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January 2004




31st January


Radiohead singer Thom Yorke adds his voice to the chorus of outrage at the Hutton report in today's Guardian. I must confess to never getting into Radiohead (I suppose I could never forgive them for having OK Computer voted as the best album of all time by Q Magazine readers a few years ago, ahead of the Beatles' Revolver), but politically it's a different matter (and actually, Karma Police is quite good). Among Yorke's observations is this one about Alistair Campbell: "At the foot of some grand stairs, [he's] mewing and preaching about truth. An unelected, unanswerable force who was willing to destroy the integrity of others and make their lives unbearable to save his skin and that of his masters." Precisely: in what capacity, pray tell, has Campbell been speaking in any of the press conferences he's given in the past few days? He resigned months ago and was never accountable in the first place. He may have been an original party under question by the inquiry but for him to come out now and savage the BBC even more than it has been by Hutton is just gross effrontery.


Meanwhile, there are some excellent letters in today's Guardian, not least this one: "As Tony Blair grins like a Cheshire cat, and Alastair Campbell jubilantly rounds on his critics (Scalps satisfy Blair, January 30), may I remind them that David Kelly is still dead and many will find their manner distasteful?" Another reader points out that this week Blair has "shown contempt" for the two things we should all be proud of in the UK, the BBC and the universities, while another correspondent shrewdly observes that "no one at the BBC - not even John Simpson - has ever led the nation into an unjustified war."


30th January


Last night's Question Time on BBC1 was superb. The first question was of course concerned with what the panellists thought of the Hutton Inquiry's findings, and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop was the first of the panellists to answer. "A classic piece of judicious nonsense" was the thrust of his argument, and it drew thunderous applause. Throughout the show, there seemed only one or two people in the audience who didn't agree with this opinion. At one point, Labour minister and co-panellist Margaret Beckett even said to Hislop, "I bet you haven't even read the report" - a surprisingly stupid, not to say patronising comment, even for an MP, but especially so when directed at the Eye editor. Perhaps she thought that his capacity as a humorist disqualifies him from being an intelligent, thorough journalist? As it turned out, Hislop was at his savage best in rebuffing Beckett's smug defence of Hutton, highlighting 15 citations in the inquiry report that Alistair Campbell had beefed up the language of the notorious dossier, and asking her (rhetorically, as it turned out, as she didn't answer) "What was a spin-doctor doing drafting intelligence reports?" One exchange between them went something like this:


BECKETT: Nobody in government has asked for anybody at the BBC to resign.

HISLOP: Alistair Campbell has.

BECKETT: Alistair Campbell is not a member of the government.

HISLOP: Well, that'll be a surprise to most of the country - and to Campbell.


Beckett didn't appear to be anti-BBC, which was a relief, but it did seem that the best she could do to back up Hutton was to point out that up until the release of the report, "the majority of newspapers" (or at least the Independent, which she was quoting) had been in support of Hutton's procedures per se and praiseworthy of the objectivity, fairness and professionalism of the man himself, and it was only now that he'd come down on the side of the government that its critics were turning on the Law Lord. Well, Margaret, seeing as you seem unable to understand this issue, can I point out that the reason people are so angry with Hutton is precisely that they had expected his verdict would display fairness and objectivity, find the government guilty of sexing up intelligence and not lay 99% of the blame for the entire affair at the door of the BBC (or, indeed, any one party - this is hardly a black-and-white issue, after all).


During the show, viewers were invited to vote by text message on whether BBC director-general Greg Dyke should have resigned. I was tempted to text but it was impossible to express my opinion within the yes/no constraints of the options. No, he shouldn't have done because he had already apologised on behalf of the BBC and that should have been sufficient; yes, because his resignation was an appropriate protest against Hutton's ludicrously one-sided and blinkered judgment. In any event, some 82% of viewers texted that no, Dyke shouldn't have left, and on balance I agree with them. Thoughtcat has been critical of the BBC on several occasions, not least over its digital agenda and often-crappy terrestrial programme schedule, but for what it's worth I'd like to go on record as saying that (a) the BBC has been largely superb in its coverage of the Iraq war and the controversies surrounding it over the past year, and (b) as I also said last year, I would always instinctively trust a corporation with the reputation of the BBC more than I would a politician with the reputation of Tony Blair.



29th January


So Tony Blair, sorry, Lord Hutton has spoken, and Tony Hutton, sorry, Lord Blair, er, what's his name again? has emerged whiter-than-white. The fall-guy status in this sorry episode, once thought to be borne by David Kelly, whose death inspired the Hutton Inquiry in the first place even though everyone now seems to have forgotten about the poor man, has shifted to the BBC, which now takes the (c)rap on the chin standing up and then falls down under the weight of multiple resignations. I suppose at very least in a week of real sleet and Tony-white snow, one climate, the political one, is sweltering. But who wouldn't rather it were the other way round?


The best article I've read today on Lord Hutton's report is by by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. Under the headline "If it went to the West End, they'd call it Whitewash", Freedland explains why Hutton's verdict is so dubious: "On each element of the case before him, Lord Hutton gave the government the benefit of the doubt, opting for the interpretation that most favoured it, never countenancing the gloss that might benefit the BBC. Perhaps the clearest example was Lord Hutton's very judge-like deconstruction of the 'slang expression' sexed up. One meaning could be inserting items that are untrue, he said; another could simply be strengthening language. Under the latter definition, Hutton conceded, Gilligan's story would be true. So his lordship decided the other meaning must apply."


Hutton was also suffering from "a bad case of Wandering Remit Syndrome", Freedland goes on: "The late insertion of the notorious 45-minute claim was within the scope of his inquiry; but whether that claim related to battlefield or strategic weapons was not, even though the reliability of the claim might well turn on precisely that question. Repeatedly, territory that might discomfit the government was declared out of bounds; areas awkward for the BBC were very much in."


