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June 2003




29th June


The Sunday Times leader comments on the Alastair Campbell v. Auntie fracas: "Whatever people think of the BBC, they don’t like to see the government attacking it.” Absolutely - the BBC may be putting on more naff programmes than ever before, but its news reporting and commentary is second to none. From a choice between Campbell and Jeremy Paxman I know which one I'd trust. The BBC is far more essential to democracy in this country (and elsewhere) than people like Campbell.




I bought The Independent on Sunday today (the print edition of the paper, I mean, not the whole business) on the strength of an advert on the front cover for its newish Talk of the Town magazine, which featured a picture of Peter Blake. It's one of the best free Sunday supplements I've ever seen - not as good as the Sindy's original Review section from the early nineties, which was the best of all arty supplements, but a great mixture of columns, reviews, features and criticism reminiscent of Punch and the Spectator. The Peter Blake interview/appreciation was lovely, despite printing his Self-Portrait with Badges back to front, and there was a fascinating feature by Johann Hari called Apocalypse Soon, about the evangelicals of the US Christian Coalition. Hari goes to the Holy Land with a group of these people, including a man called Tracey: "Tracey's ignorance about the rest of the world is staggering," writes Hari. "'Fifty-five percent of people in France are Muslims now,' he declares at one point. 'The people are afraid to leave their homes. I'm scared for England too. Islam is spreading like a cancer all over the world.' Later that same day, he is lamenting the fact that there are still Communist regimes on earth, singling out 'China, North Korea, Sweden...' I have met plankton with a more sophisticated world-view. At every Biblical site we visit, Tracey rings his wife. 'Honey, I'm in Golgotha!' he would yell into his mobile. 'If I see Jesus I'll say hi from ya!' This reaches its grotesque apotheosis when we visit the Wailing Wall: 'Say, honey, do you want to talk to God?' She evidently says yes, so he stands holding his phone to the Wall while she babbles away to the deity..." Brilliant stuff. Elsewhere in the article Hari writes: "A Gallup poll last year found that 46 per cent of Americans describe themselves as 'born-again or evangelical' - and a 1999 Newsweek poll found that 71 per cent of evangelicals said they believed the world would end in a battle between Jesus and the Anti-Christ at Armageddon. (The number of tambourines has yet to be ascertained.)"


Having said all that, I was confused to see that there wasn't a mention of this magazine on the Independent's website that day. Like many web users, I haven't got the time or the money to buy and read all the papers (why else would I be using the internet?), so often I check the various newspaper sites in the morning to see what's in them and then if there's one that looks particularly good I'll go out and buy it. I'm not saying the Independent should put all its content online (=for free), but surely it won't do it any harm just to advertise the supplement on the site?



28th June


Several excellent articles in today's Guardian... in the magazine, Zoe Williams writes a comprehensive appreciation of the various forms of irony, concluding that "the end of irony", as some people suggested happened after September 11th, is not only unlikely but would be very bad for the world anyway. "Irony can deflate a windbag in the way very little else can," she writes, which seems apposite in the same week as Tony Blair's claim that there is "nothing actually contested" in his "dodgy dossier" on Iraq. Meanwhile, the paper reports that by AD200million, the planet might be inhabited by eight-tonne skeleton-less megasquids, according to a man with one of those curiously reversible names, McNeill Alexander (in fact, it makes you wonder if he wasn't born Alexander McNeill and cunningly swapped the names around to form a whole new identity). But, no skeleton? Alexander's theory hasn't got a leg to stand on. Back in 2003, Royal Mail staff in Hampshire are running scared from an 11-year-old black tomcat called Purrdey who has been savaging postmen and postladies. "It leaps in the air as if it believes it's a tiger and lands on people, digging its claws in as deeply as possible," says one member of Royal Mail staff. "This cat has become well known among our workers, and frankly its behaviour is unacceptable." Sounds like he's caught the Tiger Tim bug to me - heaven help Hampshire if Henman actually wins Wimbledon this year. Also on a feline theme, the magazine features an interesting article about cat's eyes, whose headline alone, "Windows of a cat's soul", almost inspired me to poetry. In the Review section, a review of a recently-paperbacked collection of essays about Bob Dylan's lyrics entitled Do You, Mr Jones? says the book contains claims such as "The majority of the songs on Time Out of Mind confirm the picture of an alienated observer locked into his own obsessive pattern of social withdrawal", while one critique begins, "I have characterised Dylan's many references to the railroads in his songs according to the schema of Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the cultural historian of train travel." Back on planet earth, finally, there's a very reassuring piece by novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard about her experience of creativity:"Writing a novel is like embarking upon the Atlantic in a canoe; after weeks of paddling you can't see the land that you left, but the other shore will not come into sight for months, or even years. Occasionally I would feel that I had got something right and would experience moments of pure euphoria, but if this happened half a dozen times in a novel I was lucky.” It's passages like this that make life for us novices that much more bearable. It's not that you like to see other people struggle, but it's good to feel you're not as alone as you thought.



27th June



I have finally managed to finish the pages dedicated to some dustcovers from popular British books from the 1940s and 1950s which belonged to my late grandmother, a big reader. Click here to see some atmospheric/cheesy artwork, several obscure titles and authors, a few great character names - Eustace Hawke, here we go! - and a collection of fascinating blurbs.



26th June


What do Bushism, regime change, road map, rogue state, sleeper terrorist, Al-Qaida, Sars, stealth tax, congestion charging and quidditch all have in common? Click here to find out...




The Independent reports that the Vatican has announced it is to put its enormous art collection, including Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, on the web. "But it's not philanthropy," runs the report. "Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, who oversees the artworks, said: 'The tool of the Web, with its enormous potential, allows us to get closer to an ever growing number of people to spread the message of evangelisation.' Evangelisation! Sounds like a Bushism to me.


The report also says that the Vatican published the Pope's email address last month. How on earth did I miss that?!




