugger all about the normative import of sociologically qualified quantum mechanics (which I have, anyway, invented).

So several countries in South America could well be on the brink of civil war or have recently been invaded by alien lifeforms but there’s very little chance we here in the smug West will ever get to hear about it. The only reason we Brits mention Argentina, for example, is when they announce yet again that they want to get their hands on the Falkland Islands. Making such an announcement is down to the county’s president adopting Julius

Caesar’s sage advice on how to deal with domestic troubles: cause troubles overseas. I do happen to know (which rather undermines what I said earlier, but I am nothing if not
shamelessly inconsistent) that Argentine’s current president, Cristina Kirchner (pictured), is a bit of a troublemaker and is having something of a battle with the country’s various media groups. As for the other South American country’s, they rarely, if ever, feature in our broadcast news bulletins and even less often in our newspapers. We Brits are nothing if not proudly parochial. But as for the rest of the world, things, er, are looking glum. Very glum. I can’t see the problems in Syria being settled by a heart-to-heart between the secret service sadists and those the torture and kill, and Iran also want to flex its muscles more, which is bad news for Saudi Arabia, as it likes to be seen as top dog in that neck of the woods. What is also bad news for the Saudis is all this stuff and nonsense with ‘being free’ and ‘self-determination’ and, heavens forbid, ‘women’s rights’. They can’t be having any of that, but what with the events this year in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, they might well be a tad worried that some in their own country could be getting ideas. The one good thing as that what with all the oil, they don’t have a disaffected minority on the breadline. One of many bad things is that if you are a teenage girl who wants to drive round to her friends to listen to a bit of pop, try out a few lipsticks and check out the boys (which I understand is what all teenage girls want to do), well, Saudi Arabia isn’t the country to be living in.

One thing which rather bothers the democrats in the west is that when - when folk in the Middle East do get the chance to ‘exercise their democratic right to self-determination’, the thankless buggers stick two fingers up at us and decide they would like the affairs of the country run by islamists. That is not something we want, but being ‘democrats’, there is rather little we can do about it without revealing ourselves as dyed-in-the-wool hypocrites.
As for the problems in the EU, see blog entries passim. Nothing I have read in the past few days leads me to believe that ‘the crisis is over’ and that we can all breathe again. It’s just that what with Christmas and New Year boozing preoccupying us (and all those nasty financier types taking a week or two off to count last year’s bonus - it takes a while), there has been no scope, it’s all very quiet. Deceptively quiet, I should add.

So in a spirit of goodwill I wish you all, wherever you live, whatever gender you are, whatever colour or creed, whatever your sexual orientation a Happy New Year and my sincere best wishes. Now check out my novel and BUY it. I need the money and the encouragement to write another.

. . .

Me, I shall be going to bed at my usual time tonight (most probably). I have seen in the New Year in Scotland, Germany and France and I far prefer the way they celebrate it than our pissed-up English way. Here in England it is just another excuse to get rat-arsed and try to shag your neighbour’s wife/husband. Not that the English usually need an excuse to trot down to the nearest Asda, buy up as much cheap booze as the car will carry, take the opportunity to load up with as many cheap and cheerful sausages rolls, ‘party bits and turkey twizzlers as they can then get back home to get the party going. There is one school of thought that the Brits get drunk so easily and so often because sober they are so emotionally constipated that the use of a stimulant of some kind or another - cannabis and cocaine are just as popular as booze, and, if possible, all three together - is an absolute necessity. It is a school of thought I subscribe. One euphemism used when Brits get rat-arsed is that they are ‘letting their hair down’. So, below, I offer two pictures of typical Brits ‘letting their hair down’.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Don’t ignore life’s modest glories: let’s hear it for toast!

It isn’t often that I can report encouraging developments in my life given that a regular pastime at my age is deciding what hymns I should like sung at my funeral, the order of service, that kind of thing. But there has been one which has cheered my up enormously. Incidentally, don’t laugh at my preoccupation with my funeral – these things are important. The thought that Abide With Me might be sung when they put me to rest/burn me up – I haven’t yet decided – sends a shiver down my spine. Broadly, it will run something like this: Lacrimosa from Mozart Requiem in D minor once they have taken their places, followed by whoever is in charge telling everyone what a lovely, darling, darling chap I was (although, of course, remorselessly heterosexual), then Scarlatti’s sonata in F minor, and then as the coffin disappears to the furnace or everyone files out the last movement of Mozart’s very last symphony, No 41. After that everyone can bugger off and get pissed at my expense.

As for the latest, most marvelous development in my life, it started like this. For several months now, I’ve noticed that sitting on the fridge next to the desk where Suzie, the features execs’ secretary, works is a toaster. And I had always assumed it was for the sole use of the execs, although to be honest I had never actually see any of them eating a piece of toast. But one day, chancing my arm (or so I thought, as the execs are a clannish bunch and, for example are very proprietorial about their TV so that it is wisest and most certainly diplomatic to ‘ask permission’ when I want to switch it onto a Champions League match. Even if it is switched on, the set is often turned towards their desk so that I can’t see it, and to add injury to insult, the execs will not even glance at the screen for the whole match) I asked Suzie whether there were any restrictions on the use of the toaster or whether it was subject to an open access policy. Oh, she said, use it if you like. And then she added something which strengthened my arm a great deal. ‘It’s not very fast, anyway.’ And there was my chance: I told her that in that case I would donate a new toaster to the department, and there and then I scooted of to Robert Dyas just up the road and bought one.

Don’t run away with the idea that I was in some way being rather generous and community spirited. None of it. As it is, in a sense, ‘my toaster’, I can use it whenever I like and avoid any silly scenes about access had I been using they former toaster ‘as a favour’. But the beauty of it is that had I decided that I should like to eat buttered toast whenever I wanted to and had brought the toaster into work, I would have been regarded as rather eccentric. But now I can eat buttered toast whenever I want. Why doesn’t the chap simply go down to the canteen in the morning and get his toast there? I hear you ask. Simple: the bread they use is bloody awful sliced bread which tastes of nothing very much, and if the ‘butter’ available is actually butter, I’m a Dutchman. Not only does it taste bloody awful but it has an odd artificial yellow colour which would put you off even if the taste hadn’t previously put you off.

So I now go downstairs to the Health Food shop in the former Barker’s building (where most things are ridiculously overpriced, although not everything is), and invest in a loaf of bread. Then it is off to Tesco for a quarter pound of REAL butter (I prefer unsalted) and a jar of ginger preserve. And this bunny is very happy indeed. It is the small things in life which can make it all so pleasant. And a slice or four of hot buttered toast with ginger preserve hits the button every time.

Two pieces of buttered toast rather like the toast I am now regularly enjoying eating at my desk at work. Aren’t some people very, very lucky

Monday, December 26, 2011

Irony’s dead? Yeah, right! Actually, do yourself a favour and admit to yourself you’re just another clone

Well actually, I rather think that irony is very dead. And that is in itself an irony. Because these days everyone seems to take a ‘yeah, right’ attitude to life, they’ve seen it all before, are impressed by nothing and no one. If only they knew it, the joke is well and truly on them and, at best, the vast majority of us are utterly oblivious to the ironies which permeate all our lives.

Take, for example, Apple’s celebrated ‘Think different’ slogan with which it began it’s celebrated march to becoming one of the world’s biggest and richest companies. (By December 2011, its stock has risen 9,000pc since Steve Jobs returned to lead the company in 1997. Not bad for a company which likes to portray itself as the ‘outsider’). Yet to this day there are hundreds of thousands of bright young things worldwide who think they are somehow striking a blow for the counter-culture, the left-field, the individual when they buy an Apple laptop or desktop. (I specify those two because it is only in recent years that Apple has, for many, become more synonymous with other products.) They are, of course, doing nothing of the kind. They are, of course, just one more insignificant member of a particular herd. That their particular herd is smaller than the Microsoft herd is neither here nor there. They honestly believe that buying and using an Apple ‘says’ something about them, that it ‘makes a statement’. Well, actually it does ‘make a statement’, but not one I thik they would very much like to hear.

