Wednesday, 30 August 2006

History Research

I have occasionally implored readers to check out my other, rather dull, site about postwar local history, which I have linked to on the sidebar. This is not another plea but rather a whinge. As a totally untrained historian I have been trying to learn how to get the most out of archives, but have found it very difficult. Many documents are only fragments of files, the rest of which have been destroyed. Finding anything of substance is extremely difficult and often something will look promising in the catalogue but will turn out to be irrelevant or very thin. Searching through newspapers is also difficult, unless you have something you are looking for. Microfiches hurt the eyes after a few minutes if you are just skimming through and besides, I am never quite sure where to go to back up what I find there. Is it that nothing interesting has happened, or that it just hasn't been documented? Am I missing something massive, making me look a total fool? I have resisted trying to interview people, possibly because doing it on an amateur level means I can't say "Oh, it's for a book"- well it may turn out to be, but isn't at the moment, or for the foreseeable future, so I don't feel as though anyone will want to give their time to me. Perhaps I'm being pathetic here. I cannot believe that nothing interesting has happened in this place during 50 years of unparalled social and economic and technological change. What if it hasn't, though? What if life and death have just carried on, plodded through the years undisturbed by anything dramatic or newsworthy? Imagine it - a village where nothing ever happens. It's almost an X File, although it would turn out with Mulder and Scully scratching their heads at the end saying "I don't believe it, Scully. you're right. There really is, nothing to it at all. Nothing at all."

Monday, 28 August 2006


As I am boycotting Cricinfo after Andrew Miller's hysterical denunciation of England fans last week (see below, last Monday), I haven't been on it to see what he has written since. Has he written the following, perhaps?

So Pakistan have effectively avoided the charges of ball-tampering and bringing the game into disrepute because of the well timed public release of Hair's supposedly confidential emails to the ICC. These emails allow Pakistan to claim that he was bent all along, has poor judgement and is unsuited to any umpiring at all, while making a case against them nearly impossible. Given that he wrote these emails after two solid days of being libelled as a racist by various media, and was only trying to get himself bought out of his contract (Sven Goran Eriksson is still being paid by England - there's a payoff for you), this is an impressive result. No-one will now be so foolish to accuse Pakistan of ball tampering, if, indeed, the rule is not changed anyway. How curious.

Has he bunnies.

Thursday, 24 August 2006

God: A Guide for the Perplexed by Keith Ward

A review of a book I read recently. I am not a philosopher or theologian so I often find abstract ideas of this kind hard to grasp, though I do my best.

This is a survey of Western ideas about God, from a Christian perspective but not tied to Christian concepts. Jesus, for example, is mentioned only fleetingly. The main thesis is that the classical view of God is one of a Spirit, absolute in being, which also ties in with modern philosophical and theological ideas of God. It seems at times to fly close to the idea that there is no God as such, but the concept is overwhelmingly affirmed in the concluding chapter, which posits 7 main strands of thought about God: the powers of being, something beyond speech, the perfect good, the self existent creator, the self realising spirit, the ultimate goodness of being and the personal ground of being.
The centre of the book seems to be a survey of Hegel in particular. The author ties in Hegel’s idea of the dialectical process of history with a view of a creator as being tied into, though in some way distinct from, his creation. The creator does not create of necessity but in order to increase the amount of good and of knowledge he can have, As part of this he needs rational agents. They will cause evil. There is also some "natural evil" which people are going to have to deal with, if there is to be freedom and the eventual success of a kind of permanent, worthwhile goodness. Thus God is absolved of blame for evil, and will in the final realisation of the dialectic, sublate or redeem all evil into the final triumph of good. Belief in God is therefore a belief, not in a being or person, but in the possibility and meaning of the triumph of good (this comes from a summary of various other thinkers).
It is also important for the author to dispose of commonly held views of God: that he is omnipotent or omniscient, and so on. God does not deal in logical impossibililty nor in foretelling the future, but (in a twist of the ontological argument) in knowing more than any other being (real or imagined) could possibly ever know. God is therefore ascribed only a greater, not an infinite power. Hence the problem of evil is partially (though maybe not convincingly) resolved.
In the process the book occasionally diverts in poetic methods of expression. There are descriptions of the soul becoming a part of the Godhead, or of the souls of people being reunited in the later triumph of good over suffering (pace Polkinghorne’s idea of the purely sacramental universe). There are descriptions of looking into the darkness between stars or of being unable to speak of what we see or dimly perceive.
Another theme then is the inexpressibility of Godhead. Which is why we talk in imperfect analogies about God (as a person) which lead us down the path of error (the idea of omnipotence is really also a kind of analogy).
Unfortunately this does relegate Jesus somewhat, and the fleeting description of the Trinity does him not many favours at all, as an expression of a part of God, rather than God actually made flesh. The more difficult elements of the incarnation are sidestepped. This is presumably to focus on a question which could unite the largest majority of people: whether the universe was created, by a being, which itself is pure, actualised, perfect, being, and which is involved in though not running like toys the creation, which suffers and which hopes, like us, for the victory of good. He is sure it will happen, but has no privileged view of the future universe. He is simply good, his existence is, maybe necessary, ours I think, ultimately, contingent. We are not compelled into being but are an attempt to create an increase of good and increase of potential of good. This is where the author likes to dispose of the ideas of omniscience: at times it is confusing to read that no increase of good can increase God’s perfection and then that we are created to do just that. Perhaps it is that we can increase God’s self knowledge.
This idea of an ultimately mutable God is the one that could resolve the tensions in philosophy (the author's claim rather than mine) and that, he claims, is well in tune with classical views of God; just not the ones that most of us were brought up with.

