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July 2003




31st July


The Independent reports today that bonkers magician Derren Brown is to perform the "ultimate trick" by playing Russian roulette on TV. Thoughtcat advises: Don't do it, Derren. It's career suicide.



30th July


I'm afraid the whole of today is  Vomit corner bucket logo .


"The US-led authority in Iraq wants to hold a tender for three regional mobile phone licences", reports the Independent, something that is "almost certain to be one of the most lucrative contracts in post-Saddam Iraq." There's no real need for Harold Pinter when you have stories like these, is there? You can imagine it - "We'll fuck 'em up, and then sell 'em mobile phones!" Although maybe that's the point - the US staying one step ahead of Harold by coming up with ever more ironic scenarios to make him look derivative in comparison.


And as if mobile phones weren't enough, "The Pentagon has abandoned plans to set up an online futures market on which investors could speculate on the likelihood of terror attacks" (also the Independent). Sounds like the synopsis of the next Ben Elton play. Okay, they've stopped it, but is this a rare show of US restraint? Not really... someone worked out that the plan would have been an incitement not only to terrorists to make attacks but make money out of them too.


Meanwhile, the Washington-visiting Ariel Sharon has rebuffed George Bush's uncharacteristically sane suggestion to take down the fence the Israelis are building on the occupied West Bank. And also uncharacteristically, Dubya said (I'm paraphrasing), "Oh, alright then. Next item on the agenda: lunch."


And as if all that isn't enough for one day, the Independent leads with the story that Bush "is seeking funds for a controversial project to drive gas pipelines from pristine rainforests in the Peruvian Amazon to the coast" which will "enrich some of Mr Bush's closest corporate campaign contributors while risking the destruction of rainforest, threatening its indigenous peoples and endangering rare species". So what with Dubya's insistence on wrecking the ozone treaty (TC 20th July), it seems Ariel's not listening to George, George isn't listening to Tony, Tony's not listening to the British electorate and the British electorate isn't - or certainly shouldn't be - listening to any more crap from these people.



29th July


"America is a religion", writes George Monbiot in today's Guardian. 'The United States of America no longer needs to call upon God; it is God, and those who go abroad to spread the light do so in the name of a celestial domain. The flag has become as sacred as the Bible; the name of the nation as holy as the name of God. The presidency is turning into a priesthood... So those who question George Bush's foreign policy are no longer merely critics; they are blasphemers, or "anti-Americans". Those foreign states which seek to change this policy are wasting their time: you can negotiate with politicians; you cannot negotiate with priests...'

Rev. Dubya

Reverrer, Revere, Vevere, Revvererrever, Saint George.




Bob Hope was also a Republican, but at least he was a funny one. (Then again, so is George Bush, in an evil kind of way - "funny peculiar" as my Gran might have said, rather diplomatically.) The Guardian today lists some of Hope's best one-liners, of which my favourite is this: "My folks were English. They were too poor to be British. I still have a bit of British in me. In fact, my blood type is solid marmalade." I know just how he felt...




Saga has announced a £20,000 literary prize for humorous work by writers over 50, according to the Guardian. John Mortimer, Keith Waterhouse, Mavis Cheek and William Donaldson are among those in the running.



26th July


The BBC's Philip Larkin drama "Larkin - Love Again" tonight was a real pleasure. Richard Cottan's script caught a great balance between biography and fiction, comedy and tragedy, and Hugh Bonneville and Tara Fitzgerald were especially superb.


Cottan's interweaving of selected poems at judicious junctures into the action was (literally) inspired, especially one about Larkin listening to a radio broadcast of a live classical concert attended by his girlfriend Maeve Brennan. "Just as well you didn't come with me after all," she said to him afterwards as she read the poem. I was so moved by it that I'm risking life and limb by reproducing it below without permission from the Larkin estate.


World Productions incidentally has a very good website for the drama and is even offering downloadable Larkin desktop wallpaper. Quite what Larkin himself would have made of the internet one can only speculate. "It's only good for one thing" might have been how he'd begun his judgment. Anyway...

Larkin: Love Again wallpaper

Larkin wallpaper: Did Phil ever imagine his life would come to this?



by Philip Larkin


Giant whispering and coughing from

Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces

Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,

'The Queen', and huge resettling.  Then begins

A snivel on the violins:

I think of your face among all those faces,


Beautiful and devout before

Cascades of monumental sheltering,

One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor

Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.

Here it goes quickly dark.  I lose

All but the outline of the still and withering


Leaves on half-emptied trees.  Behind

The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording

By being distant overpower my mind

All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout

Leaving me desperate to pick out

Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.



(c) Philip Larkin 1961




The third part of Channel 4's The Story of the Novel, addressing the Modernists, was also good. "The Hours" author Michael Cunningham was one of the commentators, saying when he first read Virginia Woolf in the late 60s he felt she was doing with words what Jimi Hendrix was doing with the guitar. Obviously, therefore, my problems getting into Woolf over the years stems from listening to the wrong records...




Shallow as it undoubtedly is to say so (and why not? it's never stopped me before), for the first time in months the Guardian Profile today featured someone I had actually heard of, one Arthur Miller. It's an excellent piece, although I didn't discover much I didn't already know about the grand old man of American theatre, except that he makes tables and chairs in his spare time.