Then there’s the injunction, beloved by many a disaffected youth, to ‘challenge everything’ (you’ll find many people urged the world to do that, from Karl Marx to George Bernard Shaw). Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but the difficulties start for the bien pensant of this world when we decide to do exactly that and challenge what could be called the new orthodoxies. So I do wonder just how welcome I would be in liberal and freethinking circles if I did decide to challenge everything and challenged the new orthodoxies that ‘man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming’, that ‘women and men are equal’ or that ‘homosexuals do not deserve equal rights with heterosexuals’ because ‘homosexuality is a mental aberration’. I suspect - no, I don’t suspect at all, I know full well - that I would be seen off pretty sharpish with a flea in my ear. Or what if I challenged the notion that we ‘all have human rights’, that the very idea of ‘human rights’ is just so much bollocks? That, too, would do down like a lead balloon at a Guardian drinks party. But why? All I would be doing was to be following the exhortation to ‘accept nothing, challenge everything’.

At this point a liberal might choose to argue - though he or she would most certainly be ill-advised to do so - that I have missed the point, that, for example, the ‘human rights’ we all possess are in some way unalienable, that they are something very close to a fixed point in the world. And because of their more sanctified status, they are an exception to the rule that ‘everything should be challenged’. They might argue along those lines in defence of the ‘rights of homosexuals’, the ‘equality between men and women’ and even ‘that man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming’. Really? But didn’t the best thinkers of the 20th century in all kinds of disciplines establish, apparently beyond all doubt, that ‘everything is relative’? That there are no fixed points? And that because there are no ‘fixed points’, there can be no such certainties. Or am I missing something?

It could, I think, be successfully argued that from Soren Kierkegaard, who came up with the notion of ‘subjective truth’, to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that the 20th century was the age of relativity. In art this notion that everything is relative and nothing is fixed was given graphic expression by Picasso, in music it led to the abandonment of form, in ethics it led the concept of ‘personal morality’ and the downgrading of ‘social norms’. Well actually, it didn’t: even though the 20th century’s modern mind disliked being bound by convention, it knew that rules, norms, laws, call them what you like kept society intact, that without them society would implode into anarchy. So what we did was talk about it all rather than live it, and - ironically - the one social experiment - the Soviet Union - which purported to be doing most to ‘free mankind’ very, very soon developed into a very nasty totalitarian dictatorship. So what does this all have to do with irony? Well, where do I start?

I once argued - and it became a pretty futile argument, something which I should have realised a lot sooner and thus saved myself a great deal of time - that every age is ‘modern’. The chap (or chappess, I don’t remember who it was any more) disagreed vehemently and even suggested that folk in, say, the Dark Ages knew that they were still in some kind of ‘dark age’ and that better was to come and that the ‘better that was to come’ had now arrived. He or she (or quite possibly it) refused to accept my point that every age regards itself as ‘modern’. Granted, perhaps, that the very notion of ‘modernity’ is reasonably ‘modern’, but that would still have no bearing on how each society, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas, saw itself. I don’t even accept that we, here and now in the dying days of 2011, are in any way more ‘self-conscious’. Yet we do seem to believe - I would suggest against all evidence - that the Western world is somehow more enlightened than it was ten, twenty, thirty or 100 years ago. And as part of that new ‘self-awareness’ is the rise of a kind of pseudo irony: these days, it seems, we in the Western world greet a great deal in our lives with a pseudo cynical ‘yeah, right’. We regard ourselves these days as far to clued up, far to sassy, far too ‘aware’ to fall for any of the old hooey which so blighted society in the past.

I would suggest that we are, in fact, anything but clued up, sassy and aware. I shall not suggest that our age is in any way more stupid than all previous ages, but I shall suggest that I firmly believe it is just as bloody stupid as we always were.

We in the West pride ourselves, for example, on being more caring, on ‘valuing community’, in ‘worrying about the environment’, ‘preserving endangered species’. But are we really more caring when almost by the week we are shocked by revelations on the scale of child pornography? Are we really more caring when all we can think of doing with our old folk is stuffing them away in homes and if they show signs of protesting drugging them up to keep them quiet? Do we really ‘value community’ if, as a recent survey highlighted ever fewer of us actually know our neighbours?

Are we really taking to heart the interests of wildlife when we are highly selective in which species we choose to preserve? Ugly species, it would seem, have a far lesser chance of preservation than fucking photogenic snow leopards and cutie pandas. Are we really more enlightened when we fulminate against the dangers to health of smoking and castigate all those who still smoke, but refuse to outlaw smoking completely because we realised we can’t do without the tax we raise on the sale of tobacco and, anyway, the premature deaths of smokers has the benefit of keeping in check what we have to pay in state pensions? Yeah, right.

A few years ago a very entertaining cartoon hit the screens. It was called The Incredibles. In it, a mother consoles her child, who is a bit down in the dumps, by telling him: Everyone is special. To which the lad replies, rather pertinently: That means no one is. Exactly. We can’t have it both ways, but that won’t stop us trying. I am continually amazed at mankind’s ability to bullshit itself.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Who’s going to win: Vlad or the people? Or will it be neither? And don’t bother making plans beyond December 21, 2012 - the Mayans tell us it’s just not worth it

From where I am now sitting in deepest, most peaceful North Cornwall, Lord knows how the problems in Russia are going to be resolved. According to the authorities, 28,000 people turned up for a rally to protest against Vladimir Putin and demanding that he doesn’t stand for election for president next year.

According to the protesters themselves, over 100,000 turned out. According to the BBC, there were also protest rallies in other cities, including as far east as Vladivostok. Some have pointed out that, as in Egypt, the number protesting rather dwindles into insignificance when seen as a proportion of Russia’s total population. Quite possibly, but it can also be pointed with that we don’t know how many of Russia’s total population support the protesters. If each protester on the street represented, say, 20 who stayed at home but support what is going on, the proportion of those opposed to Putin is rather larger. But note the ‘if’. The truth is that we simply don’t know.

What we can be reasonably certain about is that it is not necessarily going to end in peace and harmony: not only are the protesteres demanding a re-run of the parliamentary elections held at the beginning of the month, but they are also demanding that Putin doesn’t stand. The problem is that for all his prominence, Putin is not quite as secure as many would believe. He is there because it is useful to have him there. And if the powers behind the throne believe their cause - which is quite simply making sure it is their fingers in the till rather than anyone else’s - would be better served by offering Putin up as a sacrificial lamb and coming up with a new ‘face’, well it’s bye, bye Vladimir. This is, of course, all speculation.

It will not surprise anyone that the hotline running from Lanke Cottage, Higher Lank, St Breward, North Cornwall to the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia has yet to be installed. But what, it seems, is quite beyond doubt is that a great many people in Russia are getting thoroughly fed up with the corruption which, I understand, permeates every strata of Russian society from the Polish border to the Chinese border. Pertinently, the number protesting is approaching a critical mass and no amount of replacing Tweedledum with Tweedledee will be of any use if the corruption doesn’t end. But who is there who will end the corruption? It will most certainly not be those who are benefiting from it. And given the imprisonment of the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and - more seriously, the death in custody of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was active in fighting corruption, it would seem pretty obvious that whoever is in power is more prepared to play hardball than hold up his hands and say: ‘OK, chaps, you win, we’ll go quietly.’

. . .

Well, who’d have thought it! There’s me worrying that I might not make it to 95 - another heart attack, cancer, diabetes, that kind of thing - when in fact there is definite proof that I shall only make it to 63 years and one month exactly! Why? Well, apparently every 25,800 years, all the planets in our solar system align in one straight line to the Sun and a resulting massive solar flare will incinerate everything man, I mean totally! Like the end of everything as we know it. And if that weren’t enough, the planet Niburu, which has a huge ellipitical cycle, comes close to the Earth every 3,600 years and that is also going to cause shit, man, I mean totally! It’s all there in Sumerian and Mayan history, dude, and these ancient people knew what they were about!

Actually, we don’t have to look to ever so wise ancient folk to know that, if not about to end, the world is going to go through something of a sticky patch and that things might very well look just a tad iffy on December 21, 2012. Well, I say ‘world’, but let’s leave South America and rather large parts of the Far East out of this, because it would seem all the crap that’s going down has more to do with the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. Of all the worrying trends, it would seem that what is developing in the Middle East has the greatest potential for nonsense we could well do without.