Something else I find odious about this whole affair is that while Tony Blair is hell-bent on "updating" ancient institutions like the House of Lords, at times like this who does he turn to for definitive vindication? That's right! A fully paid-up member of the exact establishment he's seeking to "reform".


An article in today's Times meanwhile points out that "the 'with one bound he was free' interpretation [of the week's events] is as over-simplified, and exaggerated, as were earlier predictions that Mr Blair might be forced out of Downing Street. He has survived, banishing any talk of a threat to his leadership. His authority has been strengthened. But he has not yet reestablished the trust and confidence of his party and voters." That's for sure.



28th January


So Tony the fish (sorry to mix my anthropomorphic metaphors) has wriggled free of a political disaster over top-up fees, scraping a parliamentary majority of just five. But at what cost? The Independent reports: "Mr Blair had drawn up an extraordinary plan to overturn the Commons vote if he had been defeated. He intended to table a motion of confidence in the Government next week, which would also have endorsed its proposals to reform higher education funding. Although the move would have angered the rebels, the Prime Minister calculated they would have backed down because defeating the Government in a formal confidence vote could have triggered a general election. The secret plan reveals Mr Blair's utter determination to force through variable top-up fees at all costs." This sledgehammer democracy is obscene. It's not even as if I particularly oppose the idea of top-up fees myself - I do think more of our taxes should be spent on the NHS and pre-university education than higher education, even if it does mean students get into more debt (after all, they have to learn about the real world sometime). But what's truly outrageous is that this whole vote was completely political, reflective far more of the unpopularity of Tony Blair than of the motion itself. I suppose I'm talking myself out of my own argument here - if I'd been an MP last night I would very likely also have voted against the government, if for no other reason than to try to oust it in favour of one which doesn't run things in such an underhand way. But that isn't what politics should be about, is it?



27th January


Deputy PM John Prescott appears to have failed to win round so-called "rebel" MPs planning to vote against the government in tonight's Commons vote on top-up fees. I'm not surprised by this, if the Guardian's account of the matter is anything to go by: "Mr Prescott had been struggling to find a form of words to buy off the rebels," runs the story. Given his history of language-maceration, I'm surprised he was landed with the task in the first place. Surely he could have just punched a few of them instead?




The government's digital-TV czar Barry Cox has said he predicts ministers will "rein-in" the BBC at the next charter review (TC 19th Jan) to prevent any more "dumbing-down" by the broadcaster. Says Cox: "One of the most blatant examples [of dumbing-down] was the steady marginalisation of the main current affairs programme, Panorama, which over the years was moved from 8pm on Monday evenings to 10.15pm on Sundays. Similarly arts programmes almost disappeared from BBC1 for a few years until public criticism - and the approach of charter review - led to a change of policy in 2003." While on one hand I think this would be a good move if it meant more arts programmes and less Changing Rooms-type nonsense, I have my doubts about pompous, condescending language like "rein-in". Surely the BBC is big enough to be autonomous and can be trusted to respond to the views of the public accordingly without being given a slapped wrist by a guru?



26th January


Great to see Ricky Gervais has won a Gloden Globe award for his portrayal of David Brent in The Office. His acceptance speech was superb - "I'm not from these parts," he explained to the assembled Hollywood celebs, "I'm from a little place called England. We used to run the world before you."



25th January


Something I missed from yesterday's Guardian was this little interview with Kitty Lux and George Hinchliffe from The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I've been to see the band, a highly original seven-strong ensemble who perform, solely on ukes, all sorts of songs from Life On Mars to Anarchy in the UK to Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho, two or three times, and they're always a great blast of fun, not to mention fine musicianship. They're even doing a Japanese tour in March. Visit their website at



24th January


Thoughtcat's Man in Chelten-Ham has emailed me one of those lifestyle questionnaires that does the rounds every so often - you know the form, someone sends one to you with their answers to questions like "What book are you reading at the moment?" and "Who puts the bin out in your house?" and, having read and chuckled at the sender's answers, you fill in your own, send it back and forward it on to some other unsuspecting souls. Well, I couldn't resist filling this one in and returning it to Cheltencat, and I'm also reproducing it here because, well, just because really...




With wife in one-bedroomed flat above flower shop.




Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer by Russell Hoban. Always have a Hoban on the go, that's my motto.




A London bus map - which I never think to look at for information about London buses. (Cheltencat's answer "my mouse" was better though.)




Monopoly. I love landing on Chance! (Chance has never seemed to mind, I should add.)




A toss-up between Private Eye, Guardian Weekend and the Independent on Sunday's Talk of the Town.




The keys of a nice computer keyboard rattling away under my fingers.




Uselessness, hopelessness, despair, utter meaninglessness, total pointlessness, fatuosity and irritable bowel syndrome.




Who am I? Where did we all come from? Where are we going? And how long can I put off emptying my bladder?




Cheltencat wrote:
> As long as it takes to get to the phone - do people really worry about this sort of thing?


I do, actually - I always tend to jump to the phone when it rings but I stand there until it's rung three times before picking it up, otherwise people get above themselves. Sometimes I can extend it to four rings. Once I even managed five but it was tough going. My life's ambition is to let it ring 10 times before answering.



Russell, Leonard, Gareth, Peter, Dave, Bob and Peregrine. If any of them are girls I'll call them all Gerald.




I agree with Cheltencat:

> Being happy.  If you are happy without having family or friends or material posessions, that's fine, as long as you are happy.


Hard cash goes a long way though.




Depends on the time of day. I'd say "curry" but in the morning my favourite food is toast. I did once try and eat a plate of curry at 8 in the morning after coming home from a night-shift, but I couldn't face it even then.




If ice-cream, vanilla. Anything else, chocolate. Especially a chocolate bar!




Yes, which is why I no longer have a car. I was never nicked or anything but my mum once told me off for showing off (which in my terms meant putting my Metro up to 45 in a 30 limit).