I hope the "wanker" in the crowd who called the ball out during Greg Rusedski's Wimbledon match against Andy Roddick yesterday felt properly ashamed of himself afterwards, whoever he was there to support. That said, I have to admit it was refreshing to see the more square-jawed of our two tennis hopes let rip with both emotions and expletives on prime-time TV.




On a more serious note, I couldn't help but see the irony of the MoD's announcement today that the killing of six British military police on Tuesday was "'unprovoked murder' by a frenzied mob". I mean, call me naieve, but are they saying that when a war's on, killing people isn't murder, but as soon as it's declared over (or, by some people, "won") it is? I thought there was something suspicious about such a short "campaign".



25th June


Rod Liddle writes a great piece in today's Grauniad, "Harry Potter and the fascist bully-boys", about the perceived political incorrectness of the Potter saga.



24th June


Justin Webb writes an excellent article in the Independent today pointing out the vast differences between the US and UK media and how they analyse the news and grill - or, in the case of the States, don't even lightly toast - political leaders. As he puts it, "The world's most powerful nation does not have the world's most powerful press." Could these two facts be, in any way, related? I think we should be told.




A Guardian poll reveals that Tony Blair's popularity is as low as it's ever been. "Blair's overall popularity has fallen again in the past month from a net rating of minus eight points in May to minus 13 points now," reads this report. "Even more are unhappy with the job he is doing now than those that are happy. The voters also mark down his domestic record - at minus 27 - compared with his performance on international and European issues, where he has a rating of minus 15." I mean, how bad do things have to be for Labour and the government for things to be in minus figures?


Blair must go, and not just be replaced personally but if Labour is serious about a third term it must change its whole outlook - get rid of the spin doctors and fools like Prescott and get on the case. I don’t want the Tories back in again but Labour will lose my vote to the Liberal Democrats if they don’t sort themselves out. In fact, perhaps the best thing that can happen is that every Labour and Tory MP who opposed the war and realise their respective leaders are useless for their respective reasons crosses over to the Lib Dems. That way, whoever gets in, at least no party will have the massive majority that Labour has utilised to throw its weight around for the past several years.




The Times reports that George W. Bush is accusing Europe of "prolonging starvation in Africa by refusing to allow the import of genetically modified foods". Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that the ban "costs American farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost exports" and that lifting it would provide US conglomerates like Monsanto with millions of human guinea-pigs to whom to feed experimental food. Cut the crap, George, and give them real food.




On a lighter note, the Guardian reports that 1 in 28 Britons already owns a copy of the new Harry Potter adventure, while the Times discovers that some of the first editions for which people queued for hours contain printing errors on a vast scale - 48 pages missing here, sections printed upside-down there... perhaps that was why so many copies were being flogged at half price? This story is reminiscent of the mad rush to buy the new versions of Windows as soon as it's available - as any sane PC user will tell you, you should *always* wait at least six months for all the bugs to be ironed out!




While out walking in Richmond, south-west London, I noticed a bizarre sign has been put up on a lamp-post on Richmond Bridge reporting some items stolen and requesting their return. Since the notice doesn't give any contact information, and the items themselves are unusual to say the least, I couldn't help but think it was the work of a secret local surrealist genius. I also can't be sure if the graffiti on the sign (which those of a genteel disposition should probably not read) is genuine or all part of the "happening"...


Notice affixed to a Richmond Bridge lamp-post


Shocking the bourgeoisie... the notice on the lamp-post on Richmond Bridge.

Below: its genteel suburban context.


Lamp-post on Richmond Bridge




23rd June


When is a non-governmental organisation not a non-governmental organisation? When it's an American non-governmental organisation! So writes Naomi Klein in today's Guardian, as US relief agencies such as InterAction are told they need "to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to US foreign policy and [make] it clear that they are 'an arm of the US government'" if they don't want their contracts torn up.




Playwright David Hare writes another excellent piece testifying to his disillusionment with British politicians. In the wake of Iraq, he writes, "It is difficult for someone of my temperament to accept that my own feelings about politicians have become worse than irrelevant. They have become worthless. Why? Because local politicians are, definitively, no longer speaking to me. The important dialogue in Britain is no longer carried on between the governors and the governed, but is maintained in another direction entirely: neither up nor down, but east-west, between the colony and the imperial capital."



22nd June


A hilarious-stroke-appalling story in the Independent today reveals how one of George W. Bush's right-hand men (and we all know what men do with their right hands, right?) has written a TV docudrama about September 11th, set for transmission next year, which makes Dubya look like the hero he wasn't on that terrible day. Is 2004 an election year in the US by any chance? How low can you go, even by making an accurate film on that subject for political ends?



21st June


Further to Richard Adams's attack on Harry Potter for being politically incorrect, today's Guardian letters page is awash with defences of Potter, Rowling, the children and adults who enjoy the books, and even Norris McWhirter.




Dixieland jazz clarinettist and bandleader Peanuts Hucko has died. Here is his obituary in the Independent. Although I love jazz, I don't know much about him, and can't really justify including this in Thoughtcat except for the fact that a man with a name like that deserves all the coverage he can get.



20th June


Harry Potter-free zone



Thoughtcat has been declared a Harry Potter-free zone this week on account of far too much hype of the new book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", which is published by Bloomsbury at midnight tonight. Thoughtcat has nothing against Harry Potter and has the utmost respect for JK Rowling, but, you know, enough's enough already. There will also be no gratuitious Harry Potter jokes such as "Prince Harry the Pothead" or promotional links to the book, which is available from at £8.49.




The Times today has an interview with JK Rowling in which she reveals that a 15-year-old Harry Potter is a "very angry" teenager who has his first relationship with a girl... but enough about Harry already. Surely there's some other news about?




