Archive for February, 2006

Dennett on God

Monday, February 20th, 2006

I have written a fairly rude review of Dan Dennett’s new book on God, which will in due course appear in the Guardian. But the piece that the New York Times published on it fills me with sympathy for the aged philosopher. I skim-read it on Saturday, then someone sent me a copy this morning, and I so I had to have another go at the most offensive paragraph:



Sunday, February 19th, 2006

One of the stupidest things I ever did was to decide, at an impressionable age, that since Shelley was respectable, I wanted nothing to do with him. He is a thinker of extraordinary toughness and force who just happened to write in delicate singing metre.

So here I am, making up for lost time in the local second hand shop, and there is a 1946 biography of him by Edmind Blunden which has dated horribly. It is mannered, smug, and anachronistic, whcih is to say that it might, with different mannerisms and smugnesses have been published any time in the last five years, perhaps as a TV tie-in.

I persevere, and learn that the last dragon outside Horsham was recorded in 1614: there was one in St Leonard’s Forest, and Blunden quotes a pamphlet from August that year: [the dragon] was alive and well in the Forest “to the great annoyance and divers slaughters of both men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson.”

How interesting, and how sad, to see that dragons were kept alive not by their fiery breath and wings, but by the pestilences creeping through a swampy forest. The breath of dragons shrinks into mosquitos.

Black Tartan Wombat

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

If you are near London, and hurry, you may find in the basement of Forbidden Planet a sale of the paperback collected editions of Brian Aldiss’ novels at a pound each. They were just coming out when I profiled him in 2001. I picked up there last week A Rude Awakening which is the last of his three autobiographical novels about a randy soldier in the Far East between 1943 and 1946. The first, A Hand Reared Boy, was a rather scandalous success in the late Sixties.

A Rude Awakening is scandalous, all right, dripping with coarse descriptions of licentious soldiery at play. But it is also funny, frightening, and tragic, sometimes all at once. It appears to be a novel about sex, but it is also and more profoundly a story of colonialism and race. The action takes place in 1946 in the last sputter of empire: part of the British army that had reconquered Burma was diverted, after the Japanese surrender, to administer Indonesia for the Dutch, who had surrendered it to the Japanese in 1942, and found itself in the middle of a nasty little war of independence.

They aren’t really fighting and most of their time is taken up with heroic drinking bouts on such unlikely elixirs as Black Tartan Wombat Wiskey, Made in Scottland, Bottled by PV Ramakrishnan Bottling Mart, Kuala Lumpur.

The British cannot properly understand that their defeats by the Japanese in the earlier half of the war have finished their authority, which was grounded on fear. They understand the role of fear, all right. There is a horrible portrait of a torturer, who boasts of his work in the mess at night; though some of the other men denounce him, and one beats him up, there is no question of the Army stopping him. One soldier is saved from execution by the rebels because they are afraid of the retaliation that murdering him would bring. But they can’t really believe that India will be abandoned, and that a bloodbath will follow, no matter how often they are told. They can’t, in the end, believe that anyone but a white man can run a country. This is a book that works on post-imperial smugness like paintstripper but the didactic or reflective purpose is beautifully concealed in the abundant and enchanting life of it. It has all the basic merits – you want to read more, you shout with laughter, you remember it afterwards.

The virtuosity of the drinking scenes is astonishing – think of Kingsley Amis without any showing off. Below the fold I will have scanned in the first seven pages because the whole scene is such a triumph of naturalistic writing.


West coast fried braincells

Friday, February 17th, 2006

Not to warm up any deadhead jokes — though we still don’t know how many copies of the the Eleven Mrs I-am-not-a-Deadhead Tilton has — but there is enormous fun to be had here where the vaults of the Bill Graam Organisation are spilling out as mp3 streams.

Here is the playlist for the last half hour or so:

Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Boz Scaggs
Jam Session: We Gonna Rock
06/30/1971 Fillmore West

Tower of Power
Down to the Nightclub (Bump City)
03/23/1975 Kezar Stadium

Elton John
Country Comfort
11/12/1970 Fillmore West

Elvis Costello
Radio, Radio
06/07/1978 Winterland

Jefferson Airplane
White Rabbit
02/04/1967 Fillmore Auditorium

Bob Dylan and The Band
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
01/30/1974 Madison Square Garden

Sunshine of Your Love
10/04/1968 Oakland Coliseum Arena

It’s all a bit more raucous than my normal morning listening, but there’s nothing wrong with stuff that makes you want to jump around the room flapping like an excited dodo. This bulletin on Imminent extinction brought to you via Crooked Timber. The really humiliating game is to see how many of the songs I can recognise without peeking at the playlist.

A snotty youth

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

I was trying to remember the circumstances in which Auberon Waugh caused a mob to burn down the British consulate in Rawalpindi — it was one of his favourite stories — and so pulled from the shelves The Spectator anthology of the Eighties, which had a lot more of me in it than I remember writing. It didn’t have the Bron Waugh story, though, which turned out to have been told in Slate by Hitchens.

