Archive for May, 2003

Cultural sensitivity

Saturday, May 31st, 2003
Maybe you don’t read the Sun. Maybe you don’t know what exactly it is that some British troops did, and photographed themselves doing, to Iraqi prisones of war. So here’s the money quote:
ONE [photo] was apparently taken in a warehouse. It showed a man stripped at least to the waist and suspended high in the air by a rope attached to one of the forks on a fork-lift truck.
More rope bound him throughout the length of his body.
He was hanging horizontally and his frightened face was in close-up. A soldier driving the fork-lift truck could be seen in the background, staring at his victim and apparently laughing.
ANOTHER picture showed a pair of white legs and the head of a male Iraqi.
The hand of a man behind the Iraqi’s head appeared to be forcing him to perform oral sex.
The Iraqi was squatting and again appeared to be at least naked to the waist. The soldier’s face was not visible.
No wonder the Army is angry and ashamed. The men who did this should spend years in a military jail. So should their NCOs and their officer. The rest of the platoon should be dispersed into other regiments.

It is also rather frighteing to think that this guy was so stupid, as well as vicious, that he handed the films in to Boots for processing.

Of course we’re invulnerable

Friday, May 30th, 2003
“We try to be as culturally sensitive as possible, but we want to make sure everybody goes home alive,” said Capt. Paul Kuettner, an intelligence officer. “We’re not going to risk the lives of one of our soldiers to be culturally sensitive.”

This from the Washington Post (the href should appear from the blockquote) report of an uprising in a small Sunni town where the locals sacked the police station in protest against American house searches. They started, in turn, because someone fired an RPG at some soldiers. This is beginning to look like the beginning of a very 20th century colonial war; what Kipling called “a savage war of peace”. But that’s not news.

What struck me about this intelligence officer’s remark was the assumption that the Americans have a choice about being killed or not. They can be polite, but only as a derogation from the invulnerability that is their natural state. I don’t know where they taught him, but the point about war is that it’s not like that.

Lost for words

Friday, May 30th, 2003

I have just discovered one reason why work has slowed down so much. I have been using a beta version of Openoffice, out of pure inertia, really, and a love of fiddling, and it turns out that the fucking word count is completely fucking fucked.


That’s what you get by writing a few paragraphs, selecting all, and counting the selected text as well as the whole doc. One of the ways in which it fails is that it doesn’t count any words at all in paragraphs that begin with double quotes. This is only really funny if you’re a journalist, and get paid for writing lots of paragraphs that begin with double quote marks. So I have written about 25% more words this week than I should have done; and most of them will now have to be stripped out. I shall laugh all the way to the recycle bin.

Guns before Boucher

Thursday, May 29th, 2003

You know how the Battle of Jutland would have been reported in the NRYRB — “The German North Sea Fleet: an exchange.” In a similar spirit, here’s an exchange about the news that Downing Street, not MI5, made up the stuff about Weapons of Mass Destruction.

“Of course it’s humiliating, but telling lies is one of the humiliations proper to a courtier. The real question is whether we want to be the vassals of the Americans or the Europeans. If the Americans rule the world, then it’s a bit silly sucking up to the people who don’t.”
“Oh, the Europeans. I’m a European. We’re civilised. They’re not.”
“But they stopped Kossovo and we didn’t.”
“Well, we helped.”

Civilisation grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Nothing in the above should be construed to mean that Texas is in fact civilised: only that a continent which couldn’t stop Srebrenica because our soldiers couldn’t see the point of dying is missing something important about civilisation, that Texans understand.

weighty matter

Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

Older readers will remember a discussion on teaspoons and neutron stars. I’m glad to say that the whole subject has now been exposed to a rigorous scientific examination.

When he come to your house

Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

It’s been a horrid month for death already, and last night Caroline came in with an old copy of the Independent carrying a death notice I’d entirely missed when it appeared on the 17th. Eve Keatley was Bob Runcie’s press secretary for years: a very sharp, funny, and indomitable woman, married to a Canadian journalist called Patrick. But it was worse than her. It was their daughter, Vicky, aged only thirty. The notice just said she had died suddenly while visiting friends in Toronto. I suppose I’ll find more if Eve replies to the letter I must write this morning.

Then today’s Telegraph carried an obit for Luciano Berio, which tied up a huge number of threads. I knew of him, in a rather barbarian way, because Phil Lesh had studied composition with him in the early Sixties. But Berio turns out to have been married in ways that were interesting even by the standards of Italian musicians.

There’s a line in Your Gold Teeth which has puzzled me for years: “Even Cathy Berberian knows there’s one roulade she can’t sing”. Who was this person? Had I heard right? Was it Cathy Barbarian? Cathy Bavarian? It turns out she was a singer, and Berio’s first wife and muse.

He left her for a psychology student named Susan Oyama, and, unless I’m crazy, this is the Susan Oyama whose works on ontogeny and development reproach me from the bedside bookcase every morning, and who is now profesor of psychology at CUNY.

The third wife was an Israeli musicologist named Talia Pecker. No doubt some reader of this will know her more obscure connections.

For some reason, the thought of this life running like a ribbon to thread together so many disparate interests of mine gave me great pleasure.

real housewives

Wednesday, May 28th, 2003

— in your neighbourhood: I had a spam this morning which offered me pictures of “Women bearing all”.

Another gloomy old sod

Monday, May 26th, 2003

was of course P. Larkin. Almost the high point of my journalistic career came last year when Bob Conquest handed me his copy of High Windows, inscribed by Larkin with a joke about limericks.

Those bits of Larkin that eveyone quotes and knows really aren’t his best. Even the characteristically gloomy ones aren’t his best either. What is wonderful are the moments when a coarse joy mounts from the darkness: something not just vulgar, but full of jazzy relish. Livings, in High Windows is one of my favourites. Here’s another:

Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark. Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more,
And holds a cinder to his clay with tongs,
Belching out smoke. Old Prijck snores with the gale,
His skull face firelit; someone behind drinks ale,
And opens mussels, and croaks scraps of songs
Towards the ham-hung rafters about love.
Dirk deals the cards. Wet century-wide trees
Clash in surrounding starlessness above
This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
Gobs at the grate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Rain, wind and fire! The secret, bestial peace!

apologies for absence

Monday, May 26th, 2003

The first computer I ever used had a daisy wheel printer so noisy that I would move to the floor below when it was time to print out a draft of the pamphlet I was writing (for an improbable thinktank ). So start it up, you pressed B and then . The B stood, of course, for “boot”.

The most astonishing thing about it, though, was the wonderful machine owned by the typesetters. “It’s like a great big hoover”, explained Ollie Knox, who ran the place. “You plug it in, and it sucks everything you have written away into the box, when it gets to the typesetters they can empty it out with all the markup.”

This was in 1984. He was describing an external floppy disk drive.

Anyway, someone seems to have plugged one of those into me in the last fornight, and it sucked out every particle of joy and hope, even from hard-to-reach corners. So I’ve been fully occupied trying to write two profiles at once, without the spirit to find time to keep this up. Hope things will be better from now on.

res ipsa loquitur, buddy

Monday, May 19th, 2003

I have somehow got onto the mailing list of the London School of Islamics, which appears to be a pressure group arguing for Muslim schools. Their latest spam contained the following passage: “The schools are there to anglicize the future generations of Muslims. Majority of them leave schools with low grades or without any qualification because they were not taught academic English. They can but speak in local accents making them misfit for the British society at large as well as for the whole world”.