After all the whistling and cheering which heralded the ‘Arab Spring’ in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it isn’t quite going to plan. It was long known that the Egyptian army had substantial business interests and it should have come as no surprise that they weren’t going to relinquish them without a fight. It was far easier to throw President Mubarak to the wolves, promise elections and then carry on with business usual. And the several thousands demonstrating in Tahrir Square shouldn’t, apparently, cheer up us liberally minded folk too much. In a country of more than 80 million, many of whom are devout muslims, they are an insignificant number, and the vast majority of Egyptians, I read, are by nature quite conservative and simply want peace and a stable life. And that is something many believe the Muslim Brotherhood will bring them.

So until the elections, the Brothers are wisely keeping their heads down, associating themselves with neither the army strongmen nor the libertarian Tahrir Square rabble, and when the time is ripe, they can portray themselves as ‘the alternative to it all’. Further south is all the pushing and pulling which is going on in Syria and now Iraq. Actually, I feel rather ashamed of myself for adopting such a flippant tone - it isn’t quite as silly if you actually live there. I’m not expert on Middle Eastern affairs (to put it mildly) but I do wonder whether at heart there won’t eventually be a stand-off between Sunni and Shiite muslims.

Most certainly the major rivalry in the Middle East is between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and both have their client states, not least Iraq whose Nouri Al Maliki many believe is Iran’s placeman. He denies it. But then he would, wouldn’t he. Iraq’s fugitive vice President Tareq Al-Hashimi claims that a recent car bombing in Iraq were, in fact, the work of the country’s own security forces and designed to discredit Iraq’s Sunnis. A similar claim is made by the opposition in Syria about two recent car bombings in Damascus.
So what with young Vlad’s problems in Russia - or is that Russia’s problems with young Vlad? - it should be a fascinating New Year. As the old Chinese curse runs: May you live in interesting times.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Things already looking up? Don’t count your chickens. And let’s not go overboard over the death of one Christopher Hitchens

Here is a short film a made a two and a half years ago when the credit crisis, or as it was referred to at the time ‘the current period of economic readjustment’ started. Within months things seemed to get better, and I thought that I had been rather too pessimistic. Well, apparently I wasn’t. In the true spirit of Christmas I should like to share it with the world. Enjoy (as they say in trendy bars).

NB The first version of this film used Steely Dan's version of East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, but the You Tube software wouldn’t let me use it and the film with the original soundtrack was deleted within a few days. But I then managed to find Duke Ellington’s original version and that is the one used here. That explains the otherwise pointless reference to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
There are more films by the incredibly, unbelievably, superlatively, breathtakingly and magnificently talented filmmaker Jacques Pernod available here. I suggest you view Thelonius Watches Paint Dry and Indolence as a way into appreciating his unique vision. Once you have accustomed yourself to his dystopian yet life-affirming style, you could attempt Significance (Or An Evening With Rob).

. . .

Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘sentimentality is a bank holiday from cynicism’. Better known is the dictum attributed to Wilde that ‘a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, but it was not what Wilde wrote, in fact. It is a paraphrase from a line in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, and it was not original. Someone else said it first, but I can’t remember who and I can’t be bothered at this point to try to find out. Anyway, I prefer the first because for me it sums up so much in the world. It helps explain how at Christmas the Nazis were able to hold carol services for the staff at their concentration camps and get dewy-eyed about it all while all around them the killing and other horrors continued. It also explains one facet of the character of many journalists. Thet can, as a rule, cynically treat ‘civilians’ - that is everyone who is not, like them, lucky enough to be a journalist - appallingly, all in the spurious interests of ‘the public’s right to know’. But they reserve their sentimental molly-coddling for their own and will weep in public profusely at the death of a colleague. Thus, the ‘serious’ papers in the UK and the US have been printing fulsome tributes to one Christopher Hitchens and not stinting themselves in their praise. I doubt that the ordinary chap in the street had ever heard of him, but they have now and with his death a few days ago, Hitchens has already been lined up as one of the ‘greats’ in the pantheon of hacks and associated rogues.
Hitchens could most certainly write well and was also master of an entertaining and acerbic turn of phrase, and although I have not read a lot by him, I must concede that and acknowledge his gift for having himself marked out as the man who will not flinch from saying the unsayable. One of his better known achievements is to put the boot into Mother Theresa, which will not have gone down well with those who regard the woman as third in command after Jesus Christ and his mum. But as far as I am concerned whatever those achievements, they are all overshadowed by two things about his life: he was one of that curious kind who starts his or her political life on the extreme left - Hitchens traded as a Trotskyite for many years - but at some point doesn’t just drift as rush to the right. Then there is the fact, which should disconcert those now canonising the man but doesn’t seem to in the slightest, that not only did Hitchens support the invasion of Iraq by Britain and America, he became something of an apologist for those fuckwits who surrounded and manipulated George Dubya and who gloried in the name Neo-Cons.
I find it very hard indeed to take seriously anyone who can make such an intellectual journey without apparently batting an eyelid. John Maynard Keynes once said that ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’, but it is simply inconceivable that the facts changed so radically that Hitchens decided that his radical Trotskyism was a crock of shit and that those nasty chaps on the right might not be quite as nasty after all. His brother Peter (who now writes for the Mail on Sunday) and the writer and historian Paul Johnson (who once edited the New Statesman) did the same. I simply cannot take them seriously. I once read a bizzare piece (in the Guardian - where else?) but Martin Amis in which he almost had orgasms over Hitchens’ ‘wit’. I can’t give you a link to it because the Guardian’s copyright on the aritcle has lapsed, but it was headlined ‘Amis on Hitchens: ‘He’s one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen’. The use of ‘terrifying’ to describe what kind of rhetorician Hitchens apparently was should give you a clue as to the kind of self-regarding cack Amis’s piece was. And indication of just how incestuous the world of literary luvviedom is can be found here (Amis on Saul Bellow, Hitchens on Amis, McEwan on Amis, Amis on Hitchens, God on Amis - that kind of thing).
It is not that Hitchens changed his views as he grew older. Many do that, and although the usual drift is to the right of centre
I don’t doubt that his friends and family loved Hitchens and will miss him, but that doesn’t oblige me to join in the hooraying. I don’t deny that, as many have testified, he was very good company, could be relied upon professionally and could hold his booze. For me Hitchens is just another ‘left’ radical who threw it all up and became a ‘right’ radical. And as someone commented at the end of Francis Wheen’s memoir in the Daily Telegraph: ‘For someone who didn’t believe in RIPs, why the RIPs?’

Friday, December 16, 2011

Putin rejects the Blair approach and goes for blood, while Merkel, Sarkozy, Van Rompuy, Barroso and the rest of the EUwits make a special plea to Santa

A few days ago after reading the news that an estimated 50,000 had turned out in Moscow to protest against the latest election results and to call Vladimir Putin names, I sagely turned to a colleague at work and predicted that Putin’s strategy would be this: he would adopt that tried and tested standby of beating his breast publicly and asking for the public’s forgiveness. In essence he would say: ‘I am your man and I am the man to lead Mother Russia, but I have been guilty of not listening to you and for that I am truly sorry. From now on I shall listen to you and consult you when I take decisions on your behalf.’ That line - sincere contrition - has worked a treat for many in the past and Tony Blair often resorted to it and when he still had that boyish grin he got away with murder, and in rather less grand circumstances, I have used it myself although I like to think I am not half as smarmy as Blair. It works so well because the person or group addressed feels flattered by the apology and is also somewhat disarmed: it is harder to be angry with a contrite man than one who insists on outright confrontation. That is what this wise old owl told his colleague.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong (which only goes to show the Vlad the Lad is a rather cannier politico than I could ever hope to be). Vlad obviously calculated that the best form of defence was attack and in a four and a half hour programme of responding to the public’s phone-on questions let rip on all fronts. The protesters, he assured a grateful Russian public, were put up to it by the U.S. That is pretty unlikely, of course, but most certainly what a great number of Russians wanted to hear.

He also suggested that web cameras should be set up in polling stations - I hope he meant polling stations, not polling booths - but I’m not too sure what he meant. The white ribbon worn by many protesters he compared to a condom. Perhaps his remark on that score was a joke and something got lost in translation, because I don’t understand that one at all.
What is certain is that Putin is dying to be president again and ain’t nothing going to stop him.

