Archive for August, 2005

Henry Williamson

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

If he is remembered now, it is as the author of Tarka the Otter, a fine book that is still in print. But he was more than a nature writer. He’s one of the three really good writers I know of who became Nazis — the others being Céline and Knut Hamsun.

He wrote and rewrote his own life obsessively, in gigantic novel sequences; but he also wrote a couple of short books on his experiences in the first world war. Last night I finally read The Patriots’s Progress, which is the one you would recommend to Victoria Beckham, because it’s quite short and has lots of pictures, even if they are not in colour. It’s a work of astonishing force. It’s crude and self-consciously literary at once — the hero is called John Bullock and the early paragraphs go on for whole chapters. DEATH appears in capital letters, in a most unironic way. No writer could be further from Robert Graves, not in the force of his egoism, but in the artless unashamed desire to bully us into seeing and suffering as he did and to do so on his terms.

But he passes the only test that matters: the nightmare comes through to us with greater force than in anything I have read for a long time on that war, even Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We. Do read it, but not last thing at night, unless you want to wake, as I did, in the middle of the night seeing parts of dead men sticking out of the mud.

I don’t mean that Graves didn’t have a fierce artisitc egosim, in the sense that he, too, wanted everyone to know and care about the reality of war. But he set about it with savage understatement, and employed his every art to seduce the reader, not to bully them. Williamson must be artful in the organisation of his material. Otherwise the climax of the book would not have the effect it has. But you can constantly feel a hectoring and didactic purpose; and the very end, or anti-climax, strikes a clanging false note of fascist mysticism.

A small epiphany

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

Hamish McRae has yet another article in the Independent today arguing that globalisaiton is wonderful, or at least inevitable; and that we will be fine in this country providing we compete for the jobs that require intelligence rather than cheap labour; I must have glanced at this, on a breakfast table spread with newspapers, at exactly the right angle to illuminate just how preposterous this hope is.

There’s nothing wrong with the logic, of course — or nothing much wrong with the logic: let’s assume for the moment that there is in fact free global competition for interesting jobs among intelligent and well-educated people of any nationality. Now ask yourself where on that scale you would rank the British. If you answered “We have one of the best-educated, most cosmopolitan and best-disciplined workforces in the world”, award yourself a suitable prize — something like an A at GCSE.

The sods of the copybook headings

Tuesday, August 30th, 2005

Well, I have just learned something interesting. If you are going to make backups onto CD, it’s not enough to make them regularly, keep backups of the backups, and so on: it’s also important not to use cheap bulk CDs. I just had occasion to go through a whole stack of backups from the years 1999 and 2000. Of the twenty or so disks I had made, three were still readable in their entirety: the ones made by Hewlett-Packard. All the ones labelled “Targa”, that I had picked up cheap, feeling clever, are riddled with errors.

So, if you need the data, pay good money for good disks. If you don’t need the data, why are you saving it?

The other lesson, as pointed outmany years ago by Rupert, is to use zip as your only backup format. I have about 120gb of backups made, carefully, devoutly, under Windows 98, in a format which can’t be read by any later operating system. Aren’t computers wonderful?

The glories of Venice

Sunday, August 28th, 2005

I have only just discovered the detective novels of Sarah Caudwell, Claud Cockburn’s daughter by Jean Ross (who was the original of Sally Bowles). They got great reviews when she died a few years ago, but I loathe the puzzle element of detective stories. All the qualities of my mind which are in some circumstances advantageous — chilefly an ability to make leaps of sympathy, and to see how things would be if something else were true — make me easy for the malevolent writer to hoodwink. So I made no effort until I found one in a book sale yesterday and devoured it in an evening. The voice of the heroine is distinctive and might appeal to more people than me:

“Venice, as one sees from the map in Ragwort’s guide, consists essentially of three large islands, though subdivided by canals into a great many smaller ones. Two of the three lie curled together, divided only by the Grand Canal, in an embrace of such Gallic sophistication as to prevent my pursuing further the anatomical analogy. To their left, excluded from their intimacy, the long thin island of Giudecca stretches out alone, a parable in geography of the hazards of a partie a trois. For consolation, like a divine hot-water bottle, it has at its foot the little island of San Giorgio Maggiore.”

There is something about Venice which brings this out in English writers. Spike Milligan, in the last volume of his war memoirs, is sent there with a concert party: “Wasn’t the city resting on piles? Yes; it was agony for the people underneath.”

Fame’s posterior trumpet

Saturday, August 27th, 2005

Trivers is out. It will be the last profile I do for the Guardian since that slot is a casualty of the redesign; and I’m glad it was so much fun. It was one of the best jobs, perhaps the very best, that I have ever had as a journalist and I can’t think of any other European paper which would have run those.

