Archive for December, 2006


Wednesday, December 20th, 2006
  • I think the New Scientist has just published its most haunting headline: Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds
  • The Mail’s hatchet job on Tom Butler this morning deserves proper analysis. I particularly like the way that they make it sound sinister that he went around a party introducing himself to people as “The Bishop of Southwark”.
  • The difference between Mussolini and Tony Blair is that Mussolini would never have tolerated English rail services. Last night, every single tube line running east from Notting Hill/ Kensington/Ladbroke Grove was broken down and out of service. The last train from Liverpool Street to Cambridge was scheduled to run at 9.30 — all subsequent services would have the last part replaced by a bus journey — and actually ran twenty minutes late; in anticipation, the waiting room at Bishop Stortford was locked at ten pm.
  • Steven Poole’s suggestion that George W Bush be awarded a prize for rhetoric carved out of a single lump of human excrement has merit.
  • I was talking last night to Perry Worsthorne, who has worn astonishingly well. His reminiscence of Frank Johnson was, he said, the first time he had been allowed to write for the Sunday Telegraph since being sacked as its editor fifteen years ago. It is extremely perceptive1 in thinking that journalistic excellence was not the most admirable part of his character: that was his delight in real culture and the efforts to be made to absorb it. But it also contains a remarkable piece of abuse in passing: “It nearly happened when he had at last been given an editorial chair, at The Spectator, the first non-university man to have been put in charge of that highbrow journal. Understandably, it went to his head a bit and he did not even try to disguise his contempt for the philistine management apparatchik which Conrad Black had put in charge of the business side.”
    The reference (and the pronoun) are to Kimberly Fortier, who became the mistress, then the nemesis, of David Blunkett.
  • “Journalistic excellence” — my old friend Ed Steen was reminiscing about an elderly mentor of his, whose expenses from Vietnam were supposed to have brought the accounts department of Rupert Murdoch’s entire Australian operation to a halt for three and a half months. See also the man who hired, on behalf of the Times, an ocean-going tug to get out to a sunken cross-channel ferry, at a cost of £8,000 for an hour’s voyage.

1 he agrees with me

Not just loopy: fruity too

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

How quickly one forgets true lunacy. I was looking for something entirely different when I stumbled across a letter that Conrad Black wrote to the Telegraph, which he then still owned, in the summer of 2003. It is fashionable now to regard Black with a kind of affection: he was a megalomaniac crook but a better proprietor than Richard Desmond, say, or the Barclay Brothers, who bought the Telegraph from him. All this may be true as far as it went, but that’s not as far as one thinks, and his views onthe world were nearly as deranged as his wife’s. In the summer of 2003, what did he suppose was the most dangerous enemy facing Britain? Jihadis in Iraq? Terrorism? Global Warming? No. Jeremy Paxman:

“The BBC is pathologically hostile to the Government and official opposition, most British institutions, American policy in almost every field, Israel, moderation in Ireland, all Western religions, and most manifestations of the free market economy … sadly it has become the greatest menace facing the country it was founded to serve and inform.”

a thought parked here for later use

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

A thought about the dislocation of modern conservatism; in particular about the unfashionability of pessimistic or tragic views of the human condition. These have fallen out of fashion partly because they seem to have no predictive value. Doom has been predicted ever since the Fifties, but things have continued to get better. Now, it seems to me that any prediction involves two things: you must identify both the relevant laws by which things change, and — presuming these laws are at all complicated and interesting — the state on which they are acting. It just seems possible that the reason that conservative thought has looked so silly for the last fifty years or more is not so much that it is wrong as an analysis of the ways in which societies change, but that it has been comprehensively wrong in diagnosing the character or state of the society whose changes it is trying to predict. Obviously this is not much use without specifics; unfortunately, I worked all this out while I was walking around the market this morning, and can’t remember the context in which it seemed so compelling. Did I mention my amnesia yet?

Blowing own trumpet

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

It’s a long time since I wrote this obit of Frank Johnson. I wish it had had to wait longer for publication. But it is, I think, quite good.

Progressives in praise of eugenics

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

I have mentioned before here one of my favourite books, An outline for Boys and Girls, which is a left-wing encyclopaedia from the early Thirties, edited by Naomi Mitchison. Since she knew all the smart lefty young people, it is a very high-class production, still informative and thought-provoking. The chapter on economics is by Hugh Gaitskell, who would almost certainly have been Labour Prime Minister in place of Harold Wilson had he not died early. There is a chapter on ethics by Olaf Stapledon, and one on architecture by Clough Williams Ellis. Arthur Waley’s mistress, Beryl de Zoete, supplled the chapter on dance, and the one on poetry was from a young schoolteacher, “Wystan Auden”.

