Desperate measures

In a state of desperation I started a discussion on the Guardian’s “International” talkboard entitled “What could an ordinary UK citizen do to stop this war?” Suggestions so far include “nothing”, “top urself”, “mail Saddam a parcel bomb” and “join the Peace Pledge Union”…

Straw men

A Charles Kennedy interview in today’s Independent quotes him on his disappointing revision of his party’s stance on the war: “You have to give your moral support to the troops… I still believe diplomacy should have been given more time, but unfortunately that was defeated in Parliament and we have moved on,” he says. I can’t decide whether he’s just a woolly liberal or if it’s simply naive to think any major party could seriously take a more hardline position than that.

The article also mentions William Hague’s “joke” during the parliamentary debate on military action that if the Iraqi army collapsed with the same speed as the Liberal Democrats’ argument, “it will be a very short war”. Apparently Jack Straw called this “one of the greatest parliamentary put-downs of all time”. Nice to see our political representatives at ease and making humorous, intellectual capital of death and destruction.

Lighting the way

Further to Blair’s TV address about the war, we’ve now had televisual statements on the issue from Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy. Each has seen them addressing the camera exactly as Blair did from a pleasant living-room type background lit by a table lamp. The lighting in the Blair address was harsh, to drive home how tough this course of action is for him and the country; the other two went for a softer, more reassuring approach. Kennedy’s lamp looked a bit cheap, perhaps, but I preferred it to Duncan Smith’s posh affair, which matched perfectly the Tory leader’s patronising and unctuous delivery. Only in Britain could you have leaders of political parties fighting a war from the lighting section of Homebase.

Meanwhile, Mark Steel writes on ZNet today: “Peter Hain was one of several ministers who claimed the French made the war inevitable, by voting against the war. Similarly, I’m one of millions that should apologise for putting Margaret Thatcher into power by voting against her, and making the Cheeky Girls Number One by not buying their record. Hain went on to say, on Radio 5 on Tuesday, ‘The French have decided, by their veto, to not talk when the talk making war with their veto.’ John Prescott must have thought, ‘At last – someone who speaks my language.'”

Supporting the troops

I just had a frightening thought. Given that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory of evolution must surely now lay in tatters with George W. Bush not only in the White House but now leading one of the most stupid wars ever conceived, could Dubya be proof of the existence of God?

More seriously, I deeply resent the assumption by people like Peter Hain and the Prime Minister himself in his TV address (as reported in “Blair addresses divided nation” in today’s Guardian) that even though the country is divided over the war, “the British people will now be united in sending our armed forces our thoughts and prayers”. The argument from these and other quarters that “the troops just have a job to do” and that we should “show unity for their sake” is naive, patronising and simplistic. This isn’t to say I don’t care about our soldiers’ lives and welfare; on the contrary, that is exactly what I do care about. What sickens me is that the people who put the soldiers on the front lines have done so less to disarm Saddam than to fight a political war against “old Europe” and shore up public opinion for this conflict in a far more horrifyingly vivid way than they have been able to achieve by debate and diplomacy alone. To recognise the country’s division, and then to say that we should support the military regardless, is both emotional blackmail and Orwellian doublespeak of the most repulsive kind.

Blair’s TV address incidentally was bizarre. Come ten o’clock, the Blair broadcast had been mysteriously replaced by a one-man performance of The Iceman Cometh. His haggard, exhausted appearance was as disingenuous as his words, coming across less as a reflection of how knackered and stressed he is than a conscious effort to drive home exactly how knackered and how stressed he is. This was borne out by the designer harsh lighting that did him no favours whatsoever – what a coincidence. And then there was the wobbly camera and dodgy slow close-up as he wound up his address, giving the suspicious impression the whole thing had been jumped on a surprised Blair at two in the morning by a couple of minor members of his clerical staff, who had filmed it themselves with a Woolworths camcorder. Who are these people trying to kid?

The reality of war

I happened to be indoors on the first morning of the war, tidying up the chaos of the flat after three days of redecoration. I sat down for a break and reluctantly turned the TV on, which I never do in the daytime, to be confronted with the reality of war – that there are huge chunks of time when nothing actually happens. Of course, these days, this doesn’t stop the main TV channels from continuing to broadcast nonetheless. Faced with this, Nicholas Owen found himself interviewing a ballistics expert on scud missiles. “We’ve heard a lot about the use of scud missiles,” said Owen to the expert, who, shot from behind, was revealed to be miked up so comprehensively that he looked like an android. “Can you tell us something about them? For example, what is a scud missile?” The robot-expert churned out a textbook definition of a scud missile, which seemed to be basically that it was a missile that exploded when you fired it at something. Owen then introduced a report from a journalist sitting in a tent in Kuwait wearing a gas mask. The despatch was also broadcast via the trendy new technology of videophone, which reproduces for the ordinary television viewer the exact experience of watching a movie downloaded off the internet on a 56k modem. “As you can see, I’m wearing my gas mask,” mumbled the flickering journalist. The rest of his report seemed to amount to little more than “not much has happened since last night”. Owen, keen to milk the despatch for as long as he could, said, “I see you’re in a tent. Can you pull the camera back a bit and show us what that tent is like?” I decided I didn’t really want to know what the tent was like, and turned off the TV.