POSTSCRIPT: I read, some time ago, John Polkinghorne's book Belief in God in an Age of Science, and there were many things that struck me. He attempts to resolve the problem of God's actions in the world as being a sort of information input; but I find that very hard to understand so I keep having to re-read the chapter. He is determined to place his theology on a level in tune with his academic discipline, particle physics; hence he accepts the total destruction of matter in the end of the universe (heat death or big crunch) but retains the hope of resuurection through a kind of divine memory of the universe: hence the "world to come" is an act of divine new creation - a "totally sacramental universe", mentioned above, which consists of the saved old universe, matter delivered from transience and decay. This concept, exciting but a little bizarre to the non-physicist (and presumably to the non-believer too), is a part of a wider theory of the universe and creator as both beings that are "becoming" - the divine spirit grows and learns with its creation and sees all from all parts of that growing, becoming creation. "Omniscience is self-limited by God in the creation of an open world of becoming." I am well aware of the debt such views owe to existentialist philosophy, but he doesn't really acknowledge that in depth. Hence both these books present a divine spirit much more vulnerable than that of traditional Christian doctrine; immutability; omniscience; omnipotence as we have come to understand the concepts make way for something more organic but no less divine because creative in an infinitely improvised way. Polkinghorne mentions, in passing, the idea of a universe created by an evil God - something similar is part of the novel Dante's Equation by Jane Jensen.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Blog Round Up

Thought I'd just mention a few blogs currently doing some excellent work. Iain Dale, is as usual, but has been more interested in football and political sex novels over the last couple of days. I guess it is the silly season after all. Over at Harry's Place there has been lively discussion of gay rights and free speech, the latter in relation to the holocaust exhibition that has gone up in Tehran (it looks like the in-favour-of-free-speech-government has decided to see if Europe can be provoked by something so they can go "ha ha! You don't care about free speech after all!" As far as I'm aware no embassies have been torched yet). Biased BBC is an odd one because often the posts are brilliant but the comments are a bit much for my tastes. But they are rightly getting upset about the BBC's latest attempt at self promotion. Guido Fawkes has an excellent debate on the right-to-buy issue, slaying some socialist myths in the process, as well as a totty report from Blair's holiday in the caribbean. Oliver Kamm is quieter than usual this summer, just posting some of his articles but there is a good one about Gunter Grass. I find the Devil's Kitchen brilliantly angry, with some excellent swearing, no matter what the subject, it seems. Samizdata today goes with the inverted, Alice in Wonderland story of the Gay Police Association's anti-homophobia advert being the subject of a hate crime investigation.

But today's winner is a fabulous, delectable fisking of George Monbiot at the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler (linked to in the title). It is detailed, angry, incredulous and long. It is well worth the effort. If only someone on the radio would do the same instead of hauling the lunatic up to debate rational issues in his weird, hyperbolic style all the time.