. . .

As for the euro crisis, it seems to be getting sillier by the hour. Yesterday some chappie at France’s central bank claimed that of France’s credit status is downgraded by the credit ratings agencies, then so, too, should Britain’s. His suggestion doesn’t make much sense in as far as France’s status would be downgraded not because of the state of its economy but because of its memebership of the - very - troubled eurozone. Britain's economy is also bumping along the bottom but one advantage it has at the moment - no thanks to one Tony Blair - is that it is outside the eurozone. But that wasn’t the point. The point is that the French are rattled, and when the French are rattled they do what we do (only the other way round): attack the opposition. That was odd enough, but at least it came from a stare functionary, the head of the central bank. What is rather odder was that his attack was repeated today by France’s finance minister, which really is extraordinary.

This whole euro shambles is at the centre of a Twitter spat I have been having with my sister (and as she tells me she reads this, I can assure you I am not talking out of school or being in any other way underhand). Her ‘Continental credentials’ (to coin a daft phrase which I must admit would no be out of pace in the Guardian but will have to do for now) are rather stronger than mine, in that although we were both born of a German mother and went to German schools when we were younger, she actually live in France and went to French schools when our father was posted to Paris, and then went on to marry a German. Furthermore, she has lived in Germany for the past 30 years and, in her own words, is ‘a European’.

Now that is all very well, but I can’t quite see why being ‘a European’ should in some mystical way persuade one that all the effort to establish, and now keep afloat, the euro is a good thing rather than believe, as I do and have done from the outset, that it will all end in tears. Wishing something were the case does not, and never will, actually make it the case. And I am quite prepared to argue that I am as much ‘a European’ as she is in as far as I am thoroughly persuaded that the single market has been a good thing all round. But I just wish the EU had left it at that rather than fallen into the hands of a bunch of superannuated Sixties ex-hippies with all their la-la ideas of brotherhood and sisterhood (‘all them cornfields and ballet in the evening’) from the Volga to the Shannon (forgive me if that is poor geography, but you get my point).

Removing trade barriers and making commerce easier and more efficient is one thing. Treating everyone and everything in Europe as ‘equal’ when, as is now abundantly clear, they are nothing of the kind, is quite another. I’ll say it again: wishing that something were the case doesn’t, and never will, actually make it so. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in their heart of hearts Merkel, Sarkozy, Van Rompuy and the rest of that sorry crowd haven’t all offered a private prayer to Santa to ‘bring a solution, please. Please, please, please, please, please. And I’ll never be naughty again. Promise’. I’ll tell you what this ‘European’ want for Christmas: a bunch of men and women running the bloody EU who aren’t all away with the fairies.

. . .

There is always the chance that the new ‘fiscal union’ rules are so subtle, I am far too thick to understand them, but I tell me if I have got this right or not: if a country borrows to much to finance it’s spending, it will be fined. That is, because it didn’t have enough moolah to pay its bills, it borrowed money, but borrowed more than it should have done. So where exactly is the money going to come from to pay the ‘fine’?

Then there’s the question of how exactly a country which has been obliged to impost austerity measures on every last man, woman, cat and dog in the country is going to go about ‘growing its economy’? Oh, and while I’m at it, it is acknowledge that part of the problems faced by both Greece and Italy is their cultures of chronic tax evasion. Once, as the plan visualises, tax matters are taken over by Brussels, how exactly is the EU going to go about tackling any tax evaders? Will guns and other armaments be allowed or will it restrict itself to sending strong letters of complaint?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time for a sigh of relief? At least that chap Hollande can keep his dick in his pants. And good news from The Front: we have a solution. (Well, it might work, and if it doesn’t we’re in the clear because it will all be the fault of the rotter Cameron)

‘Spectacular’ doesn’t even begin to describe the collapse of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s political career. Where once he was considered by some as a shoo-in for the French Presidency and at least five years, if not ten, of snubbing assorted British Prime Ministers, he is now reduced for writing sex advice for sleazy EU publications.

I’m sure the French Socialists must be breathing a sigh of relief, although that sigh will be bitter-sweet. DSK, as we bloggers like to call him to give the impression we know what we are talking about, was one of the better chances they had for getting their man or woman into the Elysee Palace (and sorry to write so inelegantly, but ‘getting their person into the Elysee Palace’ sounds vaguely daft), so that is an opportunity missed. On the other hand it would have been a racing certainty the DSK would have carried on living his raucous sex life once elected and it would have looked very bad for the Left. Although Mitterrand got away with murder, even to the extent of having two parallel families, there is no record that he organised orgies and was regularly picked up by the police trawling for whores in the rougher corners of Paris. For whatever reason, the Daily Telegraph has gathered a round-up of stories detailing DSK’s shenanigans, and you can find it here.
As it is, they are reduced to fielding as their candidate one Francois Hollande, who (I am assured by my brother, who
grew up in France and can set me straight on all things French) has been nicknamed after a popular pudding in France, the obvious implication being that he resembles one. I understand that he is also regarded as something of an unexciting chap, but that would be rather a good thing for France over the next few years if ‘unexciting’ is synonymous with ‘a steady hand’. My brother assures me that if Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected - and he hasn’t yet even said he will stand again, although that is assumed - it will be because Hollande lost rather than Sakozy won.

The French presidential election next April and May, which can be regarded as ‘imminent’ in political terms, will be largely why Sarkozy was so fucked off with David Cameron’s ‘heroic stand at the recent EU summit/laughably naive tactics at the recent EU summit’ (delete as applicably and according your prejudices). I assume that although the new, but still very silly, plan he and Angela Merkel proposed for ‘saving the euro’ (everyone in all 27 member states is to be urged to look down the back of their sofas to see what small change they can find and, who knows, it might all yet add up to build a trillion-euro escape tunnel) would have done rather less about solving the crisis than sacrificing a goat in the Hebrides it would, at least, have given the impression of resolute action.

As it stands our very own Eton toff has screwed all that and Sarkozy now faces pleading his case for re-election facing the charge that not only did he fail to solve the euro crisis, but he failed to solve the euro crisis while holding hands with the Boche bitch Angela Merkel. And that might well cook his goose. That is probably the only reason David Cameron is off Sarkozy’s Christmas card list, but it is a very good one. Whether or not it is still Sarkozy bossing everyone about at the palace or whether the minions there get Hollande, who can at least be expected to say ‘please’ when he bosses them about remains to be seen.

Either way it is still my view that the euro is totally fucked and the sooner the assortment of politicians which run the eurozone countries acknowledged the fact and set about salvaging what they might, the better. On one of the newspaper messages boards I recently read the proud boast from some British expat living in Germany that it was all stuff and nonsense about the euro being on its last legs as ‘business here is booming’. I don’t doubt it, but one does wonder just how much it cheers up the old and poor in Greece, Ireland and Portugal who are seeing their benefits and pensions cut as part of the Brussels-ordered austerity measures that German business is ‘booming’.

. . .

The whole euro cock-up saga rumbles on and gets less convincing by the day. It’s rather like listening to a down-at-heel semi-alcoholic uncle explaining how he could have been a kingpin in the city if it hadn’t been for a few strokes of bad luck which is why he is now selling investment advice to anyone stupid enough to pay attention to his worn-out schtick. David Cameron’s ill-considered flounce out of last week’s summit / heroic stand for the principles which made Britain great (delete as applicable according to your prejudices) is nothing but a transient sideshow, but one which both sides of this tedious argument are grateful for.

It allows both sides to distract attention from the issue which is most dangerous: Merkel, Sarkozy and assorted political has-beens who now earn their daily crust parading as EU/EC bigwigs can concentrate on how Britain is destroying the EU and, in time, once the euro has gone the way of the groat, insist that all would have been saved had Cameron not walked out and sabotaged the currency.

Cameron is happier because he is now flavour of the month with the kind of British idiots who wear Union Jack underpants and whistle Land Of Hope And Glory while shagging the wife and is politically more secure. He also knows that however much the Lib Dems hate him – actually they already hate him so much, they couldn’t possibly hate him any more – they know that Coalition with the Tories is for them now the only game in town and without it they are as relevant to the voter as last week’s Radio Times, so there is little chance they will leave the Coalition. Meanwhile, of course, the euro continues its ever-so-slow slide into abject oblivion. At best the rumpus at the summit has bought time for those hoping to arrange their affairs in such a way that when the collapse comes, they can salvage at least some of their furniture.