Almost as informative as what the encyclopaedia says is what it takes fro granted, Here is the conclusion of the chapter on biology, written by John R. Baker, who is not in Who’s Who, but was clearly an Oxford don of some distinction.

All the hundreds of thousands of kinds of animals have evolved from very simple forms of life, and presumably from inorganic matter originally, without the existence of any mind to plan them. Mind itself is one of the products of evolution, and now at last one kind of living thing only has got the ability to control and plan the course of evolution. That one kind of living thing is the human kind. For centuries men have selected certain types of domestic animals for breeding, and have thus created all the variety of horses and cattle and sheep and pigs and dogs that exist to-day. They have improved all these animals for the purposes for which they require them, but they have not improved themselves. There is no reason at all to suppose that the inborn mental capacity of man has increased since prehistoric times.
When men were just evolving from ape-like ancestors, they evolved because the best individuals survived and had young ones, whilst the worst died oft and had none. That does not happen in civilisation. With us the weakly are looked after by the strong. If the weakliness is an inherited character, it is unfortunate that the people who have it should have children, because they will pass it on, generation after generation. On the average, the most successful people have the fewest children in most civilised countries to-day, and the least successful the most. It is possible nowadays for ordinary people to arrange whether they will have many or few children, or none at all. It would certainly be better if the most successful people had most children, because success in life is partly due to inherited qualities. Many people with excellent inherited qualities never get an opportunity to show them, from lack of a sufficiently good education. If we wanted to improve our race, we should give everyone an equal chance in life as far as possible. We should then encourage the most successful to have a lot of children. Many people are what is called feeble-minded. Their brain never develops beyond that of a child of six. Often this is a character which is inherited in the same way as blue eyes. If two such feeble-minded people marry, all their children will be feeble-minded. If a feeble-minded person marries a normal person, the children will be normal, but some of their descendants will be feeble-minded. It would be a good plan to prevent people who have inherited feeble-mindedness from having children, because feeble-minded people are not happy themselves, and they are not useful to other people, and they cost other people a lot of money. Unfortunately, they are increasing rapidly in numbers in Great Britain. Before long they will form quite a large proportion of our population, unless we decide not to allow them to have children. Members of Parliament, who decide these things, think it best to let them go on multiplying. When they were young, Members of Parliament did not have An Outline for Boys and Girls.

On hating computers

Friday, December 15th, 2006

When I got back last night, one of the four fans which seem to be needed to run a quiet computer was making a hidous graunching noise. I really hate that kind of thing when I am trying to work, so I spent some time trying in vain to shut it up this morning. Finally I just ordered a replacement, since this was the smallest and least important fan on the motherboard. Then I thought, I have a mac here. I will just plug everything into that, and work in delicious silence for a few days. I got more silence than I had bargained for. Itunes hung hard and repeatedly every time I asked it to read in new tracks from a USB hard drive. The only way to get it to shut off was to turn off the power. Why do people claim that Apples are more reliable and easier to use than PCs? They are just (lots) prettier. Nor could I work out any way to change the background colour of the screen from white. That is something that has maddened me about macs for years. I don’t like writing on a white background. It gives me headaches. Why can’t I change it? Meanwhile, I am never going to buy anything from the Itunes store, because of DRM. So why isn’t there a simple Mac app that just plays and organises music, without trying to sell me stuff?
In the end, I just yanked out the power connector for the noisy fan, and went back to the PC where I am typing this. If it starts to smoke, I will worry, offline.

UPDATE: I bought a new, elegant passive cooler to replace the noisy fan, but I would have had to get out the whole motherboard to install it, unless there is a way to yank out pushpins from the front. So in the end I just sprayed all the fans with WD40 and now have a silent, cool computer again.

I used to be really afraid of messing around like that until I went to a party many years ago, at Rupert’s where not only were all the people walking around with the brains rewired and hanging out but all the computers (back when to have even one was distinguished) all had their cases off and extra bits wedged in any old how. So, I thought, if this is how a man who really understands them treats his hardware, what can go wrong if I do the same?

Oh Fjuckby!

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

A wholly glorious story in this morning’s Svenska Dagbladet. Eleven villagers from the hitherto unremarked settlement of Fjuckby, north of Uppsala, have written to the government petitioning for it to change its name to something less reminiscent of “sex-related activities between humans and even animals”

The journalist wonders what will happen if they succeed: what about the inhabitants of “Bögholmen” (Bugger’s Island), “Brittas Hål” (Britta’s Hole) and “Snålkuk” (Stingy Cock). Can’t they, too, complain that their names provoke “mirth, derision, and ridicule” among strangers, as the eleven upright men of Fjuckby have done?