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Made in Britain

A couple of months ago I saw Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) for the first time. Knowing that I was looking for something vaguely gritty, from the 1980s breed of made for television plays (remember those?), it took hours of internet searching to find the right candidate for the role. And here it is. If you know of any others, do let me know.

The play follows a day or so in the life of Trevor, the teenage skinhead played with frightening intensity by a young Tim Roth. It begins with his incarceration in an Assessment Centre, developing his point of view as the plot progresses through acts of minor criminality, racist abuse, to a final violently celebratory night which involves urinating on files, stealing a van, and eventually handing himself in to the police.

It is gripping in that grainy, grim, soulless, desperate 1980s way. It reminds me of Threads in that all the colours are faded and dim, the buildings we see either functionally dreary (JobCentre), or physically dreary, with a high emphasis on shots of corridors, walkways, and other lifeless, sleepless places. The people who inhabit this world are either largely shabby but have their hearts in the right place, or slightly snappier but wicked. The police are evil. The Steadicam follows Trevor claustrophobically, until he seems to be screaming out of the television at us.

Yet something bothers me about it. It is at its best when giving vent to Trevor’s articulations, but it only serves to stir pity or an understanding for this kid who has been betrayed by an establishment he knows to be cynical and brutal. His racism, loudly and viciously expressed, would normally mean that the character cannot be empathised with at all in twenty first century television (after all this is a world where even history books for adults feel compelled to gloss the British Empire by adding sententiously "This is racist" - Norman Davies of all people). Yet we do, a bit. Just enough to make us feel guilty. He is vicious and vile. He is intelligent too. And he has been systematically betrayed since he was a child. We are accustomed to liberals telling us to be sympathetic towards young offenders, but towards racists? Not. Very. Often. That the audience is actually treated like adults is enough to shock as it is.

I am not sure whether to be convinced by the swearing. You know it is old television when characters say "fuck" a lot but not the other one. A lot of people are "wankers". But the swearing is too varied, too artistic to be real. Trevor’s articulation is meant to indicate his intelligence; despite being able to communicate perfectly well, no-one has ever understood him - another sign of decaying Britain. By contrast, in Threads, the world ends and someone only says "fuck" when they find a packet of prawn cocktail flavour crisps.

The plotting is patchy and moves from the kind of extended discussion we expected from plays, to a more telescoped narrative where the character’s act of changing, or resolving, is shown by a series of stares he gives: into a shop window, or a school, before returning to the speech laden conventions at the end. Here too the narrative reminds me of Threads.

That shows a literally blasted Britain, though you could read it as a metaphor for the 1980s, especially with its focus on no longer industrial Sheffield. There is nothing culturally enjoyable or successful about Trevor's Britain either. Everything has gone to hell - except banger racing, which Trevor quite enjoys and which is the main extended metaphor sequence in the film.

Finally the system shows itself to have been hell for a while, as Trevor takes a truncheon in the bollocks and grimaces to camera. So he proved his point and the system is cynical and brutal and it was just pretending to be nice. At least he survives. In Threads the system destroys the world without ordinary people knowing much about it at all. So why should he pretend? He knew it all along. In Threads no-one can really speak by the end; in Made in Britain, speech is stopped by a blow to the groin. And Trevor is Britain: brutal, white, racist, with a sense and an intelligence deliberately hidden from view in favour of a violence of soul that will only ever destroy.

Whatever happened to that Britain?


Pottering around yesterday I noticed that the old place is looking better than it has done for years. A lot of previously dingy side streets suddenly look all spruced up, St Pauls is undergoing almost complete renovation it seems, and the lower high street has been cleaned up nicely. I do think that for proper renewal that lower high street should be almost completely demolished and rebuilt though. Certainly that monstrosity that houses Wilkinsons and others should be rebuilt. something is going on to the old Littlewoods building; you could tell that it used to be some kind of post war reappraisal of the civic neo-gothic that populates the high Street (like the Smiths building) but I'm not sure what they're doing to it at the moment. Hopefully it's being demolished. Montpellier is looking great all the way along it now as well. I don't like Victorian or neo-gothic architecture much, for the reason that the medievals really believed it; and the Victorians started a revival because they didn't. But having said that, Cheltenham boasts some subtle and attractive versions of the genre: Francis Close Hall (formerly St Paul's College), part of the university of Gloucestershire; the chapel of the Boys' College; the Ladies' College and one or two others. Compare these with Keble College Oxford, which is not subtle, but to my mind is one of the most impressive achievements of the neo-gothic style. Cheltenham is known as a regency town but a lot of growth, especially cultural and educational went on in the Victorian period and after.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Cricket's Shame

So much for the spirit of cricket. Like almost everyone in the world I have no idea what really happened yesterday, whether or not Pakistan did tamper with the ball, and so I'd rather not make any comment about it.