Nope... no other news. Sigh. Instead I must write about my engrossment (engrossal?) in last night's exclusive Newsnight interview with JK Rowling by Jeremy Paxman. Paxo was an inspired choice because he obviously knew the books yet wasn't fawning all over her. Rowling came across as much more intelligent, interesting and hard-working than she's portrayed in the media, and had a number of intriguing things to say about writing. This was my favourite exchange (taken from a transcript of the entire interview on the BBC site).


Jeremy Paxman: What's your preferred way of working? I mean lots of people sit down and say "I must churn out 600 words or a 1000 words a day". Do you work like that ? How do you do it?


JK Rowling: No, well [that's] like painting a fence isn't it?


JP: No - well, some distinguished writers have written like that.


JKR: That's how you do it.


JP: No - "distinguished writers", I said... Somerset Maugham used to write 600 words a day and he'd stop more or less whether he was mid-sentence.


JKR: No I couldn't do that.


JP: So what do you do? You sit down and keep going until you're too exhausted to continue.


JKR: Yeah pretty much actually. It's the flogged horse school of writing. The thing about the 600 words, I mean some days, you can do a very, very, very hard day's work and not write a word, just revising, or you would scribble a few words.


"The flogged horse school of writing" - one with which I can totally identify. Great stuff. Of course it's bound to open her up to quips about "flogging a dead horse" and all that, but they won't be made by me.



18th June


Thoughtcat's Lady In Library highlights Richard Adams's political deconstruction of the Harry Potter phenomenon in the Guardian today. "Harry Potter is a conservative," he avers, "a paternalistic, One-Nation Tory, perhaps, but a Tory nonetheless". Hogwarts is "a priceless advertisement for traditional English public schools" criticised for celebrating Christmas and Halloween but not Diwali or Rosh Hashanah, and for not teaching foreign languages. In fact the only foreign languages appear in the form of French names of villains such as Voldemort ("corpse-stealer") and Draco Malfoy (possibly from "malfaiteur" or criminal). Then again, without all that, and if everything was totally politically correct, it'd all be a bit boring, wouldn't it?




Meanwhile, in "other news", a consignment of 7,000 copies of the new Harry Potter book (entitled "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" in case you haven't already heard) has mysteriously disappeared in Merseyside, according to the Guardian. "Police are warning members of the public that anyone caught with one of the books [before the official publication on Friday night] without a reasonable excuse will be prosecuted," says the report. What could a "reasonable excuse" be I wonder? Thoughtcat's Ex-Librarian in Vermont suggests, "Unhand me, you brute!  I'm Jo Rowling!" That said, Thoughtcat's Man in Nam (well, Cheltenham at any rate) points out, "You'd be pretty daft to get caught.  All you'd have to do was not take it out in public before the launch.  If they plan to question everybody with a copy of the new book after its launch they will have their work cut out with 2.5 million pre-orders." Of course! The whole thing was a ruse. While the entire police force of Great Britain is being kept occupied with Harry Potter and the Disappearing Books, Voldemort, disguised as Saddam Hussein, will sneak into the country and claim asylum. Brilliant...




Talking of evildoers, MI5 now says a "dirty bomb" attack on a Western city is "only a matter of time". Is it my imagination or is everyone being pre-emptive these days, following Bush and Blair's "self-defensive attack" on Iraq? I am as reassured to hear this announcement as I am by Tony and George's promises that there really were weapons of mass destruction, and when the thing goes off I shall be the first to say, "Well, at least it's not Eliza Manningham-Buller's fault." Meanwhile, Thoughtcat's Old Man in the North says, "When I were a lad, a dirty bomb were what you 'ad when you ran out of toilet paper - that's if you ever 'ad toilet paper, that is, which we didn't. You 'ad to use leaves from t'tree in t'garden. That's if you had a tree, or a garden, which we didn't. We had to make do with a window box..."



17th June


Tone deaf

Axes of evil: the PM and his guitar

The Independent reports that the Musicians Union handed Tony Blair a petition containing 110,000 signatures protesting against the new Licensing Bill, currently going through Parliament, because of the "fear that making performances in community centres, village and parish halls subject to a licence would prevent folk musicians performing and stop musicians raising money for charity."



It's very sad to read of the opposition by some senior members of the Church of England to the appointment of a gay bishop, Dr Jeffrey John, canon theologian of Southwark. If the Church was any other kind of institution or employer, the uproar about the opposition to his appointment purely on the grounds of his sexuality would be unimaginable.




The Guardian reports: "Washington's determination to find an alternative energy source to the Middle East is leading to a new oil rush in sub-Saharan Africa which threatens to launch a fresh cycle of conflict, corruption and environmental degradation in the region. The new scramble for Africa risks bringing more misery to the continent's impoverished citizens as western oil companies pour billions of dollars in secret payments into government coffers throughout the continent. Much of the money ends up in the hands of ruling elites or is squandered on grandiose projects and the military."




George Monbiot writes an interesting article about his "proposals for a system of global governance run by, and for, the world's people". A lot of what he says is somewhat naieve, but you've got to start somewhere I guess. One of his better points is this: "Poor nations now owe so much that they own, in effect, the world's financial systems. The threat of a sudden collective default on their debts unless they get what they want would concentrate the minds of even the most obdurate global powers."



15th June


While updating the "creative links" in thoughtcat diversions (see right), I visited a URL given in The Writer's Handbook 2003 for Pure Fiction, listed as "the site for anybody who loves to read - and aspires to write - bestselling fiction". Bizarrely, the URL given,, goes to a site called Stockings HQ, dedicated to the garment favoured by female (and, I hear, some male) personages. That was fun, but not quite what I was looking for (at least not at that precise moment). I therefore Googled for Pure Fiction, and linked to another wrong site,, which turned out to belong to an alternative rock band from Boston. Among more Google results, Pure Fiction did show up as the name of a writing site, albeit with the modest URL of, and which, rather undemocratically, features work exclusively by said Mr Callaway. My final attempt on this wild goose chase turned up a book-review site from Dorset County Council, which lists "fifteen of the most exciting and enjoyable novels and short stories of the new century... chosen from hundreds of others published in the last couple of years". True, one of these is Zadie Smith's Willesden epic White Teeth (which, incidentally, I felt was less than the sum of its parts, but nevertheless had some great parts), but I've never heard of the other 14, one of which is entitled "Like a Dog to its Vomit". Hmm...