The grand solution, the solution to end all solutions, the mother of all solutions was this: a fiscal union of all euro countries or, even better, all 27 EU countries at some point in the future. But put aside, for a moment, the sheer idiocy of what is being proposed. The people who need to be convinced that ‘a solution has been found’ – the money people – remain stubbornly unconvinced. Try here and here.

And what of the Mekozy solution, the plan to solve it all and go fishing. Well, it boils down to this: once everyone has agreed, all countries in the euro (or even all EU countries) would be obliged to submit their budget plans to the EU for approval. And if they spent more than they were allowed to spend (i.e. borrowed more), they would be automatically fined. This arrangement, if all goes well, would be in place by next March. Simple, really. That it has as much chance of succeeding as making ice cream in Hell depends on your prejudices. Mine will, by now, be well known to you, and you will not be surprised that I regard the ‘plan’ as possibly the the worst idea ever considered by mankind. Supporters of ‘the project’, on the other hand, now believe the Promised Land is finally in sight.

It does not seem to have occurred to Merkel and Sarkozy that as the EU’s own accounts have not once been signed off by its own accountants and that several billions of EU money have long since disappeard into the pockets of any number of Euro crims, the idea that they should scrutinise the budgets of others and give it a yea or nay is faintly ludicrous. Then there is the small matter of how they would deal with complaints from some countries that other countries are getting an easier ride. Then there is the danger that if – if - all euro countries agree to the arrangement, a future government might well decide it no longer wants to play ball. What would the EU then do? As for agreeing to the arrangement, at least Ireland must, by law, put any the matter to its people in a referendum. And for those Irish, whose pips are being squeezed as never before on the orders of the EU, feel rather less goodwill to Brussels than your average Orange Order in Northern Ireland does for the Pope.

But even that is a long way down the line. First of course, there is the slight problem that however clever the fiscal union wheeze is, any fiscal wheeze, it is still only a wheeze and does absolutely nothing to solve the crisis now. It was supposed to do so by ‘inspiring confidence’ in the money markets. Well, has it? See above.
Never mind. When it all does go tits up, at least they will have someone to blame: Cameron. Economic lesson No 1: never trust an Old Etonian, however charming he might be.

David flounces out of the EU summit as envious euro supporters look in disbelief

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Not so much a riddle as a total bloody enigma. Perhaps we’re trying too hard to understand Russia. I’ll drink to that

Things are looking a tad bleak for Vladimir Putin if he believes the presidential election next year in which he has said he intends to stand again will be a glorious coronation. As I write, demonstrations protesting against what many believe were rigged elections are taking place in Moscow and are due in several other cities. But it has to be said that according to official figures, the proportion of the vote which went the way of United Russia, ‘Putin’s party’, dropped from 64pc, which is was at the last election, to 49pc. That’s still a majority, but as ‘rigging’ goes, it’s rather subtle: 15pc fewer votes. United Russia still has a majority, of course, so maybe there is a bit of rigging going, but the figure is way short of the 110pc the Pope always gets and the 98pc support various dictators around the world are accustomed to.

At some point I am duty-bound to quote Winston Churchill on Russia, so I might as well get it over with. Russia, he said, is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, which is just a
fancy way of saying we haven’t a clue what makes the Russians tick. For example, the man who would like again to lead a nation of incurable dipsomaniacs who cannot apparently let a goodbye pass without toasting it with a shot of vodka is reported to be a teetotaller. Good for him, I say, but it does rather suprise. Then there is the sheer size of the place. Trying to take the pulse of all-Russia by commenting on what lads and lasses are doing in Moscow and St Petersburg strikes me as being just as silly as drawing conclusions about the state of Great Britain from what’s going on in High Street Kensington, London W8 5TT. What do the other Russians, those living in the many towns and small villages in that vast country, feel? I don’t know and the chances are that you don’t, either. Then there is the question about why exactly the West feels Russia is such a threat.

The last time I looked things were going tits up in Iran, Syria, the eurozone and Libya, so why are we so worried that ‘Putin will be president until 2020’ if he serves another two terms? OK, so he’s not exactly Mr Democracy, but how exactly is he a threat? When push comes to shove, what we want from Russia is their gas, a modicum of stability and for them to keep their gangsters out of Western Europe. And were I a Putin supporter arguing with someone slagging off my man as ‘not being democratic’, I would point out that both Greece and Italy now have prime ministers who were more or less appointed by Brussels eurocrats on the urging of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. The ordinary Greek and Italian voters had absolutely no say in the matter. That doesn’t strike me as being overwhelmingly democratic, either.

Having said all that, the reaction of the Russian authorities to the planned protests is to flood the relevant parts of Moscow with troops. And that doesn’t bode well, either. When the Communist Party ran Russia as a dictatorship, it always had the figleaf of the party to hide behind. Putin has none of that. He might eventually claim to be ‘acting in the interest of the nation’, but if he does, he will also be aware that that is hackneyed line used by would-be dictators everywhere. Somehow, I don’t think the situation in Russia is quite as cut and dried as we here in the West like to make out. The Soviets survived for so long because they had almost supreme control of the media. Russian television, I understand, is under state control and hasn’t reported on the anti-election result protests, but many newspapers did.

Crucially, however, Russians can now travel abroad and have access to the internet. A putative Russian dictator would have to successfully achieve a massive clampdown on all kinds of institutions if he wanted to do things the old way. Instead, he would be obliged to do things the new way, to buy off the middle-classes by ensuring that their lives of ease continue. That, it seems, is largely what has been happening for these past ten years. The trouble is that people living a life of ease grow weary of their current comforts which for them are the norm and they demand even more. Reportedly, the Russian economy is still limping along and it is still only gas exports on which the state can rely for income. Putin is no dumbo and will know that Russia must rely less on a finite resource. But to revitalise the economy and attract foreign investment, the rule of law must be trusted. So Vlad the Lad might well decide that a modicum of democracy is no bad thing for Russia, as long as he stays in charge.

Then there is also the question of his support: I have always been very puzzled by the intricate nexus of alliances and dependency which keeps a strong man in power. Certainly, as with Gaddafi and others, over time he will have a network of others who see him remaining in place as the guarantee of their own status. And one can only assume Putin relies on a similar network. And that makes me wonder whether, perhaps, he really the main man, or whether a power bloc at the top (with, I should imagine, extensive business interests they want to protect) has agreed to him being the main man. Most certainly that seems to have been the way the Communist Party operated once Stalin had popped his clogs (and who lay dying for three days in his study because no one dared try disturb him). Who knows? Not much of a payoff line, but with Russia, that’s about all one can attempt.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What’s sauce for the goose . . . the Guardian tries its hand at solving an ancient ethical conundrum. And one Vladimir Putin must decide: should he or shouldn’t he? But then he’s such a cutie at heart!

Well, well. Not only was the Guardian so thoroughly outraged by the News of the World hacking onto the mobile phones of various celebs and politicians that it launched an investigation into the whole scummy business, it also thought such hacking was such a good wheeze that it did a little itself. David Leigh, the paper’s assistant editor and head of investigations, has admitted that he, too, as hacked into voicemail messages in an, ultimately successful attempt to substantiate a story about a corrupt businessman.

Actually, the news is not quite as shocking as it might sound, and the Guardian isn’t shown up to by thoroughly hypocritical as my intro might have indicated. In fact, Leigh had already admitted in a piece for his paper in 2006 that he had also indulged in a spot of hacking and even admitted to feeling a ‘vicarious thrill’ while doing so, but his intention was to plead that there are exceptional circumstances in which such subterfuge is justified. And I seem to remember hearing on the radio yesterday that Leveson announced that when he makes his recommendations to as to what kind of journalistic practices he felt should be criminalised, he will also say that whatever laws are made should allow for exceptions. (I tried to find a link to press report on this but so far I haven’t been able to.)