25th July


Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks


Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks

I'm aware that criticism of spending £11m of lottery money on a Raphael to stop it going abroad to a private collector sounds like philistinism, but when that £11m is going to the painting's owner, a British aristocrat who already owns some £800m worth of land, the words "the meek will inherit the earth" don't exactly spring to mind. The worst thing is that the Duke of Northumberland says he needs the cash to make repairs to Alnwick Castle. Considering that the Harry Potter movies were shot there, perhaps Warner Brothers could bung him a few bob to stop the painting going abroad instead?


Either way, the Lottery Commission's decision is suspect but not likely to be withdrawn, so the Dook should do the decent thing and reject the cash. Either that or the even more humungously wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum of California, which wants to buy the painting, should be generous enough to pay the impoverished Northumberbollox a tad more so our schools and health service can benefit from the £11m instead. Or maybe the appropriately named Madonna could buy it and hang it in the London home she shares with Guy Ritchie? That'd keep it in the country at least.



23rd July


Vomit corner bucket logo

Which of these is worse?

(a) Cherie Blair "singing" When I'm 64

(b) oily Tony squirming out of singing it himself (is there no buck that man won't pass?)

(c) anybody in these people's positions singing anything at all at this precise juncture.

Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view. (


Still, not wishing to get too po-faced, I'm providing a link to this very funny list of expert comments on Cherie's croonology.



22nd July


Various letters in the Guardian come out in defence of the BBC over the Kelly affair, including one from Thoughtcat, which is an edited version of the weblog entry for 21st July. (They were probably wise to take out the reference to Spooks.)



21st July


As the BBC comes in for attack over the Kelly affair, it seems to me that while Greg Dyke may have some kind of a case to answer, it's not nearly as much of a case as Downing Street's in this whole sorry shambles. The BBC's refusal to buckle under Alastair Campbell's pressure to name Dr Kelly may have been politically motivated (i.e. it doesn't like Campbell very much), but the Corporation was still correct in protecting its source. It should be remembered that it was Geoff Hoon who named David Kelly in the first place, not the BBC. Once Hoon had done so, the BBC were left between a rock and a hard place. Downing Street were clearly using the BBC for political ends in exactly the same way they were Dr Kelly and in the same way they used this country to take it to war. I suppose next Alastair Campbell will announce that the "many dark actors playing games" to which Dr Kelly referred in his last email were the cast of Spooks?



20th July


The Sunday Times reports that Tony Blair, when asked during a press conference if he had blood on his hands over the suicide of David Kelly, didn't respond at all to the question for some ten seconds. The phrase "does not compute" springs to mind.


Of the Kelly affair, the Times leader says, "Mr Blair may not have blood on his hands but he does have a great deal to answer for. And voters are no longer prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt."


* * *


Meanwhile, the Independent on Sunday reports that Dubya is about to wreck the Montreal Protocal ozone treaty by insisting that a banned pesticide be allowed for use on US golf courses. Keeping his rich pals happy again no doubt.



19th July


Hugo Young's attack on the government over the tragic death of Dr David Kelly is rightly scathing: "The 45-minute detail was hyped by Tony Blair into the essence of the foulest charge against his sainted integrity, and therefore had to be squashed by every means. The smell that's left behind is even more odious: that of a state - executive and parliament combined - willing to abandon all sense of proportion to score political points against its critics."


An interesting aspect of Kelly's personality was his eclecticism. As this Times piece says, "His spiritual solace was the Baha’i faith, a monotheistic religion that believes that Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad were all God’s messengers." By comparison, the minds of the politicians involved in his downfall are about as narrow as they come, intellectually and spiritually. Appropriately, the Independent has an interesting piece about Tony Blair's arrogance from a Buddhist perspective.


* * *


This week's cat is nicked unapologetically from Charlie Brooker's excellent TV Go Home site. Brooker writes a terrific page of TV vitriol every week in the Guardian's Guide supplement entitled Screen Burn, which isn't available online. Today he previews "Young, Posh and Loaded", due on ITV later this week, which focuses on spoilt brats like Victoria Aitken, daughter of disgraced MP Jonathan, who wants to launch a rap career. As Brooker writes: "'People keep saying, "You can't do that", but why not?' she asks, displaying the kind of self-awareness deficit normally associated with inanimate objects and root vegetables. Her logic dribbles thus: despite being raised as a blue-blooded posho, she's down wit da rap world because daddy was a jailbird, even though he ended up there for being a greedy arrogant liar rather than a crack dealer. Well get hip, Vic: papa was no rolling stone; he was Jonathan Aitken MP, the slimy Tory gonk who famously vowed to clear his name with the sword of truth and ended up popping a cap in his own ass with the Uzi of folly." Excellent stuff.