What is remarkable, of course, is that the story shows the spread of English, at least a sort of English, into the remoter recesses of the Swedish countryside.
(Nyaaah — he said “countryside”)

Thought for the Day

Tuesday, December 12th, 2006

And in our studio this morning, we have the Bishop of Southwark, with thought for the day. Good morning Tom. “Erm. Thank you, erm. We all have to face questions in life. Some questions fill us with existential horror: ‘Would you like a cup of coffee, bishop?’. Some questions just seem impossible to answer; ‘ Why is this man shouting at me? Why does he think it’s his car? Where did I get this black eye? How did I get home last night?’ Sometimes, you know … Sue … We give the wrong answers. ‘I am the Bishop of Southwark. That’s what I do.’ seems not to be the answer that Jesus would have given."

Thank God Bush will never read it

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Melanie Phillips slips entirely the surly bonds of earth in her latest, which appears to call for a nuclear assault on Syria as well as Iran. How else is one to interpret her demand that the states that are driving this war on many fronts — principally Iran and its satellite, Syria (although the forked-tongued Saudis should not be forgotten either) — [must be] confronted and defeated."
America has not even got enough troops to hold down Baghdad, so any widening of the war would have to be from the air, and we all know by now that conventional bombing does not work. Which leaves the big one….

Normally, one would ignore this kind of ranting. Two things make it worth noticing. The first is that, though it is patently batshit crazy, patent batshit craziness has not so far disqualified any American policy in the war.

The second is that she starts out from a perfectly correct analysis of the recommendations of the ISG: they won’t work either, and they can’t possibly work. Take it away, Mel: "The report is also profoundly dishonest, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable consequences of its own reasoning. It sets up, for example, yet another straw aspiration: that the Iraqis have to be brought to be able to police themselves, disregarding the fact that this is precisely what the coalition has been attempting to do for the past four years — and then saying that even if they are not in such a position, the US should depart. In other words, cut and run but don’t admit it. And this even though the authors spell out in gory detail the dire consequences that chaos in Iraq would have for the US and for the world."

This is quite true. Unfortunately, Phillips thinks that victory is merely a matter of willpower. This leads to her glorious denunciations of the ISG: "Its authors are now revealed to be as intellectually deficient as they are morally malodorous … compromise is tantamount to abject surrender and complicity with terrorism, fascism and genocide … not merely appeasement but rank treachery. The ISG and their ilk want to surrender to Iran and Syria and offer up Israel as a propitiatory sacrifice. [they want] a world that is Jew-free; or at least, where the Jews play one role only — that of global fall-guy … The vile personal agenda by the ISG’s principal author, James Baker III, is … that he is pressing to abandon America’s ally to those who wish to exterminate it"


But of course all this follows quite logically from her belief that the battle can be won by a triumph of the will. This makes it impossible for her to believe that the US has really been defeated in Iraq.

Now, children, can you think of anyone else who might think like that? Someone else who is "Not satisfied with the pace of success?" Well, if he does start WW3, you read his reasoning here first.

UPDATE: flicking through the NYRB, I found a review of Max Boot’s latest, which is Melanian hubris writ small. I have marked the crucial sentence in green ink. Boot writes:

In the early years of the twenty-first century the United States enjoys a preponderance of military power greater than any other nation in history…. Today America is rivaled in land, sea, and air power by…no one. Although the dominance of US forces can still be challenged when they come into close contact with the enemy on his home turf, they are undisputed masters of the "commons" (sea, air, space), which allows them to project power anywhere in the world at short notice….

In other words, the American army has reached a state of global dominance which allows it to go anywhere in the world, quicker than ever before — and there be defeated.

The most perfect proof of God

Monday, December 11th, 2006

This is from Anthony Kenny’s book The Unknown God, a collection of essays on the God of the philosophers:

Is the ontological argument valid? Professor Timothy Smiley of Cambridge once offered a succinct and trenchant argument in favour of its validity. Define the ontological argument, he said, as the best possible argument for the existence of God. Now clearly an argument for the existence of God which is valid is better than an argument for his existence which is invalid. Therefore the best possible argument for the existence of God is valid, and so the ontological argument is valid.
I shall not in this essay be concerned with the validity of the ontological argument: I doubt if I can offer, in brief compass, anything which would improve on Professor Smiley’s entertaining presentation.

Memo to self: must remember to use what is also the most donnish possible boast: “I doubt if I can offer, in brief compass, anything which would improve on Professor X’s entertaining presentation.”