14th June


The Times reports that a firm of London estate agents has been alleged to be responsible for removing rival agents' advertising boards in a bid to gain a larger share of the market. What a shame that the mysterious disappearance of the boards, often overnight, has turned out to be the work of a crooked agent - for a while I thought a real-life superhero was ridding London streets of one of the ugliest scourges of modern times. Apparently, estate agents are afraid that this activity could drag down the reputation of the whole industry. Is it possible for it to go any lower?




Thoughtcat's Man in Wimbledon highlights this story in the Telegraph about Guy Venables, a "comedian", who jumped naked into a shark tank at the Brighton Sea Life Centre for a publicity stunt, and is now facing prosecution by the aquarium - for allegedly shocking the shark to death. "Angry staff made him clean out one of the viewing tunnels," according to the report. The mind boggles.




I have to say that the last show in the current series of Have I Got News For You, hosted by none other than ancient game show host Bruce Forsyth, was fantastic. Ian Hislop seemed less than amused, of course, but Paul Merton was, in his own words, having the time of his life. "I've waited fourteen years for the show to be like this," he said as Forsyth did a version of his old game show called Play Your Iraqi Cards Right. "Higher! Lower!" cried the audience. It was a real blast from the past, even though I did of course have to admit Hislop had an important point when he said to the audience, "No chance of booing a mass murderer, I suppose?" In true game show style, Hislop was given the chance of gambling to win the series and a "mystery prize". Improbably giving the right answer to a football question (well, even I knew that Michael Owen had captained England in, er, that football match against, um, someone last week), Hislop "won" a holiday at the EU headquarters in Brussels as the special guest of his nemesis Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Brilliant. I hope they dig up a few more semi-retired personalities for the next series... Ken Dodd, anyone? Merton would be well away.




Also brilliant televisually tonight was the BBC2 George Orwell biopic, A Life in Pictures, which was achieved despite the fact that no film or recordings exist of Orwell's image or voice. Chris Langham played Orwell in Zelig-like superimpositions of the actor onto period footage, and speaking only the words that Orwell actually wrote, which ranged from the familiar political diatribes to other musings such as how to milk a goat or make tea (add milk after the tea, he advised, since if you put it in first you run the risk of adding too much; ideally it should be drunk without sugar, and you can even add salt and pepper, apparently). The section on Down and Out in Paris and London was sadly short, but still long enough to bring on a Proustian rush of my own experiences both reading this great book, which I bought from Shakespeare & Co in Paris, and my own time as a plongeur in the French capital (ahh, those were the days). Langham was mostly excellent (he maybe overdid the comedy aspect, of which there was precious little in Orwell's life) and certainly paid tribute to Orwell's services to tobacco, barely doing a single scene without a Woodbine in his lips. It was also refreshing to hear Orwell's doubts about his own ability to write 1984 as he struggled with illness on the Isle of Jura. Having explained how difficult it was to do, and asked why he didn't therefore just give up, he said, "Well, the book's such a good idea, I couldn't possibly abandon it." The whole 90 minutes was sheer bliss - if only more TV was like this.



13th June


Do not adjust your sets - Thoughtcat has gone red for a bit. Sadly, however, pressures of time are preventing me from updating very much except the front page on a regular basis. So it's a bit like something guitarist John Williams once said at a Royal Albert Hall gig as he went offstage and then came back on again: "As you can see, I haven't changed my clothes, but I have changed my guitar." Actually it's nothing to do with that at all, it's completely irrelevant, and solely an excuse to put a picture at the top of this week's main page, as has now become a regular event at Thoughtcat.

John Williams in 1971

Williams in 1971 mode




The Guardian today features a very interesting piece about a documentary to be shown at the ICA on the making of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, one of the best movies ever made. I knew from the film's entry on the estimable imdb that it was shot in an actual psychiatric institution and that some of the extras were real patients, but I wonder if the documentary finally puts to rest the rumour that Nicholson actually underwent ECT in the scene where his character does? I say that with enormous respect to Jack Nicholson, whose performance is one by which all Oscar-winners should be judged.



12th June


The Times reports that a website devoted to tea and biscuits has had 250,000 visitors since it started two years ago. Stuart Payne's has a biscuit of the week feature and lots of other stuff devoted to one of life's enduring - and most affordable - pleasures. Thoughtcat tries not to go off in a huff for not thinking of it first, and wishes Payne continued success.


By a strange coincidence, my wife appeared yesterday afternoon brandishing a packet of Sainsbury's improbably named Quadruple Chocolate Chunk Cookies. I have to say I've never been terribly enamoured of Sainsbury's products or stores myself, but I must admit these do have something going for them... over to you, Stu?

Chunky: Sainsbury's Quadruple Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Hey - taste the difference!




The Guardian reports that the US is threatening to cut off tens of millions of dollars in aid to the countries of the Balkans in order to secure war crimes immunity deals for Americans and exemptions from the year-old international criminal court. Human Rights Watch in New York described it as "blatant hypocrisy". In fact, it's just as well there's no oil in eastern Europe, or Dubya would have invaded by now.




Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux answers some readers' questions in The Independent today. Asked what era he would like to have lived in, and, more bizarrely, "what is there left to discover?", Theroux ponders: "I would have loved to live at a time when the interior of Africa, the interior of South America and the heart of Asia were unexplored. But we are still exploring areas of human experience, and the human mind contains wonders. It sounds pompous to say so, but there are Everests within us and impenetrable swamps in our hearts - those are the places that I seek."