So far, so good, although so far, so muddy. Because Leigh’s admission highlights a perpetial and perennial problem in - er - moral philosophy which is always best summed up in the question ‘does the end justify the means?’ Given what Leigh told Leveson’s inquiry and given Leveson’s subsequent comments on the matter, the answer would seem to be yes. But, as any keen sixth-form philosophy student will tell you, one can quickly think up any number of examples where the answer would seem to be an unequivocal no. For example, if a mother were told that the rest of her children would be saved if she year to murder her youngest, would that murder be justified? So, the answer to the question ‘does the end justify the means?’ would strictly become: sometimes. And that is worse than useless.

We are not dealing with dusty, theoretical philosophy here. The question of ‘when is immoral behaviour acceptable’ raised its ugly head several months ago when the Americans admitted they had resorted to the torture of Al Qaeda suspects. At the time, their response was ‘if a practice is acceptable, it is no longer immoral’, but in truth that is a pretty threadbare argument which merely shifts the burden of proof. A pound of flour is still a pound of floor whether it is weighed on an old-fashioned set a scales or a modern digital set.

Unusually, your resident loudmouth is not about to pronounce and suggest an answer. I’m merely going to take the easy way out and remark that it’s a tough one. I will add, though, that I am more inclined to play it safe and believe that, no, the ends don’t justify the means, for admitting that sometimes they might allows any number of thugs, such as one Joseph Stalin, for example, to justify themselves and their actions. But to point out just how tricky the question is: were the murders of occupying Germans committed by French Resistance more, less or equally as justified as the murders of U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan by the Taliban (or the murders of Soviet troops by the mujahideen)? Sticky, isn’t it?

. . .

If Vladimir Putin were a brand, his owners would be urgently considering a relaunch. If he were an ageing rock star, his managers would be urgently considering a comeback tour. As it is, he’s fucked and faces a huge dilemma: do the crackdowns on protesters in Moscow, St Petersburg and - somewhere called - Samara get heavier until they cease, or does he carry on with the ‘we’re all aspiring democrats now’ schtick and lose even more face? In all this, of course, I’m assuming that his position is safe within the ruling establishment, that he is not, perhaps, in part a placeman who could be replaced if and when those nominal folk pulling the strings decide. And that consideration takes us to an essential difference between the old Soviet regime and the new, it would seem quasi, dictatorship in Russia under Putin. At least the Soviets had the fiction of ‘the Communist Party’ and ‘the interests of the Party’ to fall back on and any reshuffle or internal realignment of power could be camouflaged. Putin has no such fig leaf, and it would seem he stands slap-bang in front of a dilemma.

A month ago I googled Putin’s biography as I realised I knew so little about him. The occasion was a curious story in the Daily Telegraph - you can find it here - about claims made by a former West German secret service agent that Putin used to beat his wife and had several affiars while he was working for the KGB and stationed in East Germany. The agent (whose codename as ‘Balcony’ - she had rather large breasts we are told, although I must be honest and say that is more a British than a German joke, or rather I have never heard it made by a German) had, in the course of her duties, managed to become a confidante of Mrs Putin, and Mrs Putin told her about her husband’s behaviour. Google took me to Wikipedia and, of course, I have the standard reservations about that site, but from what I read there it would seem to be that Putin was, initially, something of an accidental President. His biography doesn’t read as that of someone scheming to get his way to the top. Now he is there, of course, he most probably wants to stay there, but his initial appointment as a prime minister seems to have been something of a matter of chance. But there is now no doubt that he wants another two full terms in charge and will do a great deal to achieve it.

It would be misleading to claim that the people have other ideas. It would be more truthful to say that a number of liberal-minded, middle-class folk in Moscow, St Petersburg and Samara have other ideas, although the numbers who turned out to protest at what they regard were flawed elections can give us no indication at all as to whether there are a great many others in the whole of Russia who feel the same or just a few. (Incidentally, I have often wondered just how we British, or the French or the Germans, would react if the Russians announced they were sending monitors to our countries when an election is due to make sure it was all fair and above board. We might resort to crude language when telling them what to do with their election monitors.)

As that old roue Bill Clinton once remarked ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ when asked what made the voters tick, and the Russians will be no different. If things remain rather comfortable for a great many of them - and there is a great many of them - questions such as why are there no credible alternative candidates to Putin at the coming presidential election will remain unasked. If, on the other hand, the electorate’s standard of living does start to suffer badly, it could well be another matter. And in that case no amount of pictures of Putin strangling bears in the Urals, rolling around naked in Siberian snows, or fishing for shark in the waters of the Volga would soothe them. I have given a selection of Putin action man pictures below. And then, Lordy be!, I have also come across some pictures of Putin expressing his feminine side. He’s such a cutie!

On the lines of Putin PR stunts, one of the funnier videos I have recently seen was of Putin helping to promote a new Lada model. In he jumped to take the smart-looking car for a test drive and turned on the ignition. Sadly, the engine failed to spring to life for several minutes. I do hope he isn’t vain. Because he did look rather silly.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Times they are a changin’ and have been for quite some time. If you want to make money, leave The Thunderer well alone. Oh, and things could well be looking up for the scruffs on the extreme Left/extreme Right. Now there’s an enticing prospect for another 50 years of peace in Europe

Years ago, about 24 although it doesn’t feel that long oddly enough, when I was more naive than I am now, I thought that it would be a good idea to try to get a documentary series about the Press barons onto TV. As far as I was concerned, they were a fascinating bunch, some completely off-the-wall, some not quite so off-the-wall, but all of them not at all like you and me. I still think so, but as for getting a documentary made, well forget it. It pains me to do so, but I shall do so again: I was very naive, though sadly no more naive than a great many other people.

This was in the early days of Channel 4 when it largely stuck to its brief of being ‘different’ (it doesn’t do so any more), and it did screen a lot of interesting stuff. I thought it might well be a natural home for such a series. Sadly, these days ‘different’ doesn’t ring any bells, and if it doesn’t involved celebrities cooking, celebrities dancing, celebrities buying bric-a-brac, celebrities eating nasty insects in some faux jungle a mile or two from Brisbane city centre it hasn’t got the faintest chance of making it to the small screen.

The culture of TV has changed a great deal since then and there is far less money around, and what there is has to be spread so thinly because of the number of competing channels that if you can’t get your programme made for peanuts, it ain’t going to be shown. Thus we now have the proliferation of property programmes, cookery programmes and antiques programmes, as well as all the ‘reality’ TV crap. The one virtue they have as far as the TV luvvies are concerned is that they are cheap to make. But even in those days, pre Sky and all the other Freeview bollocks when there were only the two BBC TV channels and ITV (which was still flying high and which in those days still consisted of a number of regional companies, all under the ITV tent), getting a documentary made wasn’t just down to some bright spark having a good idea.

Before I contacted Channel 4 and three or four of the bigger ITV companies, I did what, were I to bullshit, I could call ‘research’. Actually, what it boiled down to was that I read a few books. And that is how I came to know a little of the history of The Times and why it has been something of a nine-bob note (nine dollar/euro/rubel bill) for the past 100 years. It was most certainly true that at one point The Times was not only the most pre-eminent paper in Britain, but also had a good worldwide reputation. But that was not necessarily down to its journalism. It was all rooted in something of a stroke of luck.

The rotary press was invented in the early 1840s and patented a few years later. It transformed the British newspaper industry. Until then, newspapers had been printed on flatbed press - type was laid out in a frame on a flat bed, inked and it was covered with a sheet of newsprint which had a page printed on it. Not only was the process time-consuming, it was also expensive, and the circulation of even the leading papers of the day was around 10,000. They simply couldn’t print enough in one night to sell any more. These papers were then distributed and as they were expensive, each edition was read by a great many people. But the rotary press changed all that. With a rotary press the number of copies which could be printed rose tenfold, and it was also a cheaper technology. And this is where The Times stroke of luck came in. For under its then editor John Delane, the Times managed to lease exclusive rights to use the rotary press for ten years. Suddenly it could print far more copies than its rivals and its production costs came down. And it made a great deal more money, which it used to extend its network of reporters and correspondents. (Incidentally, its nickname The Thunderer, which those self-regarding eejits at The Times like to refer to proudly, was originally a satirical gibe at how the The Times took itself so seriously.)

