Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Atishoo! Atishoo! We All Fall Down

Thanks to MATT in the Telegraph

Plenty of fixes this week for the news-addicted with the media response to swine flu. 24-hour rolling news coverage, sneeze-by-sneeze analysis and the BBC’s Q&A page and interactive map (or 'use this map to explore the Swine flu outbreak in pictures, audio, video and text') combine with slightly disturbing enthusiasm to offer an unprecedented voyeuristic experience as we wait for the axe to fall.

For the conspiracy theorists (and smug vegetarians) there is rich material for speculation on the Hubris that is intensive farming. The Times reports that the first recorded cases occurred in an area blighted by slurry lagoons from a massive feedlot or, euphemistically, Confined Animal Feeding Operation (See ‘Fast Food Nation’ for elucidation) that raises almost 1 million animals a year.

If there is a connection – and 60% of the local inhabitants falling sick looks pretty conclusive – then Swine Flu will join nvCJD and e-coli in the rogues’ gallery of diseases linked to modern intensive farming and production methods.

As a character in ‘The Day of the Triffids’ points out, we’ve been walking for years along a tight-rope of our own making, our eyes deliberately closed to the depths beneath us; the wonder is not that we are now falling, but that we managed somehow to balance as long as we did.

Monday 27 April 2009

John Humphrys' Crystal Balls

Dear Today programme,

This morning you gave details of Prince Charles' audience with the Pope, (a short lads-only chat before allowing the Duchess and retinue in) even though it had not yet taken place. On several recent occasions, you have announced what such-and-such a politician 'will say in a speech later today'.

Since these events have yet to happen, please explain the clairvoyant devices you employ to be so certain that nothing will prevent, alter or postpone them. Granted, you have a copy of the Prince's itinerary, or the politician's press release, but how do you know? The royals might get stuck in traffic, the MP could pull a sickie, an asteroid might impact and end the world as we know it.

Oh, and while we're about it, please try to do something about your habit of spinning out news headlines, as in 'The teenager missing for three weeks following a coach crash during a school trip to the Australian outback which resulted in three deaths has been found....'

'No man is an island'; by the time you get round to telling me whether the child is alive or dead, I've been holding my breath for 30 seconds. Forget this Germanic obsession with placing the verb at the end of the sentence; for goodness' sake, put yourselves in the position of the listener, and give us the crucial information as soon as possible!

Thank you, that feels a lot better.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Songs from the Dentist's Chair

For the past week, thanks to my recent root canal work, I've had a particular song running through my head. By a sad coincidence we learned yesterday of the death of one of its authors Duke D'Mond (aka Richard Palmer), lead singer of the Barron Knights, kings of British pop parody.

I think it deserves not to be forgotten, if only as a form of distraction from what's going on in your mouth. (At least it stops me thinking of 'Dentist!' from 'Little Shop of Horrors'.)

All together now....

"There's a dentist in Birmingham
He fixed my crown..."

Suggestions for other suitable songs welcome - I have a follow-up appointment next week.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Misery Memoirs and a Trip to Tyburn

As regular readers may have noticed, it’s been a bit quiet around here recently, largely due to a week in which the terms overtime, root canal and budget have been bandied about too frequently for peace of mind. In need of cheering up, I visited my local bookshop today – the one with a slightly eccentric notion of classification.

Since my last visit, a new category has sprung into being; a shelf label now proudly announces ‘Unfortunate Lives’. Under this, a handwritten card bears the following description: ‘A special feature showcasing lives of individuals struggling with adversity.’

Showcasing? Showcasing? Why not just go the whole hog and call it ‘Let’s have a good old vicarious wallow in someone else’s misery while congratulating ourselves on how caring we are'? And someone not only thought the term appropriate for these horrible books, but thought so for long enough to write it out neatly on a card and tape it to the shelf.

Since Mis. Lit. was publicly embraced by Oprah Winfrey – no stranger herself to lucrative abuse memoirs – as ‘life-affirming’ and ultimately uplifting redemptive therapy, the floodgates have opened. In imitation of the sainted Winfrey, Britain’s Richard and Judy ran a sort of ‘more abused than thou’ phone-in competition, giving viewers 2 minutes to pitch their harrowing real-life stories - the prize, a publishing contract worth £25,000.

There have been efforts to resist this revolting trend – the Observer lifted its voice, Cassandra-like, three years ago to warn of the rapid development of the genre, asking plaintively, "Whatever happened to, say, ‘Little Women’ or ‘Cider With Rosie’?” With supreme irony, a google ad at the end of the online article invites you to ‘sell your story for CASH’.

Which brings me neatly to the market for this kind of thing. Who is buying it in such quantities that publishers are churning it out at unprecedented speed? What do they hope to gain from reading of repellently sadistic acts? Are they really any different from the crowds who once flocked avidly to bear-baitings or the public hangings at Tyburn?

A clue, perhaps, can be found in the Sun’s report of a 12-year-old girl’s mistreatment of a dog, filmed by a ‘sickened’ neighbour for 13 minutes (hat tip to Unenlightened Commentary), and more specifically in the way that the Sun’s website helpfully included the footage so ‘readers’ could appreciate it for themselves.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Iannuci the prophet

Life has been particularly busy imitating Art this week, as the doings of the McBride/Draper menagerie come to light - 'they looked from pig to man, and from man to pig again....but already it was impossible to say which was which' - and this is set to continue with the imminent release of Armando Iannuci's 'In the Loop'.