Not since getting married. I prefer Cheltencat's answer though, "I sometimes am one after a Sunday curry."




So long as I'm indoors, cool. If I was hiking alone in the middle of the Isle of Skye though it'd be a somewhat different matter.




A dented silver 1971 VW Beetle which I bought from the neighbour and friend of a relative. Not a wise move. An overpriced triumph of style over content, with four holes in it.




Red wine.




Yes, but not for breakfast.




A published, full-time novelist. A successful or at least solvent one if possible, but I'd rather be a good one than successful, and I'd rather be a happy one than a solvent one. It's a lonely business as Steve Miles would attest. For more information have a look at




"Will Self" jet black. Or "Yellow A4" yellow.




Quite a few times. It makes your chest go fuzzy. The key to life is being able to distinguish the feeling of love from indigestion (or a caffeine rush).


Cheltencat's answer is better though: "With everyone (01:53am Subtone, Cheltenham - alcohol may have played a part)".




Depends how much there is left in the bottle.




It's always difficult to say what's your favourite anything, but having thought long and hard Pulp Fiction, or, paradoxically, Three Colours Blue are the only films I can think of that I would always sit and watch regardless of the mood I was in.




Mostly (I never use my little fingers).




At the moment, some framed pictures we don't want on the walls but haven't had the heart to chuck out, the unused doors from an Argos computer desk and some bits of an old MFI wardrobe. All this has recently gone back under the bed having been temporarily removed to stash a full-length mirror which I'd hidden there as it was a Christmas present for my wife. I liked Cheltencat's answer, "Lots of boxes of bike components".




Football, funnily enough, as I'm not a big fan and always hated it as a kid.




He never complains! I don't know how he does it.




Auntie Fiona.




Uncle Peter, but I'd love to see his answers...




City - I'm a nervy type of cat, plus I like plenty of distractions.




Comedy, which doesn't preclude "funny horror" (such as Tony Blair at the Hutton Inquiry).




11am or so, as that's normally the time I have a cup of coffee and a biscuit wherever I happen to be, either at home or at work. A day's not complete without that one cup of coffee and that biscuit.

I liked CheltenMan's answer though - "2 am - I'm either asleep (which is nice) or awake and drunk (which is nicer)".




Lying politicians, people who moan, false modesty, companies who give bad service and wet cuffs (from doing the washing-up).




M, an old friend I've long lost touch with, for being (as I considered) narrow-minded.




Semi. But I don't drink it as such. I put it in tea and coffee and on cornflakes, but I couldn't actually face drinking it neat from a glass. Despite being a cat and everything.




I thought this said "past bedtime?" In which case, at 6.30pm, yes it is. Best pastime though is writing Thoughtcat and playing guitar. Often simultaneously.




Yes, I always do. It's a matter of choice rather than being forced. I get a lot of satisfaction from flipping the duvet and throwing the throw in such a way that they lay on the bed exactly right.




Bloody hell, how many questions are there in this thing? One! (TV that is.)




I do. The back alley at eleven at night is no place for anybody but a cat.





After all that, I read today that my local MP, Jenny Tonge, has been sacked from the Liberal Democrat front bench for her remarks about the plight of the Palestinians. This is a sad day for free speech, especially as it was clear Tonge's remarks have been consistently taken out of context. As the Guardian report explains, comedian Jeremy Hardy, who was at the meeting where Tonge expressed empathy with Palestinian suicide bombers, said: "I think those of us who were there could foresee that what she said might lead to trouble. However, the last thing she was trying to do was condone suicide bombers. She is a very caring person who had been moved by what she saw when she had visited the Palestinian territories and she was expressing that. There were a number of Jewish people in the audience at the time and none of them balked at what she said when they heard it in context; in fact there was loud applause at the end of her speech." As the Guardian's leading article says: "Dr Tonge does not condone suicide bombings, as she made clear at the time and again yesterday. Her comments were also carefully framed. They were sensitive, up to a point, about the issues involved. Many people, especially those with experience of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, will agree with her, though that is not in itself a justification." And as one correspondent to the paper writes today: "So the Israeli embassy wouldn't 'expect any human being to express an understanding of such atrocities'. This lack of insight is precisely why the bombings will continue. Israelis must recognise their responsibility in creating the conditions whereby people are driven to such levels of desperation and frustration. And it's time our own politicians understood that they fuel this despair by their refusal to take active measures to stop Israel's land-grab."



22nd January


Mark Haddon, author of the ubiquitous "kids' book-turned-surprise adult bestseller" The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is interviewed in today's Independent. Among a number of fascinating and funny things he says is this: "I think it's true there are two types of kids as school. One type probably breezes through school like gazelles across the veldt. For the more troubled types on the edge of the playground, how you get from one day to the next is a mystery. All writers come from the latter, because only if you're in that group does the working of the human mind become an object of interest."




Also appearing in today's Indy, in the "You ask the questions" feature, is former snooker world champion Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, the man who achieved the astonishing task of turning the sport into something actually worth watching. Higgins' hellraising was legendary. Asked about his episodes of "refreshment" with legendary quaffologist and sometime actor Oliver Reed, he tells this story: "One night we were drinking together and I thought, 'I'm going to doctor his drink', so I mixed fairy liquid into a glass of rum. I managed to keep it the same colour so that he wouldn't realise. For the next few hours, he was blowing bubbles. The next day, I had to leave for London and, as I was about to go, he offered me a scotch. I said, 'All right Oliver, just to please you, I'll drink half.' Well, it wasn't scotch, it was Giorgio Armani aftershave..."




"Dinner party chat is heading for an earthy spell in Britain's enlightened, fruit-eating homes, as some of the country's rarest apples, pears and plums fight their way back on to greengrocers' shelves," reports today's Guardian. "Hosts and hostesses are going to have to steel themselves to offering Hen's Turd apples in their fruit bowl, along with Shit Smock, an 'exceptionally tasty green plum, but one with dire consequences down below if you overindulge'." Sorry about that, but I couldn't resist it...