One of my jobs was to write the Portrait of the Week, which meant a couple of hours with the newspapers every Tuesday morning in the little room at the back of the building where Shiva Naipaul once greeted me with half a tumbler of whisky at eleven in the morning. The fun was to arrange the facts so that they spoke for themselves, saying something entirely different to the story they had been constrained to tell in their original newspapers. Here are two that I wrote about the Westland Affair, a scandal almost exactly twenty years old:


The philosopher, the butterfly, and the police

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

I used to play with the idea of a detective story in which all of the victim’s character (and so destiny) emerged from a study of the traces they had left in databases — what they had read in the library, who they had called, and what they had looked up on the net. I thought of this as science fiction, but obviously it’s not. When you look at the justification that Gordon Brown gave for wanting almost unlimited dentention without trial, it had nothing to do with interrogating prisoners.

Mr Brown said when it took weeks to decipher computer codes, when a “multiplicity of internet email and telephone contacts needs to be investigated across national borders”, and video footage had to be viewed, “it was obvious to me that police investigations need more time”.

He wanted time for the police to interrogate databases.

Of course, if he had read a bit more science fiction, he would come on the idea of really low-tech criminals who don’t show up in anyone’s records — or even really high-tech ones who manage the same trick.

The philosopher, the butterfly, and the cache

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

Everyone knows that Google keeps a cache of the internet; if you think it through, it’s obvious that this means there are at least two internets — the one where all the sites actually are, and the copy of everything in Google’s cache. Perhaps there are three or four, if you count Yahoo, Baidu, and others. So which is the real internet, and which is the copy? Obviously, I would like to believe that the page I am writing on now is the real one. But would it be on the internet at all if it weren’t copied into some search engine’s cache? Since that copy is what searchers are looking for, it’s at least as true that the Google version of my site is the real one, and this is just a colony, supplying raw material to the metropolis. Thinking of the real internet as the one that resides inside Google’s closed network is an interesting and salutary discipline.

Why babies cry

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

This is a really silly idea, but I like it. Just got back from a couple of nights in Edinburgh, where amongst other things, we had supper with Louise-who-comments-here and the talked moved naturally to witchcraft trials. They hardly tortured anyone, said Louise: all they needed for confession was sleep deprivation and humiliation — shave all the hair from their bodies and deprive them of sleep and people will confess to anything.

This got me thinking about very small babies, and the programme of sleep deprivation they put their parents through. This seems an incredibly risky thing to do, from the baby’s point of view — who hasn’t felt tempted to hurl a crying baby out of the window or dash it against a wall at four in the morning? But perhaps there is a payoff for those babies who are not killed by their parents (these are of course the once who leave descendants): all that sleep deprivation tends to reorient the parents towards their new baby as thoroughly as the KGB could ever have managed it. It’s a Stockholm syndrome.

No doubt some grouchy anti-adaptationist will be along any moment to point out that babies need to feed every three hours for entirely different reasons. But I don’t think there are any other animal species where the babies keep their parents awake in the way that human babies can. Does anyone know better?

An interesting task

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

Two projects for next month: I will make another Analysis programme on what the government’s policy towards domestic Islamic terrorism actually is; and I will produce a longish essay for the Guardian looking at whether it is true – as alleged by Bruce Anderson, amongst others – that real scholars are now frightened to discuss truthfully the origins of Islam.

On the Analysis question, it seems to me quite clear what we should be trying to avoid. The worst possible case for the British government – and society’s – point of view, is for the development of Islamic terrorism to follow the path of Irish Catholic nationalism in Ulster, with clan-based mafias with external safe havens and funding, a fascist ideology, and a religious penumbra setting up as the defenders of their people against an external threat. It’s very much easier to start such things than to stop them; it is also the case that once they get started, they are largely self-sustaining. The threat to all Muslims will become more real in proportion to the ways in which some Muslims threaten the rest of us. These are hardly original thoughts but I need to find the people in government or thereabouts who have been thinking them and will talk honestly.

As the for question of fear, I know that I have been frightened in the past myself. I did a long piece for the Sunday Telegraph some years ago about the oldest known fragments of the Koran, which Dominic Lawson spiked. I haven’t busted a gut to publish it since. But I now think this was wrong. There is a hugely important principle at stake. Censoring universities is much more important than censoring newspapers. We shall see what happens when I start asking questions.

Finally – what is there in common between celebrity and sacredness? They do seem to me to involve very similar psychic mechanisms, a kind of child-like magical thinking. There was a story in the Observer today about Jordan’s enormous book sales, and a woman queuing for her signature was quoted as saying that she had been through so much, so that when she, the fan, realised that Jordan had been a single parent this gave her the strength to be one too. And this kind of identification with an idealised but really powerful figure, who is just like us, only perfect, is clearly at the root of a lot of attitudes to both Jesus and Muhammed.

PS — Aaaaaaaargh!


Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

Every six months or so I think that I must get a download from the Grateful Dead music store; it takes about that long to forget how awful the system is. They have a site which doesn’t work with firefox at all, and where the button to download all the tracks you have bought (one easy click on emusic) will only work in IE. Or so they say; it won’t work in IE for me either. So I end up right-clicking on every track in Opera and saving as.

Last time I did this was January the fourth. Halfway through the ineffable frustration of downloading sixteen copies of a file called “bigriver.aspx” which contains no music at all, I fired off an email of complaint to the help desk. Today, February 8, I got a reply, which started with the phrase “You have recently” … stoned inefficiency combined with arrogance and robotic inflexibility. How very 1980s Dead.