18th July


It was a real pleasure to finally see a TV programme about Adam Ant last night (Channel 4's The Madness of Prince Charming), although it was sad that his mental illness was what prompted it. Twenty years ago, between the ages of about 9 and 12, I was a total Ant nut, had all the records, posters all over my bedroom walls, knew a mountain of trivia and even dressed up occasionally in a flouncy shirt (I guess some habits never die). I had to pass up the opportunity of going to an Ants concert at Hammersmith Odeon in 1981 and I've never really been the same since; last year I almost had a chance to make up for this but blew it again. I was doing jury service at the Old Bailey and Adam was due to appear there for the preliminary hearing into his case, and although I got there early and hung around outside (with a gaggle of other freezing Ants fans in "Dirk Wears White Sox" teeshirts and black make-up!) for the chance to see him, after about an hour we found he was already inside. By that time I had to go in for my own case, and I never did catch a glimpse of him, but the fact that my old hero and I were at least in the same building at the same time for an hour or two was some consolation... which may be desperate, but hopefully not serious.


Anyway, the programme showed a stack of video clips from the great early eighties and they looked just as fresh, stylish and original as they did then. I hadn't listened to the actual songs in all those 20 years, but in the context of the programme they sounded so good that I was prompted to forage through all my scratchy old vinyl albums to have another listen. To my surprise, they were fantastic, full of humour, originality and melody and some great guitar bits (the track "Kings of the Wild Frontier" sounded a bit like the Peter Green-era-Fleetwood Mac opus "The Green Manalishi"). I'm getting a bit Ant-nerdy now but "The Scorpios", the opening track of "Prince Charming", was nothing short of astonishing - like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.


Going back to the documentary, Adam (it seems wrong somehow to refer to him as the journalistically formal "Ant") spoke about his battles with manic depression and stalkers, and these were fascinating, vivid and honest interviews. It was also great to see he still dresses as stylishly and individually as he ever did (I looked at myself in the mirror later and the classic line "It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making" came quickly to mind). Particularly touching were contributions from an old junior school teacher, a lovely lady whom he said was the first person to encourage him, and his longtime writing partner, the ever-supportive Marco Pirroni, who said "I could've been married, but I guess the reason I never have been is 'cos I've had enough to deal with with him..."


My heart went out to Adam completely, especially as it looked from the interviews that he was back on the road to recovery, only for the narrator (Justine Frischmann - a nice touch) to announce right at the end that he'd been back in a psychiatric hospital in just the past few weeks. I only wish there was something I could do to help him. That said, he's a survivor, and I've always thought that he'll have his time again, feasibly not as a Dandy Highwayman but something even better. It might be years before it happens but I think it'll be worth waiting for. Mark Thoughtcat's words...

Adam Ant 2002



Adam Ant: still stylish after all these years.

Below: happier days.



Adam Ant 1981



Thoughtant recommends...



Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)  Prince Charming (1981)





* * *


Vomit corner bucket logo

Elsewhere today, I read that Tony Blair was given 19 standing ovations during his 32-minute speech to the US Congress yesterday, in which he once again looked into his crystal bollocks and declared that history will forgive him if no weapons of mass destruction are found. Nausea isn't the word...


* * *


The Independent meanwhile reports that the Blair camp is incensed by articles in the New Statesman by various pro-Gordon Brownies in criticism of the PM and his henchman Alastair "Crowley" Campbell: 'Sidney Crown, a former consultant psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital, [is quoted] as saying that Mr Blair "does not exist" and compares him with an actor. He adds that Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's director of communications and strategy, is "very much represented in Mr Blair's dark side, which is why they like each other ..."'


* * *


In all honesty I don't know much about Carol Shields, the Canadian novelist who died this week, but I've never heard anything but good things about her, and these obituaries from the Guardian, Times and Independent bear this out.



17th July


There's a lovely article in today's Guardian "by" Ry Cooder on his late compadre Compay Segundo. I was delighted and amazed to read that Cooder had written an article about the man; there's always something inherently fascinating to me about musicians sitting down, atypically and incongruously, at a word processor and bashing something out. On this basis I was disappointed to see the piece is actually a transcript of an interview with Nigel Williamson... but we'll let him off, as it's a great article, and Cooder was probably well-advised not to have forsaken his guitar for the suspect world of Microsoft Word. This is one of my favourite bits: 'I once asked him about politics, which isn't something you do lightly with Cubans. He looked at me and said: "Politics? This new guy is good. The 1930s were rough. That's when we had the really bad times." That's how old he was. He had seen dictators and revolutions come and go in his life and to him Castro was "the new guy".' Elsewhere Cooder says, 'When you get to that age, you're in touch with something else that doesn't fit with the linear world in which the rest of us live. His world was his own, like a little atmosphere he carried around with him...' Perhaps the best bit though is where Cooder says Segundo played something on his guitar and said, 'Now you do it' - and Cooder couldn't. He must've been quite a guy.


* * *


I wonder what Alexander Walker would've made of the news that Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited new movie Kill Bill is to be released as two separate films? Apparently it's three hours long and can't be cut any further. But three hours is the same length as the past two Lord of the Rings films, and plenty of good movies have been that long or longer, as the linked article from the Guardian points out. Sounds more like a gimmick and a cynical way of getting twice as many bums on seats as the producers would otherwise have done. I love Tarantino, but no film's that good, is it?