Iannuci, whose prescient e-mail storyline from 'The Thick of It' has become compulsory - and compulsive - YouTube viewing this week, said on the Today programme that the current political furore is the result of a culture of the end justifying the means that has sprung up over the past ten to fifteen years.

He obviously moved in more scrupulous circles than I did during the 80's if he thinks it's that recent (see Confessions of a Former Labour Acolyte vol 1 and vol 2), since some of the embryonic NuLab advisors were even then justifying some very dubious means like nobody's business. It's just taken them 25 years to reach the top of a very greasy pole (or to float up to the surface, if you prefer).

When 'In the Loop' appears and the inevitable comparisons are drawn with our glorious leaders, I hope Iannuci comes up with a disclaimer as good as Heinrich Boll's ('The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum'); any resemblance between a real newspaper and the obscene, muck-raking gutter publication he describes in his book, he says, is 'neither deliberate nor accidental, but simply unavoidable.'

Sunday 12 April 2009

Is Gordon Brown going deaf?

It's probably lese-majeste or something to suggest it, but anyone who has observed the gradual onset of deafness in a close family member might be forgiven for thinking something rather familiar is going on in Number 10.

Look, for example, at the footage of Brown staring directly at Obama while the President was speaking, and ask yourself whether he is trying to see the man's lips move. There have been occasional errors in pronunciation; surprisingly for a man for whom attention to detail is crucial, he apparently referred to 'Jane Goody' - suspiciously like the consonant confusion typical of hearing loss.

Or consider the Prime Minister's behaviour in the European Parliament; forced by protocol to remain in place for the subsequent seven speeches, he chatted, made notes and manifestly failed to listen. This is consistent with his reported habit of continuing to write at his desk when colleagues try to discuss business with him. Is he being rude, or is it simply that if he is obviously not listening, he cannot be held accountable for details that escape him?

A close relative with relevant experience drew my attention to Brown's head movements - with sight in only one eye, lip-reading requires a particular angle of vision. Anyone familiar with gradual hearing loss can attest that sufferers are often skilled actors and mimics, seemingly following a long conversation while actually having little idea what has been said (and likely to agree to suggestions they have not fully heard - such as 'Shall I send this e-mail?').

Rightly or wrongly, we expect our political leaders to be superhuman. Vince Cable's hairline may have lost him the LibDem leadership and the Iron Lady's tears were front page news; the pack is always ready to fall on a failing alpha male (or female). If I'm right, Brown faces a terrible dilemma; either admit a weakness that could bring him down or struggle on and risk a potenially disastrous misunderstanding in future.

Confessions of a Former Labour Acolyte: vol2

As seen in vol 1 last week, the era that honed the skills of Derek Draper et al was a heady one for those of us who followed the Red Flag. As supporters of the oppressed masses, we occupied the moral high ground whatever the political methods we employed.

We've all passed a lot of water since then, and I no longer remember whether there was a Derek or a Charlie - or even an Alastair - among the high-ranking NOLS officials and Party members who imparted to us the secrets of political manipulation and orchestrating smear campaigns, visiting the faithful to spread their gospel of Labour supremacy at all costs.

There is something horribly familiar in the antics of Draper and McBride; the same techniques once used to discredit student politicians have evolved into a monster, incorporating Fleet Street and the blogosphere to cause damage on a scale we could never have imagined a quarter of a century ago.

Defamation on this scale is nothing new - it was common practice in Cicero's Rome to accuse a political opponent of murder or child-molesting - but in today's mass-media culture every allegation made creates infinite repercussions beyond the political arena and the consequences are incalculable.

In the mid 80s, they justified their methods by claiming it was essential to oust Thatcher by any means before she did any further damage; these were the dirty tricks of an opposition party frustrated by a lack of political authority. When the party in power resorts to such smear tactics, one has to ask why.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Confessions of a Former Labour Acolyte: vol 1

Where were you in the mid 1980s? Did you want to Free Nelson Mandela? Were you calling on Thatcher to Stand Down, Please? Did you Need That Fascist Groove Thang? 

 Like many of New Labour’s current elite, I spent those years in a haze of righteous indignation, trying to change the world to a soundtrack by the Communards and Billy Bragg. The Red Flag was our icon; we were steeped in political awareness from the ends of our dreadlocks to the toes of our fair-trade cotton socks and we never, ever bought South African fruit. We tried to enjoy ourselves while never losing sight of the suffering of the third world; our relationships were conducted on eggshells as we struggled to avoid gender stereotyping and sexist oppression. The whole thing was an exercise in doublethink that only the credulity of youth could countenance. 

 Like many Labour organisations, the group I belonged to was visited by practitioners of the darker arts of politics. We sat at the feet of masters of spin and learned of ways to orchestrate polling and to manage the single transferable vote. We listened open-mouthed to tales of voter manipulation and jamming party switchboards, of smear campaigns and untraceable ways to discredit the opposition. These extreme tactics, we were told, were justified by the evil of Thatcherism and a corrupt Tory regime; desperate measures for desperate times. Although an ethical lifestyle was our ideal, these visiting heroes of the political struggle would selflessly put aside the conventions of morality to achieve the greater good of electoral succcess and a New Left Government. 

Twenty years on, the Socialist Utopia seems more than a little tarnished. The moral slippage that once justified dubious electoral strategies has become a landslide of dodgy expense claims, political cabals and backbiting. Despite all our hopes, it seems that the corrupting influence of power is as strong now as it ever was, far stronger, alas, than moral principles aready compromised in its pursuit.