21st January


My friend Loyd Pfink, who runs the Thoughtcat-hosted Loyd's Names site, brings to my attention the story of Mike Rowe, a teenager from British Columbia currently being sued by Microsoft over his domain name, (geddit?). Microsoft's Canadian lawyers Smart & Biggar (no, really) sent Rowe a letter in November informing him of the corporation's attitude towards his website. Rowe rowte back, saying he had put a lot of time and effort into it, but when the firm offered to buy the name from him for US$10 (5.50), he pluckily replied with a demand for US$10,000. Microsoft has of course now replied with the standard 25-page letter accusing him of trying to force them into a large settlement, but Rowe denies he was attempting to profiteer, saying he only asked for the money because he was "sort of mad at them for only offering 10 bucks". Way to go, Rowe!


Loyd meanwhile reports that he has this week updated his site with more funny names from the corporate world, and now intends to update the front page regularly with namecentric news stories such as the one above.




Samantha Marson

Samantha Marson: free the Shropshire One!


I was astonished to read the story of the British student who faces 15 years in a US jail for winding up the baggage-check staff at a Miami airport by joking that she had "three bombs" in her luggage. Samantha Marson's jest was arguably in poor taste, and making such a jape in the US is undoubtedly ill-advised, but aren't the US authorities being a tad overzealous in their prosecution of this case? I mean, what sort of terrorist is going to seriously warn the baggage-handlers about the presence of an actual bomb before getting on the plane? Isn't the whole point to try and get on it without having said explosive confiscated? In even arresting Marson, let alone threatening her with a 15-year jail sentence, the US is surely displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of this issue.



20th January


Today's Guardian has a hilarious article on the so-called "anti-hangover pill" which has been developed in the US. Popping a pill for each drink (as per the instructions), intrepid hack Alex Hannaford necked a pint of Fuller's ESB ale, a Long Island iced tea (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec and coke - niiiice!), followed by two gin and tonics and shots of Jaegermeister herbal liqueur, Southern Comfort, apple vodka, 99%-proof banana schnapps and vanilla vodka. And, predictably, had a storming hangover the next day. The chief executive of the firm that manufactures the pill explained rather lamely that it's "really for moderate drinkers." Er, surely some fundamental development error there? Or could it just be a rip-off?



19th January


Sixties songstress Joan Baez is interviewed in today's Independent. She's very much an acquired taste and to be honest I've never really acquired it, but it's refreshing to see she's still politically active and, above all, for the left. "Frankly, I'd vote for anybody who'd bump Bush out of there," she says of the 2004 US elections. Why? Don't mince your words, Joanie! "Because I think he's a sociopath. He doesn't care. He has no empathy. Nothing registers with him. He doesn't understand the world's disapproval - he just unplugs the TV. Now I understand, for the first time in my life, what the answer is when people ask, 'Why didn't people stop Hitler?' It's a reign of fear. People are afraid of being called 'unpatriotic'."




I'm disappointed to see that the BBC is screening its dramatisation of The Alan Clark Diaries on its BBC4 digital station rather than on the usual terrestrial channels. The series features classic actor John Hurt in the role of the notorious and outspoken old Tory, but the Beeb seems to be using the series to try and lure viewers to sign up for BBC4, for which it charges extra cash on top of the obligatory TV licence it levies on the basis of being a "public service broadcaster". Auntie (Beeb, not Elizabeth or Fiona) says the series will be repeated on BBC2 in March and, moreover, that all such exclusive BBC4 progs will eventually be repeated on terrestrial TV - and I suppose repeats are one thing you can always count on from the BBC, after all. Nonetheless, the whole thing still amounts to a two-tier "public service". I very much resent this (not to mention the dire quality of terrestrial programming these days, another of the Beeb's ploys to get us to pay extra for the decent stuff) and refuse on a point of principle to be "sold" BBC4. The BBC is currently reviewing its charter and is undertaking a "public consultation", inviting viewers to make comments on its service. More details can be seen here and comments can be emailed here.



18th January


"The European Union stands accused of flouting its own environmental directives by approving a dam in southern Spain that threatens to drive the endangered Iberian lynx to extinction," reports The Independent today. "Biologists at the World Wide Fund for Nature say fewer than 200 lynxes remain in Spain, compared with 1,000 in 1990, and their survival hangs on efforts to repopulate dwindling communities and protect remaining animals. 'The lynx's situation is critical. This is our last chance to save it, that's why we're making such an effort,' says Luis Suarez, a Spanish WWF activist." THOUGHTLYNX SAYS: Join the World Wildlife Fund today.



17th January


I couldn't help but note the irony in the story about the attack on a "pro-Palestinian" art installation by Israel's ambassador to Sweden. "Zvi Mazel was expelled from Stockholm's Museum of Antiquities on Friday after he threw a spotlight at the exhibit, called 'Snow White'," reports the BBC. Dror Feiler's "Snow White" consisted of a model boat floating on a basin of red water, the boat's sail made from a photo of Palestinian suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat, who killed herself and 19 Israelis in Haifa. As such it was making a powerful statement but wasn't actually dangerous in itself, but by throwing the spotlight into the water Mazel made the installation quite literally lethal. Hmm...




I also note today that the George Harrison lawsuit (TC 8th Jan) has been settled. The offending guitar, which the suit alleged Harrison's oncology consultant forced the ailing musician to autograph, is to be "disposed of privately".



16th January




Readers of Thoughtcat since the bitter beginning a year ago will be aware that last April I began writing a novel called All My Own Work. For the benefit of everyone (OK, anyone then) who's been hanging in there all this time to see what it's all about (or, indeed, if I would really do it - and I'm one of them!), I did indeed recently put the finishing touches to the manuscript and have now posted the prologue and first two chapters, together with some character profiles and further extracts from the novel, here on Thoughtcat. So (takes deep breath) here goes! Please, by all means, be my guest at All comments, criticisms, queries, writs etc to the usual address...