16th July


The papers are full of obituaries and appreciations of Alexander Walker, the Evening Standard's veteran film critic. I never really liked the guy that much, as he seemed to hate almost every movie he saw, his style always suggested he was more important than the films he reviewed, and I found it hard to forgive him for effectively giving away the twist to The Sixth Sense. Grr. Nonetheless, he was a force to be reckoned with, quite a character, highly prolific, did at least like Citizen Kane, was critical of censorship and, judging from the obituaries, was responsible for countless anecdotes and some very shrewd truisms. Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian: 'My first Guardian piece was a review of Notting Hill, in which I noted the absence of black characters. When the article came out, I was in the Standard offices and Alex appeared in front of me. "Peter," he said gravely, "I see that, like Sir William Macpherson, you have convicted the film Notting Hill of institutional racism. But let me tell you this." He came closer. "There were no Arabs in Casablanca!"' The Times quotes one of Walker's early reviews: 'Percy’s Progress was “just about the deepest depth ever plumbed by the once considerable and now nearly contemptible British film industry in its resolute search for the lowest kind of taste among the thickest kind of people.” ' The Independent meanwhile reports Walker's constant sorrow about the British film industry: 'Endless National Lottery money was fed into the production machine in financially prodigal, but artistically dubious and usually commercially disappointing initiatives until the "public benefit" was almost forgotten in the political attempt to impose a bureaucratic pattern of control on an entrepreneurial structure of risk capital.' Succinct, man.


* * *


Meanwhile, the Guardian has its own obituary of Compay Segundo today.


* * *


Sadly, unlike Compay, I'm not always able to resist the temptation of boredom. While surfing the net during a particularly low moment this afternoon I typed into my address bar for a laugh, just to see what it would bring up. Expecting a 404 Error, to my surprise, the URL returned a site which I thought had to be a joke - a company called Boring Business Systems of Florida, complete with a picture of the president, a man in glasses and a suit called Dean Boring. I clicked on various items on the page for more humorous links before finding that this was, in fact, a real company. Under "About Us", I learned: “Boring Business Systems is recognized as the only full-line sales and service, locally-owned company in the office-supply and equipment business. We are here because we know how to provide quality products and expert service at a reasonable price like no one else. Now you know why we say 'Boring Means Business.'" You couldn't make it up, could you?



15th July


I was sad to hear in the Independent of the death of Compay Segundo, the incredible 95-year-old Cuban singer and guitarist who came to worldwide fame on Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club record a few years ago. This news story in the Independent quotes him, "You shouldn't succumb to boredom", which seems a fine aspiration to me. Then again, the news wasn't too sad, as he lived a rich and fascinating life full of great music, and 95 is a fine age. I remember going to see the Wim Wenders documentary, also called Buena Vista Social Club, about the making of another Cuban album with Ibrahim Ferrer. Segundo was interviewed in his trademark jacket and Panama, smoking, as ever, a Cuban cigar, and saying how he used to light his grandmother's cigars for her when he was just a child. "So you could say that I've been smoking for eighty-five years," he said.


* * *


Hugo Young writes in the Guardian that David Blunkett is the most dangerous home secretary we have ever had. "Blunkett is Blair's lieutenant," he writes. "They [the cabinet] are a team of anti-liberals, goading each other on. Until now they did have one hurdle to surmount on the journey to that utopia where the judges had been put in their place. Lord chancellor Irvine wasn't all that reliable a liberal himself. But he was the real begetter of the Human Rights Act, and above all a defender of the judges. He may have been a Blair crony, but in the avuncular rather than the courtier category. He could tell Blair what fundamental legal principle meant. Now I can't think of a single member of the cabinet who even cares. “



14th July


The Guardian reports that Andrew Motion has written the foreword to a handbook of poetic tributes for funeral services. This reminded me of some lines that I sent to someone recently after hearing that their mother had died, from Brian Patten's poem, So Many Different Lengths of Time:


A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,

for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,

for as long as we ourselves live,

holding memories in common, a man lives.


I suppose the politically correct version would read "A person lives for as long as we carry them inside us", but it's the thought that counts. I hope.



13th July


In the Independent on Sunday today, Stuart Sutcliffe's sister is reported to be releasing letters and other documents allegedly backing up her theory that the brain haemorrhage which killed the "original fifth Beatle" stemmed from a beating from John Lennon himself. With both Lennon and Sutcliffe dead, and no apparently concrete evidence either way, can this cause anything except more hurt for the people who are alive? Elsewhere in the paper a woman who goes around the world's war zones opening Thai restaurants says she doesn't fear death because "you cannot die twice". The Sindy meanwhile has more excellent reports on Iraq, including this handy cut out and keep 20 lies about the war. On a lighter note, the Sunday Times reports that silly public sector jobs are on the increase. Are they going to do a report on silly jobs in the private sector next week? It'd have to be a supplement all to itself - not that that would be much trouble for the Sunday Times...


* * *


By far the best thing I read in today's papers was Tim Adams's superb Observer feature Read 'em and weep, linked from the Guardian Online website as What makes a bestseller? Having said that, the premise of his piece - to read all ten novels in a recent week's top ten bestseller list in seven days to see what makes them tick - irritated me intensely. All ten in a week? Why the rush? To prove you could do it? Because it makes a gimmicky basis for a feature? Why not sit and read them at your leisure, even if you are a journalist and you're reading them for the money rather than the pleasure? I've absolutely nothing against books that are so enjoyable that you find yourself finishing them within days or even hours, but I've always had a thing about people who read at 100mph purely for journalistic or academic purposes. So there. Anyway, having got over that, the article is not only hilarious but very informative and should be read by anyone interested in getting a novel published, whether they intend it to be a "bestseller" or not.