However there has been some truly pathetic comment on the matter from people in positions of power. One was from the head of the PCB, Shaharyar Khan, who said that the ball that was replaced had been hit for several sixes and fours and hence the damage to it. If you are going to defend yourself against an accusation, which is fair enough, at least get your facts right, before it makes you look like a fool. In fact two sixes were hit, by Kevin Pietersen, after the ball had been replaced.

The second pathetic comment is from Andrew Miller in a piss-poor article for Cricinfo (linked to above). I am afraid I'm going to fisk it a bit. But not too much.

According to him the most "chilling" part of the day was the booing of the (mainly English of course) fans! Phew. Well done to Andrew for exposing the real villians of the piece, the ignorant English fans. You see, they were "ignorant" - they genuinely had no idea who was to blame but just blamed the Pakistan team anyway. Well Andrew, whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision to punish Pakistan, who was it who refused to take the field? Whose protest caused the umpires to call the game off, as is clearly written in the laws of the game? Whose decision not to play wasted those fans' money? Crowds boo players in all sorts of sports for all sorts of reasons, and it is not "chilling", it is a sign of disgust, which the fans are absolutely entitled to make. This is my favourite bit:

So to hear the boos at The Oval yesterday was a frightful jolt back to reality. It was a reminder of the ignorance that has tainted so much of the dialogue between East and West, because the crowds were being fed limited information, and their preconceived notions were doing the rest. [my italics]

Ah, you see, the fans are really just pawns in a game of geopolitics; their actions are metaphors for international relations; they're not pissed off fans at all angry at wasting their time and money, they're prejudiced members of a (single entity) West that treats the (also single entity)East with contempt. Andrew doesn't really go into detail as to what "preconceived notions" the fans held, but we don't really need to go too far. He is precariously close to calling the fans the "r -word", which coming from a person working in the media doesn't surprise me at all, though it should.

I like this too : "and not one of the 26 cameras that Sky has permanently trained on the action has yet produced any evidence to back up this lofty claim. How curious." [my italics again]

How does he know this? Has he examined all the footage? and has he examined the ball? Presumably the ball itself is the evidence which Andrew seeks. But that's not the point - It's a conspiracy, you see. That last sentence quoted above is the kind of sentence that ufo researchers used to write when, having no evidence at all to back up their opinions, didn't want to sound extreme, so decided to put it obliquely, just so that we all knew what they meant anyway. "...the original claim put out by RAAF that they had discovered a flying disk was changed to the discovery of a weather balloon. How curious," and that sort of thing.

And anyway! Even if they are guilty of ball tampering, who cares! It's a stupid rule! not an exact quote, but not too far off- need I say more about the intellectual clout needed to write a paragraph of this standard.

and the final paragraph - the coup de grace:

Here is one such depressing missive. "There is no doubt of the racism and hatred that the British have towards the Muslims and especially Pakistan ." It's just not true - look at the evidence of this series for starters. Actually, after today, it's best not to.

You don't have to be Jacques Derrida to see the implications of this. "After today", you can't look at this series for evidence that "the hatred" that "the British have towards the Muslims" is untrue. [Sigh] In other words, hate towards Muslims is implied by Sunday's events. and so it all comes down to racism in the end. The fans, Darrell Hair - whoever.

I have no idea what happened on the field. Pakistan, I would say, are probably innocent and the ball, maybe of inferior quality, just got scuffed up. I don't know. but I do know that self serving and self righteous claptrap by those in power, blaming the blameless - the fans - is no use, and resorting to sneaky and unfounded allegations of racism is lazy and "ignorant" journalism.

Friday, 18 August 2006

What Time Do You Call This?