Back in the real world... Salman Rushdie is reported to be writing a screenplay for a new movie which will star his girlfriend Padma Lakshmi. "The Firebird's Nest explores a relationship between a younger, Indian-born woman and an older man," reports the Guardian, before adding that the script is based on a short story written by the 50-odd Rushdie some years before he met the 30-something Lakshmi. Not, of course, that there's anything wrong in principle with drawing on your own life experience for your writing, as Steve Miles would no doubt attest.




And yet more about the blurring of life and art. Googlewhacky author Dave Gorman talks today about "My Work Space" - supposedly, anyway, as he in fact only talks about his desk in the final paragraph of this article, a regular Guardian feature about famous people and their creative environments. More interestingly (it has to be said, it's a rather dull desk), he talks about the process of writing (or rather not writing) a novel. "In an attempt to be serious and to feel like a proper grown-up, Gorman made the decision to write a novel. Master of the displacement activity, his days were busy. If it wasn't a case of 'I'll crack on with Chapter 1 as soon as I've cleaned the oven', it was 'I'll crack on with Chapter 1 as soon as I've checked my emails,' he says. It was checking emails that propelled him into using the advance for his novel to pursue the Googlewhack, something he felt he could justify because there seemed little point 'in trying to write fiction when your own life is demonstrating that real life is stranger than fiction.'"

Buy "Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure" from Amazon




And finally today, something not to do with writing at all. According to this story in today's Independent, David Blunkett, our redoubtable Home Secretary, apparently said after hearing of the suicide of serial killer Harold Shipman this week, "You have just got to think for a minute: is it too early to open a bottle? Then you discover that everybody's very upset he's done it. So you have to be very cautious in this job, very careful." What on earth was going through Blunkett's head? It's his duty to ensure the welfare of all prisoners, regardless of what they've done. While Shipman's crimes were undoubtedly terrible, we don't have capital punishment in this country (thank God), and when it comes to prison suicides, you can't on one hand say how tragic it is that a teenager in a young offenders' institution slits his wrists and then on the other say that in the case of Shipman it was somehow acceptable. Or maybe you can, if you're a politician.




When I say "finally", I am of course using the Only Fools and Horses definition of that adverb, meaning I can say it's all over but then come back with something else whenever I want. In this case, further to the story from the 14th about Dario Fo's run-in with litigious Italian MPs, it's to highlight a nice observation by an "insider" in the Italian government about what Silvio Berlusconi will look like when he returns to work following a face-lift: "tall and blond"...



15th January


A 14-year-old Manchester delinquent has been banned from using the word "grass" until 2010, reports the Guardian. "Zachary Tutin has been made the subject of an anti-social behaviour order which prohibits him from using the word 'grass', after he repeatedly abused his neighbours, claiming that they were police informers," runs the story. The judgment would be laughable if that was all Tutin had done, but it turns out he had also "waged a two-and-a-half year campaign of terror against his local community", picking on neighbours, swearing at them and insulting them, carrying knives and baseball bats, stealing and damaging their property, using other offensive words such as 'slag' and using racist language towards an Asian shopkeeper. Well, as long as the lad can't say "grass" until he's 20, I feel safe!




Melvyn Bragg provides that rare thing today, a really good "You ask the questions" piece in the Independent. Readers' queries and celebrities' answers in this regular feature are so often incredibly dull, but Lord Melv of Cumbria has some interesting things to say here, such as: "Everything you write comes out of yourself, but your experiences are only one strand. Other things happen to you: imagination, other people's experiences, the lives you didn't live..." I'm disappointed that there were no questions about his hair, though.




Following the suicide the other day of notorious serial killer Harold Shipman, a number of people, including the Guardian itself, seem to be seeing this as some kind of betrayal of justice. Now he's dead, they're saying, we'll never know "why" he did what he did. While I sympathise completely with the victims' relatives and their loss, I can't help but think people are kidding themselves by thinking like this. What sort of explanation can anyone give for why someone murdered hundreds of people? What good would it do if you found out the "reason"? Would there even be a reason for his behaviour that anyone could understand? If there was, would it bring any of those victims back, or stop it happening again? It's a bit like the characters in The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy finding that the "answer" to life, the universe and everything was "42" - even if you do find the answer to such a mystery, there's no guarantee it'll make any sense whatsoever. In the Guardian today Catherine Bennett writes something similar: "Harold Shipman's suicide has left many relations of his victims describing themselves as doubly 'cheated'. Cheated of justice and cheated of an explanation. It is for the bereaved families to judge whether Shipman's self-imposed execution was a more, or less appropriate punishment for his wickedness than life imprisonment. On the other hand there is plenty to suggest that, with or without the murderer's account of himself, the victims of a psychopath will always be cheated of an explanation."




Those innovative Japanese, fresh from designing the Thoughtcat-friendly Meowlingual cat-to-human translator, have now developed a machine that enables you to control your dreams. "Before hitting the futon, all the owners of Yumemi Kobo, or Dream Workshop, have to do is stare at a photograph of what they would like to dream about and then record, in their own words, how the dream is supposed to pan out," says the Guardian. When the machine detects REM, fragrances, lights and music (Daysleeper perhaps?) are used to stimulate the sleeper accordingly, and in order that users don't forget their designer dreams, they are gently awakened in the morning by more soft lighting and music. Sounds like a nightmare to me. Is nothing sacred? Surely the whole point of dreams is that you either learn something about yourself from them or you don't understand what the hell they were about.







Top marks to the Guardian today for a beautiful front page (of the printed paper, that is) featuring Picasso's Boy with a Pipe, which could achieve the dubious distinction of becoming the world's most expensive painting when it is auctioned in May. That said, there's only a small reproduction of the painting on the Guardian website - for a bigger and better one go to the story on Excite Entertainment.