11th June


The Independent reports that the French tourist board has recruited Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Wynton Marsalis for a promotional film to try to bring US tourists back to France following the antipathy engendered between the two nations by their opposing stances on Iraq. Says Woody in the film: "I don't want to have to refer to my French-fried potatoes as freedom fries, and I don't want to have to freedom-kiss my wife when I really want to French-kiss her." One thing I didn't know until I read the article was that the North Carolina restaurant which started the "freedom fries" thing took the idea from a trend during World War 1 when sauerkraut was, apparently, renamed "liberty cabbage"...




Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Harold Pinter went off on one during a talk at the National Theatre last night while promoting his new book of war poems. These are some of his milder comments: "What objections have there been in the US to Guantanamo Bay? At this very moment there are 700 people chained, padlocked, handcuffed, hooded and treated like animals. It is actually a concentration camp. I haven't heard anything about the US population saying: 'We can't do this, we are Americans.' Nobody gives a damn. And nor does Tony Blair... Blair sees himself as a representative of moral rectitude. He is actually a mass murderer. But we forget that - we are as much victims of delusions as Americans are."


"War" by Harold Pinter is available through Amazon for £5.




To be disappointed by a third TV programme that looked interesting in as many days would appear to indicate the early onset of irascibility, but Alan Yentob's new BBC arts programme Imagine turned out to be pretty unimaginative. Botney, all trendy indifference and "cool", let us into the new Saatchi Gallery at County Hall on the South Bank. In a similar way to the Morrissey documentary (see below), there was no criticism, balance or discussion, just a lot of friends of Charles and YBAs (young butt-ugly artists) going on about how he's revolutionised British art. One of these commentators ascribed Saatchi's need to collect expensive tat like Tracey Emin's chaotic bed to - not in so many words - having too much money. "What do you do when you're a millionaire?" she said, "You take heroin, or you collect art." The prevalence of this attitude and the gallery itself is not democracy - it's just a lack, Alan, of imagination.


The Saatchi website is predictably pretentious. Of Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", Patricia Ellis writes: "A seventeen-foot Australian tiger shark is suspended in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde, its predatory viciousness just inches from grasp. Fantastically animate, its frigid stillness is shockingly incomprehensible. Sleek, potent, powerful, corporate: it's a trophy of masculine vitality. Hirst presents a Hemingwayesque bravado, the untamed quest of Santiago captured and put on spectacle in a tank." I hope Hemingway is churning in his grave.


"The Bat Tattoo", a stupendous novel in which Russell Hoban points up the ludicrosities of contemporary art, is available in hardback through Amazon for £11.19.



10th June


I've long been a fan of the Guardian's Notes & Queries feature, a readers' forum for some often fascinating questions and answers about life, the universe and everything. Questions can be on any subject, and multiple responses to queries are published. While the latter usually start with fairly basic, literal answers, they often evolve into more interesting and humorous explorations suggested by both the original question and the previous answers. One of my favourites is as follows:


Why does practically everything take longer to create than to destroy?

Charlie, Leiden The Netherlands

D. Morgan, Amsterdam NL

It goes on for a bit like this, with several answers about "entropy", until out of the blue you get:

And from there it goes to the political...

...before concluding, as in life, with the personal:

And that's just his ex-girlfriend! Superb stuff. However, I've found the online version of N&Q increasingly frustrating in recent months, with both queries and responses being updated less and less frequently. Come on, Grauniad, pull your socks up, get someone on the case (such as me, for instance) and tell us where the phrase "pull your socks up" comes from while you're at it. (Incidentally, could the Jake Arnott of the penultimate answer be by any chance the Jake Arnott, as in the author of atmospheric sixties gay gangster thriller The Long Firm, which hit the headlines when it was published a few years ago by attracting a massive advance for the debut novelist? I think we should be told.)



9th June


I looked forward to last night’s Channel 4 documentary The Importance of Being Morrissey despite never being much of a fan of The Smiths and certainly not of the man’s solo records. I’d always found him an interesting character, a great English eccentric from a fine tradition, and although I’ve never bought a Smiths record, I will sometimes, apropos of nothing, break into an acapella version of Panic. It’s a shame I never bought any of the records if for no other reason than that the sleeve designs were always brilliant: John Lennon may have opened the Let It Be album with a joke about a band called Charles Hawtrey and the Deafaids, but Morrissey actually put Charles Hawtrey on an album cover, and wore a Johnny Ray hearing-aid on stage; you have to credit the style, guts and sense of humour responsible for touches like that. And apart from anything else, Morrissey’s was the only vaguely fashionable style of dress I could ever either relate to or get away with sporting myself - I mean the Levis, t-shirt, cardigan, glasses and brogues business, not so much the transparent blouses, gold lamé shirts and fistfuls of gladioli in the back pocket, which never did me any favours.


Morrissey: as close as he wishes to get to sex, apparently.


Having said all that, I was disappointed by the documentary itself, probably because, not being more than the fairweather fan described above, I didn’t know enough about Morrissey to know that disappointment was probably all I could hope to expect. I was prepared to like him, which was obviously a mistake of the most embarrassing naievety, as he came across as one of the most unsympathetic, tiresome and boring people I’ve ever seen. Kurt Cobain once sang “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld where I can sigh eternally”, but for me that never rang true for someone so troubled and angry (Cobain, I mean, not Cohen): when I think of Cobain I think of him yelling his bitterness and alienation and despair, not someone laying about sighing wistfully. Morrissey, on the other hand, seems to be living in a Morrissey now-world of eternal sighs where - Sunset Boulevardist fame and fortune notwithstanding - everything is all very dull and restrictive and predictable and horrible and tiresome and deeply unsatisfactory, and all of it despite the fact that he clearly doesn’t have any idea how to make things better for himself, and even if he did he’d probably choose to keep things exactly as they are, because he’s Morrissey and that’s what Morrissey does.


