Archive for July, 2008

Gone Fishing

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

I’m off to the photograph in the header for three weeks and I don’t plan to post anything until August the 6th or 7th. Have a wonderful summer, all of you.

FT review of Fishing in Utopia

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Another gratifying review, from the Financial Times, where Hugh Carnegy, the executive editor, likes Fishing in Utopia,a lot, though he thinks, god knows why, that I am “a melancholy soul”.

It is the window on Sweden that gives this book its real interest, lifted by the characters Brown encounters, who provide a texture that a more academic approach could not. The picture Brown paints will discomfit those who still point to Sweden as the model for a modern, left-of-centre society. He portrays a more or less dysfunctional, rigidly conformist culture lacking the warmth of social interaction. It is one, tellingly, in which a deep divide always existed between blue and white-collar worlds. He writes of his life as a member of the working class: “It was the life of a battery salmon: packed into a crowd in the middle of a boundless stretch of water by a cage of netting that you could not see at all.”

Returning in this decade, Brown finds a country grappling with the same issues as any other western democracy: economic change, rising crime and immigration. Sweden, now physically linked to the rest of the world by the bridge to Denmark, can no longer preserve its lofty sense of otherness.

But this book is not a right-wing polemic against the “Swedish model”. Brown evinces real respect for a society only recently delivered from rural hardship, whose people collectively determined that social control is the way to achieve social solidarity.

This is an affectionate and insightful portrait, offering a much deeper understanding of the country than the usual, often politically motivated, tendency to stereotype.

a throwaway line

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

All civilisation depends on two things: self-restraint and hope for the future. That’s why it can survive some wars. But if they go, it goes.

Another really good review

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

John Carey reviews Fishing in Utopia,in the Sunday Times: thoughtful and illuminating, with a kindly quote towards the end:

Fishing in Utopia is a lament for a lost Eden. But it is more than that. Essentially it is a story of modern rootlessness and the search for something to believe in. The fact that that something turns out, absurdly, to be fishing only makes it more tragic. I can see it becoming a cult book, and not just among anglers. You do not (I can personally guarantee) need to have the slightest interest in fishing to be caught up in his rapt descriptions of reels and lines and casting and flies and the enormous quiet of Sweden’s uninhabited places.

But this is a big review from a big reviewer, and well worth having.

Back to bed with Diarmaid

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

Another hundred pages of MacCulloch’s Reformation this morning; wonderful stuff. The parallels with today are not in the least bit cheering; among them the way in which the printing press, like the Internet, allowed everyone, however ignorant, to join in theological hatreds. Reading out loud was the equivalent of forwarding emails.

The development of Luther’s thought after the 95 Theses follows exactly the pattern of an internet flame war, though more slowly and of course with real flames at the end. I’ll put up supporting quotes when I am near a scanner though I suppose it would be just as quick and easy to photograph the relevant pages with my phone.


Talking of real flames, it made me weep to read of the death of the early anabaptist leader Dr Balthasar Hubmaier, who was tortured and then burnt to death in Vienna. As the executioners were rubbing gunpowder into his hair and beard—a mercy, since it meant a quicker death—he asked them to “salt me, salt me well”. His wife, who would not renounce him, was tied to a stone and thrown into the Danube to drown. It’s stories like this which show the great difficulty of living without hope, as I believe we ought to. How is it possible to bear them without imagining the existence either of heaven or of progress? Is it really possible to believe that good men and women can die and leave nothing but what MacCulloch calls admiringly “a donnish joke”.


I know that this is what history tells us happens all the time; I know that hundreds of thousands of people have died just as heroically and completely unremembered in the last hundred years: by coincidence I have been to Nikolsburg, now Mikulov, where Hubmaier set up shop: I was taken there by a man whose father was the SS Governor General of Lodz and thus responsible for crimes beyond the imagination of the Inquisition. I don’t suppose that there is anything we can do about the world but work and love, but in an apocalyptic age that doesn’t feel like enough.

Buy this week’s New Yorker

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

for a wonderful essay on Chesterton by Adam Gopnik (not online) which tackles the question of his anti-semitism head on. I had not realised quite how vile it was; as Gopnik says, if he was a man of his time, this is isn’t much of an excuse, since his time was also that of the preparation of the holocaust. But Gopnik is also full of appreciation for Chesterton’s qualities, and discusses beautifully his views of anarchism and its role in the pre-1914 imagination.

Oh, yes: Seymour Hersh is online with a huge piece about how the Bush junta is still trying to start a big war with  Iran and already fighting a little, proxy war. But we knew that already, sort of.

A glimpse of hell

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Perhaps because I am feeling depressed by illness, unable either to walk or work as hard as is normally needed to keep low spirits away, the world seems horribly meretricicious. I watched an episode of the Wire last night, in which an ex-prisoner was seduced back into gang life at an orgy and I thought it was a glimpse of hell. There were couples fucking in open bedrooms and on stairways; the whole thing run by coke-crazed murderers; whores, or female slaves available for the use of honoured guests: every appetite could be gratified provided it were coarse enough. This was a depiction of the barbarism that we thought we had hauled ourselves out from round about 1250 AD, and it’s back. In fact it’s become well-established as a way of life, handed on by parents to their chldren. And now it’s taking root over here.

What does the respectable world have to set against it? From the arts pages of the Guardian, a story lamenting the bankruptcy of an an arty film distributor lists “Six films that put the distributor ahead of the game”


This Belgian mockumentary about a philosophical serial killer broke new ground with its mix of ultra-brutal murder and mordant humour. …. Unbelievably nasty Japanese fetish-horror epic (the first Takashi Miike film to get a serious UK release, in 2001) that, in many ways, was an indicator of the psychotic depths the terror cinema of the far east would plumb. … Gaspar Noé’s deeply distasteful revenge fable tested audience endurance to the extreme with its nine-minute rape scene, though the ferocious brutality of a key murder was just as disturbing … Korean cinema roared past all comers in the far east ordeal-horror stakes, with this implacably violent parable leading the way. The middle section of Park Chan-wook’s “vengeance” trilogy paved the way for Hollywood’s wretched exercises in torture porn – but at least Park avoided the overt misogyny that infested the films that followed in its wake.

What kind of grotesque and decadent snobbery is this: it’s all right and “edgy” when Koreans do it, but wretched when it’s Hollywood? I don’t see why anyone complicit in the distribution of a nine minute rape scene should be allowed on the pages labelled “Art” or “Culture”. The barbarism goes from top to bottom.

At least a public execution, an event traditionally taken as the touchstone of the barbarism we had abandoned, was meant to be a morally uplifting spectacle, carrying the message that evil would be punished. We pride ourselves on abolishing public executions but instead show rape and murder as realistically as they can be shown, for profit, while left-wing newspapers think this is progress and freedom and that anything which affects the emotions must be art.

I know this sounds Bufton Tuftonish. All I can say is that it’s not a left/right point. The idea that gratifying your wants, whatever they are, is all that there could be to life, is the motor of modern capitalism. If it’s not stopped it will destroy our civilisation and with it most of our species.

Four weeks

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Tomorrow it will be four weeks since the bloody ear infection started, which explains the infrequency of posting. In that time I have never known whether some sudden injudicious gesture, like wiping a sweaty forehead on my sleeve, will convert the whole world into a nauseating trampoline, an effect which takes two or three hours to wear off. Sometimes I have 48 hours free and think it is all ending. Then it comes back. So I have husbanded my energies, I’m afraid, for work and book boosterage. Normal posting will resume as soon as possible.