Adams gives two paragraphs to his reactions to each of the novels, and concludes that "all bestseller lists prove [that] very bad books continually compete for space with very good ones, and that people read for different reasons". In the meantime he tongue-in-cheekly summarises the ten novels in terms of the following statistics: "Number of pages: 3,891; murders: 54 (of which, throats cut: 17); orgasms: 24 (of which, simultaneous: 8); books using the word 'raghead' to denote an Arab: 3; good-looking villains: 1; central women characters who did not talk about needing a man: 0; pistol whippings: 5; gasps over unexpected proportions of lover's manhood: 3; uses of the phrase 'all hell broke loose': 2; uses of the phrase 'you do the math': 4; times I went to sleep halfway through a paragraph describing the night sky: 2; times I smiled at an authorial joke: 4; times I laughed out loud (when supposed to): 0. (One of the things we seem to want from our bestselling books is a straight face. One of the things they demand from us, almost without exception, is to be taken seriously.)" The joke about this list is that it could equally be a summary of ten completely shit novels, and although there are a few he certainly doesn't like, they are all far from that bad.


Adams takes several interesting detours from his task to talk about other literary items. A paragraph on his early days as a reader of the "slush pile" for a literary agent ends: "You dutifully go through Kall Kwik boxes of manuscript that begin with the words 'ive' or 'Dont'. Soon, though, you begin rejecting out of hand. Anything with a gold-printed address label; any writer who uses their initials; no 'Dear Sir or Madams'; no 'kindly considers'; no ring binders; no green, red or, eventually, blue ink..." Let that be a lesson to us all.


Another bit that made me laugh out loud was this: "By about page 512 [of Wilbur Smith's latest blockbuster Blue Horizon] I was reminded of the story, possibly apocryphal, of the journalist who went to visit Anthony Burgess as he neared the end of his life. 'If you could do it all again, Mr Burgess,' the hack wondered, 'how would you do it differently?' 'Well,' said Burgess, having thought for a moment, 'for a start I would not read John Fowles's The Magus.'" I hadn't heard the Burgess story before and I was quite relieved to hear that he, one of the most sententious of writers (and one of my favourite people), had felt this way about the Fowles epic, as I never managed to get past page 76 of the "classic" myself. (That said, Fowles' first novel The Collector is one of my favourite novels of all time.)


Adams also points out that if you "key 'How to write a bestseller' into Google ... you come up with all sorts of advice: 'Think of big ideas not little ones'; 'Think about making your heroes like villains and your villains like heroes.' Curiously, none of the people giving the advice have seen fit to write a bestseller themselves." I can personally vouch for this. A couple of years ago, suffering not so much from writer's block as writer's inertia, I decided to pull my finger out, finish one of my long-started novels and actually make some bloody money from writing. I did the same Google search as Adams talks about, and shelled out £200 for a correspondence course called Immediate Fiction by a bloke I'd never heard of called Jerry Cleaver. I don't know exactly what drove me to place such blind faith in Cleaver (apart from desperation to get out of my silly job and earn some serious money), although I do remember he did offer a year's worth of personal tutorship as part of the deal, which the other packages I considered didn't. I sent off an initial email to the guy to suss him out, and in his reply he referred to "the Oprah Winfreed Show". My gut reaction was that anybody who couldn't spell the surname of a popular TV presenter (unless he was making a joke which I didn't get) was almost definitely incapable of running a creative writing course, but I decided this was snobbery on my part and that I should give him the benefit of the doubt. However, when the course books (finally) turned up, it was riddled with spelling and typographical errors. Again, I tried to convince myself that he shouldn't be dismissed because of this, but my trust in the man plunged. I did try doing the course, but I could never renew my faith in Cleaver adequately to entrust him with my work. Oh well - you live and learn. As they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.



11th July


The Guardian pondered yesterday whether Bob Dylan "borrowed" several lines from a translation of Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga (pub. 1991) for some of the lyrics to his 2001 album Love and Theft. Bob, a plagiarist? Pah!! As these comparisons between the translation and lyrics clearly show, it's all a bizarre coincidence:


Confessions of a Yakuza

Confessions of a Yakuza (blues version)

My old man would sit there like a feudal lord

My old man, he's like some feudal lord

If it bothers you so much, she'd say, "Why don't you just shove off"

Juliet said..."Why don't you just shove off if it bothers you so much"

My mother...was the daughter of a wealthy farmer...died when I was father was a travelling salesman...I never met him. [My uncle] was a nice man, I won't forget him

My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer,/My father was a travelin' salesman, I never met him./When my mother died, my uncle took me...He did a lot of nice things for me and I won't forget him




Meanwhile, AS Byatt has launched a broadside against the Harry Potter books in a piece in the New York Times entitled Harry Potter and the Childish Adult. Among her charges is that JK Rowling's universe consists of "derivative motifs" from various children's literature "from the jolly hockey sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from Star Wars to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper". I don't know about the others but Byatt should know that Star Wars itself is largely based on Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, which are themselves inspired by archetypal myths which have been around a lot longer than even Byatt has. There are only so many stories to tell, after all. Anyway, as Paul Simon once sang, "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts", and Rowling happens to be the current one. In a few years it'll be someone else - probably AS Byatt.