Morrissey’s failure to change was the biggest impression I received about him from the documentary. He is living in an afterworld, a post-Smiths world, which, given his unpleasant comments about the band’s litigious drummer (“I wish the worst on Joyce for the rest of his life”) will almost definitely be eternal. On one hand, being short-lived is the best fate for any band of that stature, as the embarrassingly eternal ramblings of the Rolling Stones testify, but on the other, the ex-members of such a band, despite being fêted and revered to near-cult proportions as Morrissey is, make things worse for themselves by languishing in the shadow of their own original success, as, unable ever to match it, let alone top it, they condemn themselves to a Poe-like hell of repetition from which only true self-reinvention will ever extricate them. Okay, so he’s moved to LA, bought a Vespa and put on a bit of weight, but that’s as far as it goes.


Morrissey didn’t even seem to be very happy about the things that made his life worth living (and there surely had to be some, even for him). Of course, I appreciate that, being a legendarily private person, he was highly uneasy about letting the camera crew into his house, and that when a camera crew does arrive at your house, no matter who you are you don’t behave exactly as you would when they’re not there. Even so, he loped around the place, his thick arms hanging uselessly by his sides just like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager, as if he didn’t after all really want any of us or them to be there, and even when he deigned to show us “a few of my favourite things”, such as an obscure 7” single and an ancient portable record-player, he looked bored as hell with them. In a particularly flat moment he was seen preparing a plate of biscuits for tea with Nancy Sinatra in a kitchen that looked as if nothing more exciting had ever been prepared in it than, well, a plate of biscuits. As a biscuit man myself (I am in fact half man, half biscuit) I can relate to his fondness for the hard, round, crumbly discs of wonder, but, you know, there are limits. Being a vegetarian is one thing, but a biscuitarian?


In fact, the kitchen, and what was (or rather wasn’t) prepared in it, yielded a bigger clue to Morrissey’s legendarily ambiguous sexual identity than anything he did (or rather didn’t) explicitly say about this subject himself. Throughout the documentary a good-looking young English chap identified as FRIEND popped up every so often to comment on Moz, at one point saying, “He can’t cook anything - except toast.” Now, let’s be quite unambiguous about this: no heterosexual man, not even the most avowed FHM-reading chaotic bachelor, would ever (a) be unable to cook anything except toast, or (b) have a good-looking male friend who’d say about him “He can’t cook anything except toast.” Life just doesn’t work that way. An inability to cook anything except toast, combined with the general lack of enthusiasm for life he displayed throughout the programme, conspired to make Morrissey look even more like the bored 1960s housewives of Smiths imagery than they ever did.


The documentary itself meanwhile was entirely uncritical, which is always a boring quality, but especially so when it’s about someone as controversial as this. Next to his sexual ambiguity, the most notorious thing about Morrissey is a song he wrote a few years ago called National Front Disco, featuring the refrain “England for the English”, which Moz would perform while waving a large Union Jack. The NME famously accused Morrissey of racism for this, a charge he never denied - preferring, in fact, to ignore it altogether, which naturally only compounded his guilt in the eyes of some. The documentary however blew the opportunity to discuss the matter with some of the more distinguished, literary contributors - Will Self, Alan Bennett, JK Rowling - and instead had the renowned liberal commentator Noel Gallagher commenting, “If he was a fucking racist, the fucking News of the World would have found out by now, never mind the fucking NME.” Yes, Noel. More tellingly perhaps, Morrissey’s guitarist recalled his fears when he first heard the song’s title that performing it “would get us all lynched”.


All Morrissey himself had to say about the subject was, “Not everybody is stupid. Why would I be a racist? What would I possibly have to gain from that?” While I suspect the song in question was meant to be ironic, and in any case I would have thought that any real racist would surely jump at the opportunity to confirm that they were rather than deny it, I couldn’t help but remain unimpressed by Morrissey’s lame defence, which seemed to have been lifted straight out of the Tony Blair Book of Denial.


However, there were some very funny moments in the documentary which went some way to making up for these shortcomings. Kathy Burke, commenting on Morrissey’s celibacy, said, “It’s always the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for. I bet he’s really a right dirty bastard.” Alan Bennett had a fascinating story about the time Morrissey came over to his house for tea “and quite ridiculously early on in the conversation asked me what I knew about Jimmy Clitheroe.” My mind boggled until Bennett explained that Jimmy “Clitheror” (as he pronounced it) was a 1950s comedian whose act, in keeping with those more innocent times, involved dressing up as a schoolboy... and then my mind boggled again. Noel Gallagher continued his foot-in-mouthism by saying that the reason Morrissey didn’t have a record deal at the time of the documentary (a matter since rectified by, of all things, a reggae label) was because the industry was “full of fucking wankers”. That would have stood up by itself as a Gallagher classic, but then Noel went one better and said by way of explanation that “If these wankers [i.e. record company executives] can’t market you to a bunch of little kids who don’t know shit from clay, they don’t wanna know you” - a comment which rather disillusioned me about Oasis’s artistic integrity, I have to admit.


Morrissey himself provided the most laughs, but they all seemed unintentional. Standing in an airport lounge lambasting air travel (in this he reminded me of the parents from Woody Allen’s Radio Days “who could find an argument in absolutely any subject”), the dictatorial airports, he said, “reduce you to this great big lump of flesh”. The words hung in the air and Moz squirmed even more than usual as the camera pondered on the former stripling’s fuller figure. Elsewhere, in a shot of a huge Morrissey riding around LA on a ridiculously delicate Vespa, unable to look too bored with the activity lest he fall off, his features hilariously fell into a queasy pinch akin to that of a patient undergoing a highly undignified medical procedure. Meanwhile, an inexplicable sequence in a strip club was bookended with shots of him emerging from behind a door marked PENIS and, having squirmed with sufficient ambiguity at the sight of half-naked women for a few moments, disappearing back into this mysterious PENIS room. (In fact, I think the producers ran out of money at that point and just decided to run the film of him coming out of the door backwards.) And then there was the moment where, having his hair cut in a rather camp old London barber shop, he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to take over”, grabbed the hair-dryer from the hapless young trimmer (who, to his credit, didn’t seem to know who his customer was), and started shaping his trademark quiff himself. I mean, how much of a control freak do you have to be to start doing your own hair in a barber’s?