Picasso's "Boy with a Pipe"


14th January


Legendary Italian theatrical satirist Dario Fo is being sued for defamation by a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, according to a report in today's Guardian. "Marcello Dell'Utri, a Forza Italia senator, is demanding Eur1m damages caused by 'unfounded, personal attacks' made by Mr Fo in his satirical play The Two-headed Anomaly," runs the report. "Throughout the show, the prime minister is attacked for everything from being vertically challenged to passing laws to his own personal advantage, running a media monopoly and censoring criticism of his government." Comments Fo, 77: "We felt we could not sit by and watch what is happening in Italy." The play sounds brilliant and Fo should have the right to criticise and satirise the Berlusconi administration without fear of persecution or censorship. Thoughtcat shall have to investigate the possibility of starting up a "Fo Fund" in the name of free speech, to help him pay the damages if he does ends up being sued.




J.K. Rowling is in the running for an "adult" literary prize for the first time. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has been shortlisted in the fiction section of the W.H. Smith book awards, as it deals with "adult" issues such as death and, er, puberty. Not sure how it'll fare alongside The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (another book that was written primarily for children) and the distinctly grown-up A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin. And it is a bit of silly award anyway, paying out only 5,000, ludicrously small change for all shortlistees, and being judged not by stars of the literary firmament but by that walking definition of TV cheese, actor Robson Green.




The news just gets sillier today. Julio Iglesias's elderly father, also called Julio, has just conceived another baby at the age of 87. When I first saw the headline in today's Times I thought it was saying the legendary Spanish crooner himself was 87, but it turns out Julio Jr is in fact "only" 61. Most bizarre of all though is the fact that the baby will be uncle to 29-year-old Enrique Iglesias, "who has made a big impact on the US charts with his Latino brand of pop."



13th January




I bought a copy of the new "fiction music sport travel biography politics" magazine Ink the other day. With a glossy feel and a large image from the latest Lord of the Rings film on the cover I had my doubts whether it was really my thing, especially for 3.50, but swayed by garish flashes saying WIN! BOOKS WORTH 900, 113 BOOKS REVIEWED and 12 PAGE WRITERS [sic] SECTION, I decided to give it a go. While I feel as a writer that I should probably be supportive of anything that encourages reading and writing, I have to say I was very disappointed. There's a pathetic feature called "Abridged too far" in which Moby Dick is reduced to a few "hilarious" paragraphs, a competition to win a signed copy of a Queen photo-book, a letter of the month kissing the magazine's arse bigtime under the guise of a dull story about someone seen reading an Ian Rankin book in a restaurant, and worst of all a load of adverts for ludicrously trendy and expensive products like La Fee absinthe, Raymond Weil watches and Paul Smith clothes. Despite interviews with such stars as Melvyn Bragg and Hanif Kureishi, this isn't a magazine about writing, it's just a bunch of 22-year-old advertising gits jumping on the "books are the new rock'n'roll" bandwagon. I mean, apart from those stars who've really made it - and they must account for a tiny proportion of published authors - what writer can afford a Raymond Weil watch, for God's sake? And if a reader of the magazine and/or a writer who hasn't had any literary success can afford one, they can surely live without writing - in which case they may as well go and buy FHM instead.




My letter to the Guardian about the interplanetary madness of President George (see 10th January) may not have been published, but some very good ones by other people today have been, including this one by one Ben Stewart: "President Bush withdrew from the Kyoto protocol, claiming ratification would cost the US economy too much. Now he announces a project to put a man on Mars, at a cost of billions of dollars."



12th January


While unashamedly searching for myself on the Guardian today on the offchance that a version of my silly entry for 10th January (below) had been printed on the paper's letters page (it hadn't), I came across another Richard Cooper to add to my "Richard Coopers I'm Not" page (still under construction). It turns out Richard Cooper is also a player for York City FC, and who scored the winning goal against Carlisle on Saturday. According to the Guardian's match report, Cooper "added a slick second" to the first goal scored by, er, someone else, and ended up Man of the Match. York City don't have a proper official website yet but their best unofficial website describes Cooper thus: "A defender/midfielder who, like Scott Jones has never quite made it big at York. He has though made some excellent performances and if he is ever called upon he always gives 100% and rarely makes a fool of himself. If the opportunities come his way he is a player who is likely to take them and maybe make himself a first choice player." Obviously a relative, then.



11th January


The Independent reports that some new footage of the Beatles has been unearthed showing chaotic behind-the-scenes stuff from their first US tour in 1964. "The sequences show John, Paul, George and Ringo bumbling, smoking, running and joking their way through hotel lobbies, corridors, train carriages and waiting rooms amid unprecedented scenes of pandemonium and adulation - a real version of the phenomenon later simulated for the film A Hard Day's Night," runs the report. The soon-to-be-released DVD can be bought via



10th January


Sorry to be a killjoy, but am I the only person to think George W. Bush's plans for missions to the Moon and Mars are a load of hypocritical old bollocks? What planet is Bush on? Would it not be a slightly good idea to put Earth's house (q.v. war, terrorism, global warming, disease, famine etc) in order first? If the US electorate is so easily plied by such ludicrous plans to give Old Pubic a second term in office later this year, then I feel sorry for America. But surely it won't be - in which case, I feel sorry for you, George. Not.




The Guardian also reports today that Scottish fiction, so often these days steeped in the Ian Rankin-Irvine Welsh tradition of melancholy, misery and dysfunction, is attempting to lighten itself up - at least according to two English publishing houses which have opened offices north of the border and the increasingly-ubiquitous Scottish literary sensation Alexander McCall-Smith. AM-S, as I shall abbreviate the author, was in the papers last week (TC 8th January) for attacking Welsh's profane style and grim subject. Now it seems AM-S's hugely successful detective stories are spearheading a kind of "Keep Scottish Literature Happy, Or At Least Less Miserable" campaign. My own novel All My Own Work, which is currently trying to find a home, is set partly in Scotland and is a comedy, but I'm not sure this counts as jumping on the bandwagon of "Make Scottish Fiction More Fun" since I'm not, strictly speaking, a Scottish author.