Elsewhere, Byatt writes: "Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip." She concludes that "It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon." If these things are true, aren't they to be pitied rather than attacked? Without wishing to be a Rowling apologist, reflecting the values of society doesn't make you responsible for them. 



10th July


The parliamentary ombudsman has threatened to resign because new legislation banning investigations into ministers' conflicts of interests is making it impossible for her to do her job. Could this be Tony Blair's "open government" by any chance?




Anthony Cox writes about how his infamous "Error 404" web page spoofing the even more infamous weapons of mass destruction became the biggest hit on Google for searches on the subject. Apparently this is called a "Google bomb". Cox goes on to describe the first such "bomb", which exploited Google's system of ranking the popularity of websites by the number of pages that link to them to return a friend's website when the words "talentless hack" were used as a search term. The guy not only did this by creating several pages linking to his friend's site from the specific term "talentless hack", but he got loads of other people to provide similar links to bump up the site's ranking. I would say this is sad, but I wouldn't want to incur the wrath of any cyberterrorists who might be of a mind to make "talentless hack" the search term most likely to return Thoughtcat. That said, the chance of such popularity would be a fine thing...




The Independent reports that a man has woken from a 19-year coma. Spookily, he went into the coma on Friday 13th and also woke up on Friday 13th. Understandably, he has difficulties coming to terms with the fact that it's no longer 1984 and Ronald Reagan is not president. Surely this is something a lot of Americans have been struggling with since George Bush was "elected"? The funniest thing about the story however is that he first showed signs of consciousness when a doctor told the family, in his presence, that their medical bills were now $125,000... I mean, that would wake anyone up, wouldn't it?




Elsewhere in the Independent today, prolific playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourne is questioned by readers. Asked if the theatre lost a fine acting talent when he decided years ago to stop acting and become a playwright, he replies: "I was a competent actor. I was pretty good at villains - guys with staring eyes, saying things like, 'You're in deadly danger in this house, my dear.' I wasn't trained, so I didn't have a full repertoire of arm movements. Instead, I used to stand very still, which gave me great authority and a certain mysteriousness."



9th July


I've long been a fan of Simon Hoggart's columns for the Guardian, and his analysis of Tony Blair's histrionics today is an especially good one. In Blair's testimony to the Commons Select Committee hearing on the dodgy dossier yesterday, the PM said, "The central allegation that I myself, or anyone else, inserted information into the dossier, that central allegation is completely and totally false - indeed I don't know anyone who believes it to be true!" Hoggart meanwhile fills in the stage directions that are now so obvious when Blair delivers lines like these: "Turn face away as if you can't bear to make eye contact with someone who has let such an odious thought creep into his brain."



8th July


The Guardian reports that New Jersey's legislature has voted to abolish the position of state poet laureate after the governor, James McGreevey, discovered that he could not sack the current holder of the post, Amiri Baraka, who has attracted criticism since reading his poem Somebody Blew Up America at a festival last year. It is a bit of a mad poem, but as Baraka prepares to sue the state for violating his first amendment rights to free speech and for slander, Thoughtcat can only wonder at the state of American democracy when a poet is considered a threat. Surely everyone knows they're completely harmless?


On a lighter note, I have to hand it to the Guardian for the best headline so far this year for that article - "Laureate faces silence of the iambs". (And to be even more frivolous, I have to admit that when I read the headline before I knew what the report was about, I thought, "Andrew Motion's got writer's block! Well, if he will insist on writing duff poems for royal birthdays...")