But the funniest moment for me was when Morrissey was filmed backstage at a gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Obviously nervous, he tensed up to such an extent that his neck disappeared and his head craned back into his shirt collar so that his face was nearly all that was showing. I thought: I’ve seen that look somewhere before - it’s Harry Hill! But as if this wasn’t surreal enough, Hill himself then turned up in the post-gig party. So if that wasn’t an example of life mirroring art mirroring art mirroring life with a hair-dryer in its hand, I don’t know what it was.




Something else I was looking forward to, televisually speaking, was tonight's University Challenge - The Professionals match billed as "House of Commons v Journalists". This sounded an inspired pairing on paper, and it's tempting to say it's good to see MPs get a thrashing in whatever context (they lost with a dismal 25 - one of the lowest scores ever - to 215) - but again I was disappointed. Close matches are always much more interesting than such floor-wipings, plus it would of course have been just as refreshing for the MPs to have shown they're not as thick and out-of-touch as they so often appear. As it was, this lame bunch of government backbenchers and opposition nonentities (I would have described them as chinless wonders if Lembit Opik hadn't been among them, and I wouldn't have made that joke if he had at least got a few questions right) gave every impression of knowing absolutely nothing and not caring very much, while the journalists were the exact opposite, a tight team of irritatingly clever guys from The Times. This also I felt was a mistake: although Mary Ann Sieghart and her colleagues were obviously made for the job, the journos being all from one paper was a bit boring, especially as the MPs were, if nothing else, giving it some cross-party. The BBC should do it again, but this time the other way around, with a team of Tony Blair, Jack Straw, John Prescott and Peter Hain forced to squirm as they're beaten hands-down by Ian Hislop, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and, just for a laugh, Piers Morgan. The journalists wouldn't even have to know the answers to win - the government would lose by default because they never listen to the questions.

Lembit Opik: never knowingly underchinned.

Opik: taking it on the chin.




On a more serious political note, Simon Tisdall writes a superb piece in the Guardian today about Blair's recent description of the Iraq war as a "one of the defining moments of our century". Tisdall agrees - but not quite for the reasons Blair was talking about: "Iraq marked the maiden outing of George Bush's new go-anywhere doctrine of pre-emptive war-making," he writes. "Iraq was an assault by a powerful country on a much weaker but nevertheless independent sovereign state, a symbolic act with very real, destabilising implications. Iraq was a 'defining moment' because the US and Britain were ultimately prepared to bypass the UN security council, ignore their obligations to uphold the UN charter and cock a snook at international law."



8th June


Was I dreaming while watching Star Wars on ITV this evening, or did the channel give the title as "Stars Wars" every time it cut to an advert? I mean, to do so once would appear to be a misfortune, but six times would appear to indicate that nobody was watching - least of all the channel themselves. I say all this at the risk of being labelled a Star Wars nerd - talking of which, I read in Internet Magazine that web geeks are rallying round to prevent Big Borether's Jon, officially the dullest man this side of Alpha Centauri, being ousted from the ouse. "Some are already calling him Obi Jon," concludes the report. If the Dark Side gets hold of him, we're all in trouble.



6th June


Thoughtcat's Man in Pub informs me that Yahoo Personals is launching an ad campaign in the US featuring Bob Guiney (apparently "one of America's favorite bachelors") and 30 "chick magnets". Adapting the phenomenon of magnetic fridge poetry tiles, the 30 bachelors are dressed in white from head to toe, each with a different "poetic word" on their chests. Women are then invited to come out and meet Bob and "create human poetry" by arranging the "chick magnets" to create a romantic phrase of their choice. However, I should think even Shakespeare would have a hard time making a romantic phrase out of the available words, which include flirting, wishes, kissing, lasting, spirited, sassy, fireworks, tasty, starry and playtime. Who says Yahoo is underestimating women's intelligence and turning men into objects?


Magnetic, or just repellent?


Overpaid "media tart" (left) assists unpaid "eye candy" in arranging "students and unemployed actors" into a sentence reading "YAHOO = RICH".




The Times has a great report today on the collapse of a copyright case brought to court by Andrew Alcee, a writer of "garage music", after the presiding judge found he couldn't understand the lyrics of the song in dispute. Faced with phrases such as "mish mash man" and "shizzle my nizzle", Mr Justice Lewison was forced to conclude that the lyrics of rap records were, for all practical purposes, a foreign language. Although the judge conducted his own research by using the internet (wonders will never cease!), he found no explanation at all for "mish mish man" and that “shizzle my nizzle” either meant “for sure” or “I concur, my African-American friend." The Times sends itself up in the report with a glossary of rap terminology with quaint English translations. On one hand, yes, it is a funny story, but on the other it's an appalling indictment of British justice. Alcee had a right to a fair trial and he was dissed.


Incidentally,, the slang dictionary used by the judge, is fascinating and very funny. The front page has a list of recent additions to the dictionary, which seems to be updated almost hourly, as well as the most popular words in usage. I think my favourite so far is "badonkadonk", which one user defines as "The sound or image associated with an immensely large posterior", as in the phrase "Damn yo, her ass be goin badonkadonk!", which I often hear at the Richmond branch of Waitrose.



5th June


Philip Pullman, of Amber Spyglass fame, writes an excellent piece in the Guardian today calling on the education secretary Charles Clarke to be more imaginative in his plans to encourage children's creativity. Clarke attended a conference this week celebrating the importance of art in the curriculum, but, points out Pullman, "all the art that was talked about was performance art, collaborative, interpretive art. It stressed the value of teamwork, and it culminated in public performance and immediate understanding and approval. It was very good; but there are other kinds of art as well, which are private, secret, personal and which take time to reveal their effects". Of course Pullman is talking about writing, an activity he likens to "fishing in a boat at night". I can personally vouch for how right he is about that analogy - and I still can't swim...