As usual, success begat success, and in the mid-19th century The Times really was top dog. What they won’t happily tell you was once their ten-year exclusive right to use the rotary press ended and all the other papers could get in on the act, their circulation also shot up as their costs also fell. And by the second half of the 19th century, the Daily Telegraph, even today, the only true rival to The Times, had already overtaken it in circulation. By the end of the century it was no longer making a profit and at the beginning of the 20th century it was even briefly owned by Lord Northcliffe, who had made his name and fortune with his new downmarket Daily Mail (‘written by office boys for office boys’ was the opinion of Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister), but even his undoubted newspaper genius couldn’t get it back into the black. And it has not turned a profit in more than 110 years.

These days, under the ownership of News International (‘Britain’s No 1 Phone Hacker’) it is still subsidised by group profits, but there is talk of shutting it down now that those profits are massively dented by the closure of the News of the Screws. It’s circulation in October 2011 was a piss-poor 417,197. Ten years earlier it was 678,498. Maths isn’t my strong suit but I make that a decline of more than 38pc. It has, admittedly, been a bad decade for newspapers all round. The figures for the Telegraph are 974,362 and 603,901, also just over 38pc, for the Daily Mail 2,421,795 and 1,998,363, a decline of 17.5pc, and The Sun 3,451,746 and 2,715,473, a decline of 21.3pc. Most alarming of all are the figures for the Mirror, The Suns’ sworn rival: 2,180,227 and 1,118,120, a decline of a deeply alarming 51pc.

So much for The Thunderer.
. . .

The really silly thing about all this euro crisis nonsense is that the people who matter most, the very people on whose behalf the EU purportedly does all its good deeds - viz the plethora of regulations making life better, safer and prettier - are almost forgotten in all the argy-bargy. Yes, Merkel does this and suggests that, and Sarkozy suggests that and does this, but at the end of the day, they are only there on sufferance. And both face election. (Incidentally, in an EU of equals - well, in theory - where are all the other heads of state? One of the justifications for the EU was to end the dominance and rivalry of Germany and France in European affairs, a rivalry which had led to war on several occasions. Yet which two countries are now ‘taking the lead’ in trying to sort out the country? Latvia and Portugal? Try again. Netherlands and Cyprus? Er, not quite. Germany and France? Well, done! Give that man a chocolate!)

France goes to the polls to elect its new president at the end of April next year, and Merkel faces elections 18 months later in September 2013. The accepted wisdom is that membership of the EU is such a good thing that in all member states the sitting government and its opposition are in favour. Ah, but what about the people, those ordinary men and women who, so far in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland are having a very shitty time because of what they regard as the behaviour of EU placemen. Enda Kenny appeared on TV last night preparing the Irish for even further austerity measures, including raising VAT to 23pc. How to the ordinary people - let me remind you: the very people on whose behalf this is all being done - feel now? Are they really as well-inclined to the EU as once they were when those two letters were regarded as shorthand for an easy life of plenty at no cost whatsoever? When it comes to ticking the ballot paper, what will be uppermost in their minds: the easy life they once had or the shitty life they now have? But, I hear you cry, it doesn’t matter: both the incumbent government and the opposition are EU supporters, so there is no chance ...

Well, sadly, there is a chance, a rather frightening chance that some opposition might opt for political expediency and stop toeing the party line on all things EU. They might choose to destroy the cosy consensus which has always been part of the EU’s strength. But that would not be the worst scenario. Presented with the Hobson’s choice of voting to re-elect a government which is bringing them nothing but pain or to replace it with an opposition which also promises to continue the pain, the voters might be inclined to favour some of the scruffier individuals who exist on the margins of political consensus. And there are enough of those.

On the left, Greece, Spain and Portugal all have a thriving extreme left, and were that not to worry you, it is neatly balance in those countries by an extreme right. In Franct the Front National is doing rather well in the polls, now standing at 20pc. In Italy the Northern League has a great deal of support, and although it is not regarded as a right-wing party, it is on its way. The real problem for European democrats is that should any of these, whether on the left or the right, garner substantially more votes - and a protest vote is still a vote - and be in a position of holding the balance of power, they have no choice but to accept it. After all the people will have spoken. Trying the trick they used successfully in Ireland - holding a second ballot when the voters rather inconveniently did not give the EU the result it wanted - will not be possible. What to do? Aux armes citoyens! Now there’s a prospect for the institution which many claim has ensured peace in Europe for the past 60 years.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Am I being harsh or is Caitlin Moran just a tad pleased with herself?

I was listening to the radio this morning and as usual on that particular programme, the last item, just before 9am, takes the form of a general discussion. If the overnight news has been grave - euro not yet collapsed but for God’s sake start knitting, or Elton John loses cufflinks given him by the Queen - the big, authoritative guns are rolled out and we are treated to the wisdom of those thought to know what they are talking about. The ‘names’ will be people who are relevant to the story - a highly respected diplomat who, now retired, can stop lying, some chap from the LSE (well, until recently - since they were caught selling a Phd to Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi for a very good price indeed, their stock has rather fallen and they will now count themselves lucky to get a gig on Countdown) or a German journalist from one of the serious papers who speaks English better than almost all of us who live in the United Kingdom. That, in the interests of ‘balance’- the BBC is very keen on ‘balance’ - each authoritative side will utterly contradict the other and describe what is being put forward by his antagonist as nonsense means that once the discussion ends, we, the listeners are not one jot wiser and the whole excercise was largely pointless.

Often the discussion is what the BBC refers to as ‘light-hearted’ and ‘the names’ are allowed to make jokes and not take the topic of discussion entirely seriously. This morning, the discussion was about one Jeremy Clarkson who either outraged the nation a few days ago by claiming our striking public sector workers should be lined up and shot in front of their families or who played up to his professional persona as loudmouth at large and was merely joking. What you believe on that score will be entirely down to your own political prejudice. The Left were, rather predictably, thoroughly outraged as only the Left can be outraged, whereas the rest of us know Clarkson was making a joke, although a weak one. And for the record, I think Jazzer is a pain in the arse but otherwise perfectly harmless.

So that was the topic, and to bat it around for five minutes or so until the 9am pips, Today rolled out Toby Young (a kind of well-trained, more diplomatic and classier sub-Jeremy Clarkson, who has also been known to speak out and frighten the horses, but who in recent years has chosen to acquire a more sober persona now that he is hoping to make his fortune by setting up private schools) and one Joan Burnie, who I have never come across before and who was trailed as an associate editor Scotland’s Daily Record for whom she also writes a column. They made some good points, and Young mentioned how Dave Prentiss, a union leader - you’d be hard-pushed to find a Tory or someone from the respectable wing of the Lib Dems styling themselves Dave - revealed he was ‘seeking urgent legal advice’ on Clarkson’s comments. Yes, the whole thing is as silly as that. But at one point Young mentioned a Caitlin Moran and my ears pricked up.

Until that moment I had only heard her name and knew nothing more about her, but from Young’s comments it would seem she is, in part, that oddest of creatures, a right-of-centre feminist and I was intrigued. So I looked her up on the net and discovered that she is a ‘broadcaster, writer, TV critic and columnist’. And when I looked her up I realised just how out of touch I am with what’s happening, man. Even the fact that I had to look her up underlines rather sadly how much further down the road to fuddy-duddyland I have travelled than I have feared. For Caitlin was, it turns out, something of a young media prodigy, winning the Observer’s Young Journalist of the Year in 1990 when she was still only 15, writing a novel at 16 and going on to present a Channel 4 rock show. Now that she is no longer a young media prodigy - you can’t be, really, at 36 - she has joined the media establishment (expect her to join the Booker Prize committee at some point in the next few yers) and day job is to write for three columns for the Times, work which has won her Columnist of the Year for 2010, and BPA Critic of the Year 2011, and Interviewer of the Year 2011 (all, you will gather, curiously anonymous: who sponsors these awards? Would it surprise you to know that I am also an ‘award-winner’? I recently won Oldest Inhabitant of Lanke Cottage, St Breward, for the third year running and I am, my colleagues tell me, a strong contender for the prestigious Feature Sub-editors Most Biros in Top Pocket Award 2011.)