List to follow when I feel more organised

The Brazilian Whacks

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

This week’s Wormseye (below the fold) an angry reaction from at least one reader, Allan Hodgson. I’ve moved it out of comments in a Voltairean spirit.

I could not disagree more with Andrew Brown’s comments in a Worm’s Eye View on the unfortunate death of Mr. deMenezes. We are extremely fortunate to have a police commissioner of the stature of Sir Ian Blair. Under the circumstances it was imperative to keep the lid on things and to prevent mass hysteria.Mistakes do happen under such circumstances and the unfortunate shooting of one man is not a high price to pay. I fervently pray Sir Ian is not forced to resign, and I wish the media would find something more meritous to concern themselves with.


The art of punditry

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

The many fans of Stephen Glover will treasure today’s column in the Independent. He starts with a long nostalgic look at the old days as a leader writer on the Daily Telegraph:

” … There were at least 10 writers, and none was required to show up until 3.45pm, when the editorial conference took place.
Even then, the chances were that you would not be asked to write a leader. One leader writer went six months without putting pen to paper.1 … “

Then he goes on to the future:

“The hot news is that the Guardian is expected to re-launch in its Berliner format on Monday 12 or Tuesday 13 September. This is a couple of weeks earlier than most people had expected, I fluctuate between thinking it will be a great success or a damp squib. Or might it be neither?”

Who can doubt he will be proved right?

1 One might suspect this last phrase was pure laziness, since journalists type; but I’m not sure that all the Telegraph intellectuals did use typewriters even in the early Eighties. Peter Utley dictated, but he was blind. Others might have used fountain pens, as Michael Wharton certainly did, and still does.

Search engine spamming wars?

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

This is really strange: this morning I had six messages from MT blacklist in my inbox reporting suspected new comment spam. It was certainly spam: six comments all saying

i come from <A Href=””>best search engine</A>

and all apparently from The question is, who might have sent these. Obviously not Google, since it is neither evil nor stupid, and this spam will irritate anyone who gets it without boosting Google’s coverage. But just as obviously not Yahoo, which is not evil nor stupid either, though it makes less fuss about not being evil. And, if I let MT-blacklist do its thing, the whole Dutch branch of yahoo will be autmatically added to the blacklist of domains forbidden to leave comments on any MT blog anywhere that uses this plugin. So, by script-kiddie logic, it has to be Microsoft, the owners of the search engine that nobody uses as well as the most completely evil organisation that the world has ever seen.1

But I’m not a script kiddy. I can’t believe any corporation would be so stupid. So it has to be some prankster with an ingenious sense of humour who is trying to make trouble for everyone. The only question is, how widespread this wave of spam will be. Because it is a technique which could be generalised to put all your enemies oon te MT / typepad comment blacklists.

1 Including the mafia, the Chinese People’s Communist party, the KGB, etc etc. Don’t you know anything about computers?

Russia is our fatherland

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

P. Smirnovsky’s A Textbook of Russian Grammar is obviously a book that should be written, even if P. Smirnovsky is unable to undertake the task because he is dead, or possibly never lived. This week’s “Author, Author” competition in the back of the TLS, where you have to identify the sources of quotations, has a perfect phrase of his:

“An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.”

Google only quotes the phrase above, because it is used as an epigraph for one of Nabokov’s stories, so I suspected at first that it might all be made up. But further research revealed I have libelled Smirnovsky. He did live, and is remembered in the Reserve Room of the Modern and Mediaeval languages Library of Cambridge University:

Main Author: Smirnovskiĭ, P.V.
Title: Uchebnik russkoĭ grammatiki. (vol. 1).
Published: Moskva, 1898.
Format: Book

lament for the younger generation

Monday, August 15th, 2005

Marlborough College is trying to expel a boy merely for being thick and unpleasant. Perhaps you had to have been there to understand how absurd this is. It’s like being thrown out of Big Brother for being a shallow exhibitionist.

This is a school which has been hated by any pupil of any intelligence or sensibility for as long as it has existed. When I was there, the punishment for new boys thought clever was a kind of gang rape involving boot polish and sometimes sodomy with a broomstick. At the time, I would have welcomed, perhaps incredulously, any sign that the authorities thought anyone could be too stupid or too nasty for the school. Now I know better. If the school has shareholders, they should sue it at once for diluting its brand equity. Up until now, to be an Old Marlburian has made a very clear statement about a man — that he is at best a rather pious evangelical Christian, but very probably nastier, more fucked up or more stupid than even the average Anglican bishop. Should this change, no one will know what being an old Marlburian means, and the �22,000 a year that parents pay to brand their children will be entirely wasted.