I was sad and angry enough that the war had finally started without having to contemplate crap like this. The whole thing reminded me of something my Grandad once said: “War is ninety per cent total boredom and ten per cent total terror.”

Sliding into chaos

According to a story on the BBC’s website today, Ry Cooder, the brilliant US slide guitarist and musicologist who assembled the legendary Cuban musicians for the Buena Vista Social Club record a few years ago, has been fined $100,000 by the US government under the – wait for it – “Trading With the Enemy” act. There has of course long been an embargo on US citizens having dealings with the Cubans, but this was temporarily lifted in Cooder’s case by Bill Clinton, who if he did nothing else at least recognised good music when he heard it. How totally impoverished must the soul of the current US administration be to fine Cooder at all, let alone under this law, at a time like this?

Elsewhere, Ananova reports that the politicians of Pennsylvania are wrangling over the “official state biscuit”. “The state Senate favours the chocolate chip cookie, but the House of Representatives wants the Nazareth sugar cookie,” reads the report. As a long-standing biscuit lover I deplore this abuse of biscuits in the so-called name of democracy. Only in America, as they say.

On beauty

I’m currently trying to read Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is beautifully written but maddeningly detailed (although that’s a bit like saying Woody Allen is neurotic). A recent Powell’s review of Baker’s new novel A Box of Matches highlighted the question of what makes things beautiful. This was strange because by coincidence “Alfie”, the classic 1966 Michael Caine film about the Cockney Lothario, was on TV the other night, I hadn’t seen it for years, and there’s a fantastic line about beauty near the end of that: “It ain’t through the eyes that you feel beauty; it’s how the heart hungers for something that makes it beautiful.” I think that stands up by itself, but what makes it even better is how it comes out of the mouth of a man you’d never expect to make that sort of observation.

Anyway, regarding Nicholson again, it was interesting to read that the main character is an early riser and likes to sit by an open fire and stoke it with apple cores and other items, because according to a recent Baker profile/interview in The Guardian, that is exactly how he goes about his writing (not chucking it on the fire, but getting up early, etc). This in turn reminded me of Russell Hoban, who often gives his main characters the same chaotic workroom full of books, videos, posters, stones, CDs and sheets of yellow paper that he himself lives and works in. Some people might say that starting with yourself, your own immediate person and environment, is a rather boring and unimaginative approach to writing, but anyone who’s tried to write will know it’s such a difficult, intense and lonely endeavour that you very often find yourself coming back to you – your abilities (or lack of them), your motivations, the fine details of your life – which, on the basis of truth being stranger than fiction, are not necessarily any less interesting than the sort of details you come up with off your own bat. Perhaps the test of this approach though is whether you can take off from the base of yourself into something completely separate from yourself, like a jazz musician launching from a set theme into an improvisation. This analogy was spontaneous but not arbitrary – I speak as a guitarist of nearly 20 years’ standing. The trouble is I often find myself writing like a guitarist, i.e. putting on a record, playing along for a bit, making a cup of tea, playing some more, putting on another record, making another cup of tea, and then finding that several hours have passed and I haven’t got any writing done… what’s it all about, eh, Alfie?

Sense of humour failure

A really nice interview with Benjamin Zephaniah today in The Independent’s “You ask the questions” feature. Asked by one reader how he would disarm Saddam, he replies: “First, I wouldn’t have armed him in the first place. Britain went out of its way to sell arms to Saddam Hussein. I think we should be offering him a refund.” He also tells a bittersweet story about his only meeting with Tony Blair at some Foreign Office function a few years ago. Zephaniah gave a performance, and then Robin Cook gave an address. The two sat together afterwards and shared a joke ‘about how we [i.e. Cook and Zephaniah] worked really well as a team and should become a double act. So he introduced me to Tony Blair and said that we were going to go on tour together. Blair didn’t see the joke at all. He said something like, “You will do no such thing and you will report to my office tomorrow.”‘ In light of current events, it says it all, really.

On The Hours

This afternoon we saw The Hours. A beautiful film with staggering performances, but almost unbearable to watch. Half-way through I was seriously thinking of leaving because I didn’t think I could take any more, that I’d be an emotional wreck for the rest of the week if I carried on. But I know from experience that that’s never the way to deal with things that crack you up: if you see it through to the end, you will recover, but if you run away before it’s finished the wound will stay open. True enough, walking out of the cinema, after a few tense minutes we felt fine again. It was nice to see some shots of Richmond in the Virginia Woolf sections of the film, even if she did say that great line, “From a choice between Richmond and death, I would choose death” – which incidentally was the only bit of the whole movie which got a laugh. K and I went and sat by the river with a cup of tea and considered Richmond and that line, and it conflated in my head with some of the ideas I’d had from Adaptation into the latest in a long line of semi-autobiographical stories about a frustrated young writer living in Richmond who chooses life, people. Although of course now he’d be less young than in previous, similar synopses…