What first turned me off was young Caitlin’s relationship with The Times. I worked regular shifts on The Times (which came to an abrupt halt when I was quite wrongly suspected of spending the night with one of the news editors’ wives, but that’s another story) and was rather taken aback by the paper’s self-image. To this day - seriously - it thinks of itself as the best paper in the world. Worse, it regards those who, like me, don’t agree with that estimation as fundamentally stupid. Well, I’ll give it to you straight: I find The Times dull, dull, dull, uninformative and distressingly middle-brow. So that young Caitlin writes not just one but three columns, one rather ominously described by Wikipedia as ‘the satirical Friday column Celebrity Watch, is not in her favour.

As is my wont, I also google-imaged her (sorry, sisters, but don’t pretend you don’t do the same) and that was the nail in young Caitlin’s coffin as far as I am concerned. For in almost all the pictures in Google’s collection, she has a look of ineffable smugness and self-satisfaction. But make up your own minds. Above is a selection. I’m afraid what we think of ourselves is very often reflected in our habitual expression and young Caitlin’s expressions rather convey, to me at least, that if she were chocolate she would just love to eat herself. But that’s media folk for you. If I had my way, I would have them all lined up in front of their families and shot. Not once, but twice!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ah, the Indy, the eccentrics’ eccentric. Plus the best and clearest account I have yet come across of why the euro is going down the pan

Every country has its self-image, which is more often than not is rather flattering. The French like to see themselves as intellectuals, folk who would far, far rather discuss ontology than developments in the latest soaps. The Italians are convinced they are the great seducers, although apparently Italian women are the first group to pooh-pooh that one. (It doesn’t help that for economic reasons - largely - Italian men often live at home until they marry and expect their new wives to carry on where their mothers left off.) The Brits like to see themselves as quirky, slightly off-the-wall, the exception which prove most rules (which is just as well because portraying themselves as great intellectuals or great seducers would do nothing but elicit hoots of risible laughter from every other nation).

As it is, you can find eccentrics in every nation, not least, counter-intuitively, Germany: my sister once had a neighbour who thought his water company’s charges were getting too high and began drilling his own well in is back garden. He had got about 40ft deep before ‘the authorities’ - it’s always ‘the authorities’ - told him enough was enough and what he was doing was illegal under several laws, including one which stated that ‘borehole drilling, drilling boreholes, drilling any hole which might be interpreted as a borehole and which meets the different criteria leading to or leading from the definition of boreholes is not allowed if the area of land in which the borehole is being drilled is less than 20sq m, if work on drilling the borehole takes place predominantly between the hours of 5pm and 8am or at weekends, if the borehole driller cannot comprehensively demonstrate the need for a personal borehole (but see the section below on the impact of proposed new EU legislation) and the borehole/borehole drilling do not meet the general criteria of Safety At Work, Environmental Concerns and Tighter European Integration.’ As it was, he took ‘the authorities’ to court which ruled in his favour on all of those official objections except the last which we all know overrules every other law known to mankind.

Where was I?

It has to be said that if not the wackiest nation in the world, Britain is up there with the wackier ones. An example: to date we have here in Great Britain TWO parliaments and TWO assemblies. Both parliaments can raise taxes, although the second parliament (in Scotland) can only do so in some areas (taxes on litter, billboards, kerbstones, that kind of thing). Neither of the assemblies can raise taxes. In fact the assemblies, one in Belfast and one in Cardiff can do very little except meet and complain about the main parliament, the one which sits in Westminster, although I believe they do have limited responsibility for certain bye-laws - when folk can hang out their washing, the number of times you can spit in the street on weekdays, that kind of thing. The members of both parliaments and both assemblies, however, are reasonably content with the arrangement, and very good salaries, very generous expenses, subsidised restaurants and bars, very generous pensions and the insistence that it is all very, very democratic go a long way to ensure they don’t rock the boat too much.

My thoughts turned to wackiness when I logged on and did my morning trawl through the websites of the Telegraph, the Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Mail.
The Independent front page was especially puzzling, which is to say it was more puzzling than usual. Under the headline ‘Victory within reach - but cuts could spoil it all’ there are pictures of Hillary Clinton (looking rather old), Carla Bruni (still looking youngish and they call her Carla Bruni-Sarkozy) and Elton John (looking rather old). The overnight news was that all the rich folk in the U.S. have decided to make it easier for European banks to borrow their money (so good of them), Iran has decided it wants to be invaded by Britain, and our Chancellor has released a single (‘You Think It’s Bad? You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ - quite catchy). What, I asked myself do Clinton, Bruni (‘Bruni-Sarkozy’) and Elton John have to do with any of that? The answer, of course, is nothing. For the Indy, as it is know to the few families in West London who still buy it, had decided to ignore the obvious news stories and lead on World Aids Day. Good on you, you might say, and I agree (after having read some of the pieces by the three involved) that it is timely to remember that aids is still a threat to many lives. But to splash on it in the run-up to Armageddon? That is eccentric.

But the Indy has form. It was launched in October 1986 to universal goodwill. It would be fair to say it hit the ground running. It’s design was fresh, clear and attractive, its use of photography was imaginative and its philosophy of political non-alignment very welcome indeed by many of the newspaper reading public who were thoroughly fed up with the entrenched attitudes of British newspapers, and its launch ad campaign - We’re independent. Are you? - very clever indeed, playing as it did on the conceit and vanity of potential readers. And from that high spot it began a slow, slow, painfully slow decline.
If I remember rightly, its initial circulation was more than respectable at around 300,000, although this was, admittedly, in the days before the internet when the Telegraph was still selling over one million, The Times far more than half a million and the Guardian’s figures did not look as sickly as they do now. So, off to such a promising start, the Indy decided to shoot itself in the foot: for no very good reason, it underwent a redesign. There was nothing wrong with the old design and at the time circulation figures were holding up, even though they were no longer as high as at launch. Redesigns (and ‘relaunches’) are usually the first sign that ‘things are not healthy’. Sometimes they come off (and as in the case of the revitalised Marks & Spencer chain under Stuart Rose, they come of spectacularly) but that is the exception which proves the rule. At the Indy, however, things were going rather well (as far as I know) and the redesign was entirely superfluous. Be that as it may, it unsettled some readers and circulation started drooping a little.

Its attitude didn’t help, either. Like many, I started reading it when I was launched but was soon turned off by an indefinable smugness. I once met a reporter, on The Times at the time, who told me he was headhunted by the Indy. He went for the interview and was seriously considering jumping ship until he was told the salary the paper was offering him. ‘But that’s several thousand pounds less than I’m getting now,’ he told them. ‘Ah, yes,’ they replied, ‘but you would be working for The Independent.’ That attitude seemed to permeate the paper, by then six years old. When I was living and working in London in the early 1990s, I worked regular shifts on the Indy in its City Road offices. It seemed to me the people I worked with were split right down the middle: regular, very professional sub-editors and then a gang of hacks who really thought they were the bee’s knees. It was rather odd.

Since then the decline has been inexorable. It has had ten editors in the past 25 years, including many who should never have been allowed near the editor’s chair in a month of Sundays. I shall name names: Andrew Marr (him again), Rosie Boycott and the ever delightful Janet Street-Porter. Circulations among the broadsheets have, admittedly, fallen dramatically all round: in October 2011, the Telegraph sold just 603,901 (in Oct 2010 it was 655,006, a decline of -7.80pc), The Times (another paper which thinks the sun shines out of its arse) 417,197 (479,107, -12.92pc), 230,541 (276,428, -16.60pc) and the Indy 133,449 (182,412, -26.84pc). To be fair, I should add that the Indy has recently launched the i, a kind of Indy lite (the main paper without the pretentious bit?) I gave up on the Indy when I found that all too often I simply didn’t understand too many of its feature articles, not a sign of my stupidity, but that the paper was badly written: the first rule of communication is Don’t Baffle The Reader), and one can assume that of the one in four readers who stopped buying the Indy year on year, almost all will have instead gone for the i. And this is selling rather well: 211,467 in October 2011, more than its older sister paper and just 19, 074 fewer than the Guardian. Now if that isn’t wacky, I don’t know what is. For a fuller account of these figures as well as those for the tabloids, you can go to this page.

. . .

Here is the most succinct, clearest and best explanation of the euro crisis I have yet read. It explains everything.