Monthly Archives: May 2003

All that jazz

A plank (and a guitar)Spotted while out walking in Richmond today. Click here for more info about the Association of British Jazz’s campaign against Tony Blair’s licensing bill.

It was an appropriate spotting on the day that Mark Lawson wrote an excellent review in the Guardian of The Last Party, a new book by John Harris about the uneasy and short-lived cosying-up between “Britpop” and New Labour when the latter (and the former, come to that) was still trendy. The print version of the review features a cringing photo of Noel Gallagher having a laugh and a glass of champas with Blair back in 1997 – a time when we were all that much more innocent and Tone’s hair was still brown. (NB: Amazon is offering the £15 book at £10.50.)

Talking of Noel, I wonder what Tone’s four-noun autobiography title would be? Suggestions please.

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And talking of Tony, Matthew Parris writes in today’s Times about “the evidence that millions of ordinary people are not amnesiacs, do remember why Mr Blair said Britain must attack [Iraq] and do still care whether that was true.” Along the way, old Tory Parris unnecessarily compares Margaret Thatcher favourably to Blair to back up his argument, but it’s otherwise an excellent piece.

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Also superb in today’s Guardian Review is this essay by E.L. Doctorow about how he started writing, concluding with this interesting thought: “I believe nothing of any beauty or truth comes of a piece of writing without the author’s thinking he has sinned against something – propriety, custom, faith, privacy, tradition, political orthodoxy, historical fact, literary convention, or indeed, all the prevailing community standards together. And that the work will not be realised without the liberation that comes to the writer from his feeling of having transgressed, broken the rules, played a forbidden game without his understanding or even fearing his work as a possibly unforgivable transgression.”

Prince William says Picasso is good, so it must be true (and other stuff)

Week 94: the housemates are on day 62 of their pedalo task. They’ve only three hours to go and then they’ll be given their next task – painting the house. That’s right – tune into Big Brother tomorrow night and watch paint dry…

Big Brother. The very words strike fear into the soul: someone watching you 24 hours a day, telling you what to do, what to think, what to believe. If it’s not George W. Bush and Tony Blair, it’s Enema Productions or whatever they’re called. Oh, that’s a nice kitchen. Mm, she’s pretty. God, he’s boring. In fact, it’s all boring. Why am I watching this crap? Why don’t these people just GET A LIFE???

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Jilly Cooper (no relation) and Joanna Trollope have descended on the Guardian Hay Festival to defend the honour of their “bonkbusters” and “Aga sagas”. Cooper claims: “There are two categories of writers. Jeffrey Archer and me who long and long for a kind word in the Guardian and the others who get all the kind words and long to be able to do what Jeffrey and I do.” One for Private Eye’s Modesty Corner, I should think. What can she possibly care what the Guardian says about her books when Telegraph and Mail readers lap them up wholesale? She then goes on to say, “My new book has got paedophilia, September 11 and lots of black people in it. I’m moving on, we’ve got to progress.” If that isn’t the most desperate, sad cry for literary credibility I don’t know what is.

Trollope meanwhile pours scorn on the “grim lit” popular with critics “that makes you want to slash your wrists”. Sounds a bit like the old argument about Leonard Cohen’s records being “music to slash your wrists to” – always levelled by people who’d never listened to them, of course. And as LC himself once said, “My feeling about music I don’t like is that I keep my mouth shut about it.” A lesson for us all, maybe, Joanna?

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Thoughtcat’s spy in West Drayton highlights a very good article on ZNet today by Ian Hislop’s favourite “left-wing comedian” and scourge of the Iraq war, Mark Steele, entitled Truth, Lies and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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And finally today, in an exclusive to all newspapers, Prince William, a.k.a. Ordinary Geezer Bill Windser, talks about life as a student at the University of St Andrews, where he’s reading history of art. Commenting on the subject, he describes his father’s watercolours as “brilliant” and Picasso as “revolutionary”. “His blue period,” he ruminates: “I do like that.”

From nuclear looting to Annie Hall via Maggie Gyllenhaal’s bum

Call me naive if you will (I suppose it’s at least better than being cynical), but I was astonished to read in the Guardian about the looting of radioactive material from nuclear facilities in Iraq as US troops stood aside. Given that it’s not quite as easy to do this as to nick a bag of rice from a food shop, isn’t this tantamount to just handing the stuff to the same terrorists the US is allegedly “at war” with? I suppose next we’ll be hearing that the Ministry of Oil was the only government department left intact after the bombing of Baghdad, or that Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld will say it doesn’t really matter if no weapons of mass destruction are discovered after all…

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To the Odeon for the second time this week, this time to see Secretary. Both my wife and I used to be secretaries in previous lives but neither of us remembered it being quite like this. Maggie Gyllenhaal was magnificent – a really gripping, intense performance; she sort of became the part, without taking herself seriously for a moment. Apart from that I can’t say I enjoyed the film exactly, but after the dazzling spectacle of Matrix Reloaded the other day, it was refreshing to see that small, intimate films about offbeat people and curious relationships can still do well at the box office. Plus, it was great to hear Leonard Cohen sneaking onto the soundtrack with the exquisite I’m Your Man (“If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you…”) It was also good to see James Spader again, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day since he made White Palace, one of my all-time favourite films, in 1990.