An average night for Thoughtcat... To the Odeon in Wardour Street, initially to see Dolls, which was advertised as currently showing on the Odeon's website. However, when we arrived, we found, after rudely interrupting the banter between two staff behind the desk, that the film's run at the cinema ended last week - or, as the girl said between mouthfuls of chewing gum, "Naah, 'snot on anymore." That seemed to be it. I took a programme from a plastic dispenser. "Is this what's on at the moment?" I said. "Yeah, but we're not in it," said a male assistant, who may have been the manager. "I don't know why but they keep leaving us out." "Okay," I said, "so what is on at the moment?" They pointed silently to a poster behind me showing film times. We studied it and decided to see I Capture the Castle. (Actually, I wanted to see the well-reviewed Springtime in a Small Town, but my wife had already seen it.) We bought two tickets for the film (for £15) and went over the road to the excellent, intimate, and extremely busy Misato Japanese restaurant where we had some very good grilled mackerel in sweet teriyaki sauce and some deep-fried pork in curry sauce, which altogether cost less than the cinema tickets, including drinks. After a wander through Leicester Square (where a bloke was insanely selling drugs in tiny plastic wraps in broad daylight) and then up Charing Cross Road (where we were delighted to see at least one second-hand bookshop was still open at half past eight, and where I bought an old paperback of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham) we walked back into the Odeon a few minutes before the film was due to start. Having already got our tickets we walked past the queues at the till and round a sweaty corridor to the door for Screen 1, which had I CAPTURE CASTLE above it in crooked magnetic letters. Our tickets seemed to say our seats were L1 and L2, but the rows only went up to G. There were no staff in the tiny auditorium, so we sat down in seats of our choice and wondered why we'd bothered buying the tickets at all. There were about ten other audients apart from us. I didn't know anything about the film, and was amused to find it was about a cult novelist with writer's block - there's no getting away from stories about writers, especially with writer's block, is there? The film was okay, not brilliant but quite entertaining and charming in its way, although a lot of things remained unexplained - the eccentricities of the family and their home, Rose's sudden marriage to Neil, the frustration of the ending. Romola Garai as Cassandra was good, as was Bill Nighy in his role as the blocked writer, while Tara Fitzgerald took her clothes off as reliably as ever, and it was fun to see Henry Thomas for the first time since he played Elliott in E.T. (He has allegedly done other films in between, but I haven't seen any of them.) It was absolutely boiling in the cinema though (I mean, I'm thin and English and never sweat, but I was mopping my brow all the way through the film, and not just because of Tara Fitzgerald), some of the shots on screen didn't seem to be focused properly, and a couple of times the pounding of a bassline from what could only have been a nuclear-powered stereo somewhere near the building rather spoilt the 1930s period atmosphere. Apart from that it was a great evening in the West End - at least until I opened The Kraken Wakes on the tube home to find I'd blundered into yet another story about a writer. I don't know if he has writer's block yet though.



7th July


I was very sad to see the news that Canon Jeffrey John has "decided to turn down" the post of Bishop of Reading following the "schism" caused in the "Church" of "England" by his homosexuality. As the Guardian writes in its leader today, the bigots have won. The appointment should have gone ahead - that way the Church would have split into two factions, those who are living in the 21st century and those who are still stuck somewhere in the 14th. At least then people would know which one they wanted to belong to.



6th July


Terry Jones writes in the Observer a column, which at one time would have been a Monty Python sketch, about the Devil getting Alastair Campbell to improve his image. Great stuff. And talking of Alastairs and demons, could these two by any chance be related? I think we should be told...









Meanwhile, the BBC is reported to be launching a literary talent contest for TV in the autumn. It appears to be a strange conflation of The Big Read and Pop Idol, with BBC writers touring the UK to find hidden writing talent. Is this wise? I mean, I'm all for encouraging unpublished writers - I am one myself, after all - and I know books are the new rock and roll, but do we really want a Top of the Books every Thursday night with teenybopping authors miming to a chapter from their latest paperback while pretty ghostwriters in sunglasses pretend to play wordprocessors in the background? It'll only open the Beeb up to more accusations of dumbing down.


Meanwhile, the BBC's Dorothy Stiven says in defence of the new show, "We think it is very important for viewers to see that writers are just ordinary folk and don't sit around wearing smoking jackets all day." Ordinary folk??? No smoking jackets???? Doesn't sound like writing to me...


This smoking jacket theme is wearing a bit thin, actually. I was watching Channel 4's Philip Larkin documentary "Love and Death in Hull" tonight (quite absorbing, no surprises - the late poet was balding, miserable, obsessed with death, a drunk, a racist, a librarian, wrote some good poems etc) when one of his old friends came on and told a story about how when he'd become a freelance writer, Larkin had come round to his house "to check I wasn't swanning around in a smoking jacket instead of doing my writing."


What is a smoking jacket anyway? Here is a definition from a site run by one Christopher Wagner: "A lounging jacket is called a smoking jacket in the United States and in England a tuxedo jacket is called a smoking jacket. A tuxedo jacket is also referred to as a dinner jacket. There are a variety of short jackets such as the bolero, bellboy, mess jacket, battle jacket (often called an Eisenhower jacket)..." Okay, that's enough about jackets - Ed.




Thoughtcat's Man in Pub reports that "the defending world champion cherry pit spitter" has broken his record at the 30th International Cherry Pit Spit Championship at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm (in, where else, the US). Brian "Young Gun" Krause, 25, of Dimondale, "Mich.", propelled his pit 93 feet and 6 1/2 inches during Saturday's annual competition, according to this report in the South Bend Tribune. Even more surreal is that Krause is descended from a dynasty of pit-spitters, his father, Rick, having spat his way into the Guinness Book of World Records back in 1988, and his five-year-old son already setting the infants' record for cherry stone gobology.



5th July


Alex Petridis writes a very funny article about the hysteria over downloading MP3 files illegally. The New Yorker says if this goes on, and musicians end up with no revenue, the practice could catapult the world into a "cultural dark age", while Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sometime "patriotic songwriter", advocates destroying the PCs of the people who download the files. Nothing too dark-ages about that, then. Petridis points out quite correctly that the reason people use MP3 files is because CDs are so expensive, the industry has ripped consumers off for years, and until the prices are made more reasonable, people will always pirate records.