Meanwhile, famed "Fame" director Alan Parker has turned his hand to writing a novel. "I have got to the age when I have run out of reasons to kiss the arse of people I don't like," he says, "so writing a novel was a civilised thing to do." The Sucker's Kiss is about a street urchin who survives the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and turns to pickpocketing (pickpocketeering? pickpocketage?) to stay alive.




The Guardian also runs a good interview with Bill Bryson, who has written a 550-page study of science. Despite its decidedly Douglas Adamsesque title, A Short History of Nearly Everything is not, apparently, as much of a laugh-a-minute as his travelogues, aiming to be "a serious study of - well, the whole of the story of life, actually, from the birth of the universe to the birth of the human, by way of Darwinian biology, Newtonian physics, Einstein's relativity theories, the discovery of the structure of DNA and the development of superstring theory." Bryson comments on his change of direction: "Readers, and I think even reviewers, are happier if you keep doing the same thing over and over again. You can get away with it - even reviewers will let you get away with it, because the worst they'll say is that it's not up to his usual standard. But they never say, Jesus, when is John Updike going to write a new fucking kind of novel? They never say that. But if he does write a new kind of novel, then they get really pissed off with him..."


This reminds me of that great bit on Joni Mitchell's lovely old Miles of Aisles live album in which she's trying to tune her guitar and the audience is yelling out requests. Exasperated, she finally says, "Look, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a starry night again, man!'"


And talking of Einstein, I never understood relativity until I read a definition the man himself once gave: "If you put a man on a hot stove for a minute, it feels like an hour. But if you put the same man in a room with a gorgeous blonde for an hour, it feels like a minute. That's relativity."




The Times meanwhile reports on the widely-leaked "revelations" (for which read "hype") about Hillary Clinton's forthcoming volume of memoirs (and no, before you ask, I'm not quite so shameless as to provide an Amazon link to it). I couldn't help but chuckle when I read that, when confessing all to the First Lady, Bill said that what happened between he and Monica Lewinsky had been "brief and sporadic”. So, the Prez wasn't quite the lothario he's made out to be, eh?



4th June


The Guardian reports on the release of a new package of six world cinema titles, called "Discoveries", that distributor Optimum Releasing and BBC4 are launching this week in conjunction with the Edinburgh film festival in an attempt to revive the flagging market in foreign-language films. Elsewhere in the piece, a director of the ICA attributes the unpopularity of these movies to the total lack of those shown on TV these days. I couldn't agree more - in the eighties and early nineties, Channel 4 and BBC2 used to show a great range of art-house and foreign films. True, some of them I couldn't understand at all, but at least they exercised your brain, and movies like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy (Blue was my favourite), which you never see anymore, were fantastic. The news is good in some ways but I can't lie about my contempt for the BBC's creation of a two-tier British Broadcasting Corporation, which (a) feeds us non-digital licence-fee-paying proles a load of old tosh every night and (b) is transparently only putting the good stuff on digital to make money.



3rd June


The improbably-named Daniel Finkelstein writes an interesting piece in the Times today headlined "How do you know when a politician is lying? When his lips move". He concludes: "Claiming that the world can be transformed radically and quickly by political action is bound to result in disappointment. But politicians don’t do this because they are liars. They do it because they are fools." Can I take it then that the bottom line is that the public wouldn't be interested in an honest politician? Go on, Westminster! Break the mould!



2nd June


The Guardian is running a competition to win the six shortlised titles for the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize. The single question is easy and it closes next Wednesday.




University Challenge tonight was one of a series of shows given over to teams of "professionals", i.e. not students as such but graduates who have moved on from the festering fridges of their halcyon days and onto better things. A team of lawyers was utterly thrashed by their opponents, four members of Anglican clergy, and Jeremy Paxman was barely able to contain his glee at the result. One of the few questions the lawyers got right was a "starter for ten" in which a snippet of a famous rock song was played and the identity of the band requested. As it was played I had that great feeling I only get occasionally when watching the quiz - I knew the answer! However, one of the lawyers took the words "Derek and the Dominoes" right out of my mouth, leaving me shamefaced. The next three questions were all about bands Eric Clapton has been in, so at least I had a chance to make up for lost ground. Thankfully I managed to get each answer correct - which was more, sadly, than the lawyers were able to do. But, I mean, Eric Clapton in a University Challenge question! As someone who is university challenged, maybe there's hope for me yet. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to more "professionals" games, especially House of Commons v. Journalists (9th June) and Poets v. Nurses (14th July).



1st June


Following a moan by a New York Times journalist about the exposure Google gives blogs in its page rankings, John Naughton writes a defence of bloggers in the Observer, pointing out that the contempt held for blogs and their authors by experienced journalists is misplaced. "Journalism has always been, as Northcliffe observed, 'the art of explaining to others that which one does not oneself understand'," explains Naughton. Let's hear it for Northcliffe! Wasn't he the chap in Wuthering Heights?




Elsewhere in the Observer, it is reported that the producer of Big Borether, Peter Bazalgette, modestly asserts that the way to get more people interested in politics is for Westminster to adapt to the voting methods used in his "reality TV" (an oxymoron if ever there was one) programme. I somehow have my doubts that MPs in the House of Commons will agree to let themselves be nominated for eviction by each other on a weekly basis and then have their political future determined by text message. And who could be bothered to sit through 659 sets of nominations every week? In any case, Bazalgette is missing the point completely to infer that politics can only be made more relevant and interesting to "the masses" with the use of such trendy techniques. What people would actually respond to are some politicians who capture their imaginations, and above all, who they can trust.



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