9th January


Vermeer's "Head of a Young Girl"


Jonathan Jones writes an article in today's Guardian about the cinematic/photographic qualities of Vermeer's paintings, prompted by the new film of Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, which comes out next week. Says Jones: "Vermeer is far more like a film-maker than a photographer. For all their stillness, his paintings breathe motion. They are dramas. He is a dramatist in light; which is why, like Caravaggio, he has profound affinities for cinema." This observation brought to mind Thoughtcat's favourite author, Russell Hoban, who has long been inspired by Vermeer's Head of a Young Girl portrait. In his libretto for Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Second Mrs Kong, Hoban's King Kong falls in love with "Pearl", while in his incredible novel The Medusa Frequency, blocked writer Herman Orff has an ongoing thing with the subject of the Vermeer painting and also makes the following independent observation:


An ordinary mirror is silvered at the back but the window of a night train has darkness behind the glass. My face and the faces of other travellers were now mirrored on this darkness in a succession of stillnesses. Consider this, said the darkness: any motion at any speed is a succession of stillnesses; any section through an action will show just such a plane of stillness as this dark window in which your seeking face is mirrored. And in each plane of stillness is the moment of clarity that makes you responsible for what you do.


More Russell Hoban quotes selected by readers from around the world can be read on the Thoughtcat-hosted site SA4QE.




Elsewhere today I note that Tony Blair has turned down an audience with the Dalai Lama, who is visiting Britain this summer. Just when you think the PM can't become any more of a peace-hating git, he finds a way...



8th January


A sad story in the paper today reporting that the family of George Harrison is suing the late Beatle's doctor for causing him stress in his final days. According to the $10m suit, Dr Gilbert Lederman supposedly pestered the dying musician to listen to his (Lederman's) son play the guitar and then autograph the instrument, even though Harrison was so sick with cancer that he apparently said he wasn't sure if he could even remember his name at that point. Does all seem a bit suspect though that this has only come out now, more than two years after George's death.




On the lighter side, today's Guardian also carries a bizarre report about a new musical composition being given its European premiere at a festival in Manchester starting today. Michael Daugherty's "Hoover string quartet" is not, apparently, a chamber-music piece for vacuum cleaner, although that might be preferable to what it actually is - a composition in which the four stringsters sing along with the recorded voice of ex-FBI chief J Edgar Hoover. Says Daugherty: "I wanted to bring the dead voice of Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may 'sing' of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972 to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys' Club of America and the FBI National Academy." Ooer missus. "The string parts convey a 'sense of Hoover's grim, threatening yet darkly comic personality'," the report goes on.




The Independent has a hilarious story about how clean-cut Scottish Presbytarian thriller writer Alexander McCall Smith has lambasted Edinburgh's lowlife laureate Irvine Welsh for his (Welsh's) grim portrayal of their native Home of the Brave. The article ends with a great comparison between the two writers' styles, frankly unrepeatable on a family site such as T********t.




Elsewhere in the Independent, another famous Scot, sometime Eurythmics songstress Annie Lennox, answers questions posed by readers. She comes across as slightly dull (although the questions aren't generally up to much either) but the following exchange caught my eye:


A Reader: What were you listening to when you were 13?

A Lennox: A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harem [sic], as it was the first grown-up record I bought. I played it over and over again because it seemed to hold the key to the great mysteries of the universe, although I couldn't quite fathom out why. Melancholic surrealism... that's my kinda music.



7th January


So the Labour Party has agreed to accept Ken Livingstone back into the fold after years in the political wilderness - and that's just the Labour Party! Am I alone in the impression that Tony Blair is clutching at straws to regain his popularity, or is at least making it all up as he goes along? That said, although I voted for Ken, I'm equally unimpressed that London's Mayor was even interested in returning to THE PARTY after winning his office solely on the strength of his personality rather than any political affiliations, and after what THE PARTY did to him in the first place. That whole mayoral vote a few years ago was one of the disgraces of the Blair administration, which bloody-mindedly sacked Red Ken and fielded the hapless Frank Dobson as its "official" candidate (for which read "fall-guy") in the full knowledge that (a) he wasn't up to the job and (b) Ken was going to win hands-down. More remarkable is Blair's explanation for his u-turn: "Speaking in Downing Street minutes after the NEC decision, Mr Blair said his prediction that Mr Livingstone would be a disaster for London had been proved wrong. 'Those predictions have not turned out to be correct,' he said. 'I think if the facts change you should be big enough to change your mind.'" Damn shame the PM isn't big enough to apply such thinking to some of the more pressing matters on the agenda, such as his policy in Iraq, which incidentally Livingstone completely opposed to the point where he refused to officially greet George W. Bush on the latter's visit to London last year. Politics, schmolitics!