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Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on a new biography of Sylvia Plath by Anne Middleton, which will controversially claim that the poet was not “the downtrodden victim of feminist legend” after all. I’m glad to hear it; despite Ted Hughes’s reported philandering, which obviously didn’t help, it always seemed obvious to me from her writing that she was a very strong personality and character who was simply besieged by mental illness. There’s no rationalising with that, whether you’re a feminist or not.

Thinking about Plath put me in mind of this exchange in Annie Hall:

ALVY (picking up copy of “Ariel” in Annie’s flat): Ah, Sylvia Plath – the poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.

ANNIE: Oh, I don’t know – I just think some of her poems are neat.

ALVY: Neat? I think “neat” went out sometime around the turn of the century…

From Larkin to Eurovision via The Matrix

The Guardian reports on some newly-discovered jazz blues lyrics written by Philip Larkin in the early forties. Among these was “Fuel Form Blues”, which the Bard of the Spectacles casually tossed off while “bored in his first job as a clerk collating wartime fuel rationing forms at a coal depot in Warwick”:

I’d rather be a commando, or drive a railway train,
I’d rather be a commando, Lord! drive a railway train,
Than sort them Fuel Form Blues into streets again…

Fuckin’ Fuel Forms, gonna carry me to my grave, carry me to my grave.

It’s easy to see that the great poet was already laying the foundations for his later classics such as “Toads”, q.v.:

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

…not to mention “This Be The Verse”.

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To the Odeon to see the distinctly unLarkinesque Matrix Reloaded. I attempted to brush up on the Matrix phenomenon last night by watching an old video of the first film… and was lost within the first twenty minutes. Nevertheless, it was a nice lostness, and I approached the sequel with interest. Like the original, I found it a bit cold and soulless (although that’s the whole point, I guess), and there were some dreadfully slow bits in the first hour, but the special effects didn’t disappoint and the whole thing was good fun. The car chase was my favourite scene, and the point where Trinity was riding against the flow of traffic startlingly realistic. According to the iMDB, the epic chase was shot on a highway specially built for the movie. Weirdly enough, shortly after we got home from seeing the film, Fifth Gear was on and had a feature about the scene. Keanu Reeves praised Carrie-Anne Moss for doing it sans stunt double or crash helmet, but I had to take this with a slight pinch of salt when it was revealed that the traffic she was pictured weaving around was all digitally superimposed afterwards. Boo!

The only thing I can never work out about The Matrix, incidentally, is, if the “real” world as perceived by humans is actually a digital creation of the machines, why didn’t the machines make the “real” world a bit more exciting? If it’s all virtual anyway, why not make the world absolutely wonderful for people instead of humdrum and everyday? That way, surely everybody would be happy and there’d be no need to have Agents to track down all the Neos and Morpheuses (Morphei?) because they’d be so serene they wouldn’t want to escape…

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I have to say that last Saturday was not spoilt for me at all by the UK receiving an unprecedented nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest. This piece in the Guardian today does a fair job of explaining why it happened.

Setting the record straight on masked palm civets

The Guardian reports that the masked palm civet may be responsible for the Sars virus. When I first read this I wasn’t sure whether a masked palm civet was a tree, a kind of party or a herb used in south-east asian cooking. This of course does nothing for my feline credentials whatsoever, but now we know that it is, in fact, a cat, or a “small cat-like mammal” as the article puts it. It seems to me civets have had a bad press – it wasn’t they who were responsible for spreading the virus after all, but people who killed them and ate them – often illegally.

Anyway, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding much information about civets on the internet. The picture I found was deceptive, making me think someone had mistaken the poor creature for a badger. (But then, perhaps badgers are small cat-like mammals too?) The only decent snippet of information I found came from Tiscali’s reference site sourced from the Hutchinson Encyclopaedia. Even the estimable World Wildlife Fund had nothing on the story. However, I emailed them about the issue and received this response:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us for our view on recent claims that eating the masked palm civet could have caused the outbreak of SARS in China.