On a musical theme, I'm not sure when it turned up but Amazon has an article on ace guitarist Bill Frisell's favourite records, which surprisingly includes Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. It's a nice read. I recently got hold of Frisell's recent album Good Dog, Happy Man, which is inexplicably unavailable on Amazon, but here's a link to some info about it from Frisell's official site. It's a beautiful record of ethereal solo guitar, with Ry Cooder guesting on a version of the traditional Shenandoah.



4th July


Thoughtcat's man in (Chelter)Nam highlights a good quote from retired British cyclist Chris Boardman earlier this week, as reported by the BBC: "There is no doubt in my mind that the Tour de France is the hardest sporting event there is. Put it this way, it must be the only one where you need a haircut halfway through."


Kind of reminds me of something Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel said in an interview with Q magazine years ago about a guitar solo he once performed which was so long "my roadies had to change the strings while I was playing."


Chris Boardman

Boardman: intercoursal haircut

Nigel Tufnel

Tufnel: parallel restringage




The Independent reports that the US government has offered a $25m reward "for information leading to the capture of Saddam Hussein or positive confirmation of his death in an effort to reduce the number of attacks on American and British troops". Fifteen million quid, eh - that ought to flush out a bounty hunter or two. The question is, why didn't George Bush do this to begin with? Might've saved a few lives then. Of course, it wouldn't've made as good TV or been as much of a potential 2004 vote-winner. Can't have it all, I suppose.



3rd July


Alan Yentob's BBC2 "arts" series Imagine seems to be serving up good-stuff-albeit-with-no-criticism one week and just plain straight-up total crap the next. Last week's documentary on hip-hop was informative and interesting, even if, as ever, Yentob pandered a bit to the subjects (concluding the documentary with a gooey thirty-second meeting with his kids' hero Eminem). Last night's portrait of Stella "Relation to Paul" McCartney was stultifying by comparison. I've always heard good things about her, but she came off badly here: there was no editorial presence whatever, with McCartney providing an irritating video diary, of which "I was in Venice this afternoon, and I've just woken up and I'm in... AUSTRIA!?!?!?!" was about her most interesting reflection. Meanwhile, endless scenes of vacuous luvviness at fashion shows and parties with pals like Kate Moss, Liv Tyler and Madonna made me think a new series of Absolutely Fabulous had started. The whole thing was completely lacking in imagination and more to do with celebrity than art. I wouldn't go so far as to say fashion is nothing to do with art per se (although some people would probably say I'm being generous) but this is the BBC for Chrissakes. Why not do a documentary on some other good designers who aren't quite as well known or, more to the point, as well connected? Or is it really the case, Alan, that success is less about what you know than about who you know?




Meanwhile, a nice readers' interview with Suzanne "No Relation To Vincent" Vega in the Independent today. Asked if she thinks it's important to keep some details of her personal life out of her songs, unlike some of her peers such as Tori Amos and Alannis Morrissette, she replies: "Yes, it is... I don't want to bore my audience. I want to create something I think is beautiful and I want the audience to be able to look at it and relate to it themselves. I think sometimes - and I'm not saying this about Tori Amos or Alanis Morissette, whom I like - that if you put too many of your own thoughts or opinions in a song, then you don't really leave room for your audience." I think this is true about all writing.



2nd July


The Guardian asks various commentators about Tim Henman's chances of winning Wimbledon this year. Novelist Jeanette Winterson is probably right when she says, "There's something about cheering him on year after year that has become a sport in itself. That's what we really like, and I think we'd be devastated as a nation if he actually won." Journalist Amanda Platell meanwhile says, "His tennis is stultifyingly dull. This is the bloke who doesn't read because 'it's boring'. Well, not half as boring as he is. Henman is the worst kind of sportsman - he's a jobsworth who is completely lacking in passion. He's like a middle-ranking executive in a company that's going nowhere." I must say I chuckled at this, but, in all honesty, Platell's is the reaction of someone who doesn't like professional tennis much - you have to be boringly single-minded to get to even the level Henman has. I couldn't verify Henman's alleged antipathy toward literature, but even so, nobody ever says "Oh, that Amanda Platell's tennis is crap, isn't it?"




US-EU Relations #1: Silvio Berlusconi is widely reported to have outraged the European Union Parliament with his remarks that a German MEP would be "perfect for the role of a Nazi concentration camp guard" in a new film being shot in Italy. What is less widely reported is that before the parliament was suspended for this "ironic joke" [sic], Berlusconi gave a speech in which he "promised to work to improve ties with the United States following the Iraq war". Says it all, really.




US-EU Relations #2: The Independent also reports that the global email system will collapse under the weight of ever-increasing spam within 18 months if US legislation has its way, according to Steve Linford of the Spamhaus Project. The US proposals "would make spam legal unless the receiver opted out of receiving it", while "EU countries will introduce anti-spam legislation this year that will require an 'opt-in' approach."




Thoughtcat's Man in the Kraken (in a non-Jonah sense, although his name is Jonas) highlights the strange story of a "giant blob" washed ashore in Chile, which is baffling marine scientists. This is the photo from the BBC website:


Mystery creature washed ashore in Chile


Pretty strange, huh? Even stranger, though, is this, which according to Craphound is "the original, unaltered image which was suppressed immediately by the Chilean navy":


Mystery creature washed ashore in Chile (version 2)


Oo-er! Will Smith, where are you when we need you??



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