6th January


Up to Tottenham Court Road this afternoon to attempt to buy a toner cartridge for my Canon laser printer. I would never have thought such an operation could be so difficult, especially not in central London's pre-eminent technophile artery. I first of all went to the shop that sold me the printer, an LBP-810, last summer. I was served immediately, but after checking on his PC the assistant said not only did the shop not have any replacement cartridges but that they'd stopped selling them, and the machines, altogether. Unimpressed, I went along to the next shop in the street and, spotting two apparently non-busy assistants, I went over to them and waited - and waited - while they talked to each other about a bowl of food on the counter between them. "I had some of that earlier," said one as I stood there. "Any good?" said the other. "Ahh, delicious," said the first. Deciding to find someone more interested in actually helping me I went across to another counter to find about five members of staff all busy with assorted phone calls and customers. I waited a few minutes and finally one of the herberts I'd first approached came over... and ignored me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a few moments and then the other guy he'd been talking to came over - to give him a fork. "There you are, I've washed it," he said. "Ahh, cheers mate!" said the other one. Deciding that clearly this shop could do without my business, I went across the road to a third shop. There were three guys on the counter, one of whom seemed to be half-asleep, another clearly busy and a third doing nothing. I went to the doing-nothing one and asked him if he had the replacement cartridge I was after. By way of a response he grunted something unintelligible and thumbed something or someone to his right. I prompted him to repeat himself and he said, "You have to speak to that guy down there," thumbing the half-asleep bloke at the opposite end of the counter. Wondering if I was on the same planet as Tottenham Court Road, I went over to the guy, deciding that if he couldn't help I'd go home and order a replacement cartridge online, but as it happened he turned out reasonably useful, albeit in a half-asleep kind of way. Having told him what I wanted, he leaned round to pick up a phone behind him without actually turning his body, asked the phonecallee whether they had the cartridge, put the phone down and said, "Wait there." He then left the shop altogether, returning ten minutes later with the cartridge I wanted. So there is a happy ending to this story, but whether there'll be one for Tottenham Court Road in years to come as more and more people realise the advantages of buying things online without being messed about by half-arsed retailers is another matter.



5th January


The Independent today has a Very Silly interview with boxer-turned-kitchen-utensil-magnate George Foreman. Deborah Ross reports that all five of the affable Foreman's sons are called George, and goes on to describe herself as "rather taken" with the instructions supplied with Foreman's GRILLING MACHINE. "I suspect these were not written with America's intellectual elite in mind," she avers, reading, "'Position GRILLING MACHINE close to a power socket. Plug GRILLING MACHINE into power socket. Switch the socket on, if necessary... Put oven glove, spatula and plastic tongs where you can reach them.' What, not at the bottom of the garden?" Great stuff.



3rd January


A nice article about electric guitars and the collectability/value thereof in today's Independent has prompted me to dig out my old Fender Stratocaster, albeit for rock'n'roll rather than valuation purposes. The instrument - 1992, black body, white scratchplate, DiMarzio bridge pickup and a Floyd Rose trem - was a 21st birthday present and received a lot of play for a number of years before being semi-retired to the kitchen cupboard. It was only when I disinterred it and my wife - whom I met in 2000 - said she'd never seen it before that I realised how long it had been in there. Quelle horreur! The neglect, that is, not the guitar: the strings were predictably knackered, but incredibly it was still in tune, and the feel of that smooth maple fretboard, the scallopped tuning pegs, the light strings, all those curves... ah, my years as a part-time blues (and, less credibly, indie) guitarist in various bands all came flooding back in a veritable Proustian rush. As Marcel himself would have said, All I need now is an amplifier...





2nd January


Devotion to the Apple iPod has reached near-religious proportions, if this article in today's Guardian on the increasingly trendy digital music device is to be believed: "Take Hannah. Hannah does not construct playlists - she lets the randomiser select tracks for her from the thousands she has downloaded. But, she says, the randomiser is not random. 'Sometimes I just know what's coming up - I can sense it. My iPod knows me and knows what I'm doing. The other day I was walking into a churchyard and it started playing Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah - it was an amazing moment.'" Being a big fan of this haunting version of the beautiful Leonard Cohen song, I think I too would have been spooked if this had happened at such a moment. I'd be keen to know of any more mysterious occurrences using the iPod's randomiser function - The Eurythmics' Would I Lie To You coming on just as you passed 10 Downing Street, for instance?




Thoughtcat's Man in West Drayton emails me a BBC news story about the curious new phenomenon of flyblogging. "Blog" journalist Bill Thompson has apparently coined this term to describe the practice whereby scurrilous spammers post adverts for Viagra and such on weblogs' comments facilities. Westdraytoncat asks if I've been flyblogged yet, and the answer, almost sadly, has to be no, although this is less due to any technical brilliance on my part than that Thoughtcat doesn't draw many reader comments. Then again, this could be because I haven't inserted any "comments" links lately, on the pretext that doing so is fiddly, but there you go. The BBC guy has got a good point about it being arguably too easy for such a popular medium as blogs to be undermined by unscrupulous sods - but that's democracy, folks!



Elsewhere today, the lack of news over the holiday season prompts the Guardian to summarise some "not quite news" reports written by Phil Space and Polly Filler-type hacks, amongst which is the following story: "A Liverpool grandmother had mixed fortunes when she suffered a heart attack on a plane full of cardiologists. Dorothy Fletcher, 67, was flying to her daughter's wedding in Florida when she collapsed with chest pains. A stewardess asked, 'Is there a doctor on board?' and 15 heart specialists - en route to a cardiology conference in Orlando - stood up to offer help."



1st January 2004


As Thoughtcat slinks into its second year, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who visited the site in 2003 and contributed to it, either by submitting a great piece of work or emailing with comments, suggestions and Thoughtcatular stories. Not to get too monarchical or anything, but my wife and I wish all Thoughtcateers a very peaceful and productive 2004. As Max Lesser would have it, "L'haim! To life!"





Richard: Bottoms up!

Koy: Cheers!


Thoughtcat and his better half see in the new year chez eux.




And no sooner have I paid my respects than one of my regular correspondents, Chicago's one-and-only Dave Awl, emails with the strange story he came across in the Boston Globe about one Patrice Moore, a New York man who had to be rescued by the emergency services after being buried in his apartment for two days by an avalanche of books, catalogues, post and newspapers. Dave's Boston Globe link seems to have lapsed but the story is also reported by, which adds: "Rescuers, who found Moore's apartment full of paper stacked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, took about half an hour to extract him from his reading material." The kind of effect on readers that writers dream of, really.



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