We do not believe enough scientific research has been carried out to support this claim and therefore we cannot comment on this issue.

You may be interested to know that although national laws may vary, international trade in the masked palm civet is strictly regulated.

International trade may be authorized by the granting an export permit or re-export certificate; no import permit is necessary. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

Stuff in the news

Painful as it is to see anyone in agony, as he fractures his scaphoid it’s good to see “ace haircut with quite a good footballer attached” David Beckham once again doing service to linguistics by bringing another unusual word into popular usage, as he did last time with the Great Metatarsal Affair. Anthony Burgess, eat your heart out!

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Thoughtcat’s (wo)Man in West Drayton strikes again with an interesting report from the BBC that scientists in the US have found “proof” that Buddhist meditation helps you feel more serene. It’s a nice story, but surely Buddhists have known that for some time. Who says science is slow on the uptake?

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I have finally finished the first entry for thoughtcat’s nine lives page, an occasional series of random memoirs from a less-than-auspicious CV, starting with a job I had in a burger bar with an interestingly-decorated table. Hope you enjoy it…

The benefits of home-working

The Guardian’s Saturday magazine has a column called “Things you only know if you’re not at work”. Being a home”worker” myself, so far one thing I haven’t seen mentioned in that column is the fact that during the daytime, Channel 5 turns into a kind of shopping channel. I turned on the TV to watch a video of last night’s ER while I ate my lunch but didn’t even get to put the video on because I was so fixated by a five-minute advert by TimeLife for a new series of dramatisations of Bible stories, collectively called – wait for it – The Bible. “These films are not available in the shops,” announced the gravelly-voiced narrator, which is always a bad sign. The first film available is called Jesus.  “Buy Jesus for £9.99 and get Joseph free!” went the offer. A lot of very good British character actors, including Gary Oldman (Pontius Pilate), Ben Kingsley (Moses), Dame Diana Rigg (Delilah) and Michael Gambon (er, Samson?) were shown looking serious in robes against dusty backgrounds while we were told over and over about how the offer of the films was exclusive, exclusive and exclusively exclusive. A phone number for emergency ordering of the films was given, but even more bizarrely an alternative phone number with an Italian flag next to it was also displayed in smaller print at the bottom of the screen…

Even worse, when the advert for The Bible was over, Starsky and Hutch came on. I used to love that when I was a kid – I had a toy car with the white flash down the side and everything – but, not having seen it for 20 years, I couldn’t believe the utter cheesiness of it. That’s the thing about Seventies retro – the revivalists retain the haircuts and the flares and the cool music, but they conveniently edit out the fact that about 75% of that era was given over to naff jokes about Starsky ripping his jacket or spilling his chilli dog on his trousers, while Hutch spent less time fighting crime than fighting off women. Give me The Professionals any day. Or check out They Fight Crime!, a brilliant site which generates random crime-fighting duos, such as: “He’s // a bookish gay // boxer // on his last day in the job. She’s // a transdimensional // nymphomaniac politician // looking for love in all the wrong places. They fight crime!”

Stuff in the news

Looks like we’re going to be in for a Dylan moviefest in the coming months. First it was Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic (see TC 21st February), and now Martin Scorsese announces he’s working on a film about Dylan. Haynes famously said he’s casting seven different actors to play Dylan over the various periods of his career, including a woman. Maybe Scorsese could get Leonardo DiCaprio to play the young Bob, Daniel Day-Lewis for the middle years, Robert “Bob” De Niro for the present “grizzly” version and Cameron Diaz for everything else.

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As poor old Jean-Pierre Garnier sobs to the Telegraph that he’s “not Mother Teresa”, Richard Adams outlines in the Guardian’s City Diary the definitive reasons why the Glaxo Fat Cat is not the Angel of Calcutta.

What’s in a name?

George Monbiot writes an excellent piece today about an attempt by a Belgian lawyer to try General Tommy Franks for war crimes in Iraq. Belgium is the only country in the world which has, or had until now anyway, a law allowing people to be tried for such crimes even if they were committed outside Belgium or didn’t involve the country. It’s a great story, especially since it “outraged” the US, but sadly the Belgian authorities rushed to amend the law to avoid international embarrassment.

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The Times reports on the incredible feat of endurance that “old Harrovian” Pen Hadow, or Rupert Nigel Pendrill Hadow to give him his full name, has performed by walking solo to the North Pole. The print version of the story also lists some other (ant)arctic explorers including Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. It’s a fantastic result for the guy, no question, and I wouldn’t’ve been able to do it myself, but surely a true world record for a British explorer would be to get to the North Pole with only a name like Dave Grubb or something?