I'm currently watching Doctor Who season 25 for the first time in years and am struck by a number of things. When I first watched Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor (age:10) I thought he was rubbish. When I thought about it a bit and re-watched his 3 seasons, (age:16) I thought he was brilliant - deep and dark and insightful. On my latest watching (um, old enough to be my own father) I have returned more or less to my original view. Not that I dislike Sylvester McCoy as a person but that I am embarrassed by his limited range as an actor; by the faux depth he brings to scenes like the famous "look me in the eye, end my life" in The Happiness Patrol, which is actually quite cringe-making in its artificiality and quite rubbish easiness; by the terrible way he does humorous, enthusiastic, friendly or sardonic scenes, especially in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy; and by the utterly unconvincing way he tries to be authoritative, especially in Remembrance of the Daleks (cue several wiggles of the eyebrows).

He is an actor, simply, of limited ability, who struggles to convey real depth of personality, let alone the depth of a 900 year old Time Lord whom we now suspect of being involved in the very origins of time travel and of Time Lord society (or are supposed to, from Remembrance onwards). His relationship with Ace is superficial and non-manipulative because he just doesn't carry the massive intelligence or alienness required for what the Doctor is supposed to be doing with Ace (fnarr fnarr). Ace herself is pathetic, a sketch character who responds like a cartoon only less 3-dimensional. Which is a shame, as when I watched her in 1987-9 I thought she was spunky and great. But Tegan (for example) is a far more convincing human being because her range of emotions and expressions are far greater, even if she is annoying. Tegan is annoying. The Doctor knows it and she knows it. She is a flawed human being. Ace is just an idea and the idea of a 9 year old not-quite-sexual-boy at that.

This is not to say I hate Season 25. The design, ideas and direction are quite cool. Unfortunately the plotting, acting and scripts are poor. How come there are parallel ideas in Remembrance and Silver Nemesis (shudder) and Happiness and Greatest Show? Who the hell was script editing this crap? Don't tell me - I know. Yet, the conceits behind all 3 stories (I don't count Silver Nemesis) are quite cool.

Happiness in particular, is not "joyful in its kicking of right wing fantasies" (Day, Cornell, Topping) but quite the reverse, is joyful in its booting of leftist fantasies - it is leftists who always insist people should be happy (unoffended, fulfilled, together, bonded, united) and that societies should be built for people's happiness, along with the repressive state organs that go with it. And the candy victim does not wear a pink triangle, I have no idea where they get that from. Happiness builds a powerful case for: solitude, depression, uniqueness, voluntary as opposed to compulsory collectivism, opting out, the subversion of union demonstrations, the destruction of state broadcasting, the exposure of state-inspired rubbish about not imprisoning criminals ("we don't have prisons on Terra Alpha...but if you cross that line you're a dead man"), compulsory collection of identity, active refusal to join in, passive-aggression, the use of genuine academic study to demolish official state bullshit (Earl Sigma is a medical student), against the lack of an independent police force, and finally, satirises, mercilessly, government obsession with sweets and the danger that sugary foods pose. In short - all non-paleo Tories should support The Happiness Patrol.

And yet. And yet. A lot of the actual words characters have to say are crap; the demolition of Helen A is pisspoor; her final catharsis predictable and dull; MCoy's performance over the top and stupid. Who the hell are the guys in the tunnels? What is their culture? What happened to them - I know the settlers wiped them out or something but how, and how does that affect both cultures? What are their names? I know Gilbert M (who is brilliant) built the Kandyman but why? And why shape him like a series of sweets? Why make him hate Gilbert M's guts? Why not re-programme him? How do the fondant surprises kill (apart from the obvious satrical element)? Why are the Patrols such lousy shots? How come Susan Q is disaffected and reveals it so easily to a stranger? and not just any stranger but the one she has only just that minute been placed in charge of? surely such a govt keen on happiness would have sussed her out ages ago, the miserable sod?


It does have the greatest line EVER uttered by a villain, and in this DC&T are absolutely right.

"What time d'you call this??" is a classic, obsessive, manipulative, dangerous, fed up, pain in the arse kind of line. Spoken by a robot Bertie Bassett it is twice as effective as if it were (say) Alan Rickman or your boy/girlfriend. But I'm sure you can just imagine your significant other coming out with that line, if not also being a maniacal designer of fatal sweets.

Thursday, 17 August 2006

Tin Drumming

Thought I'd just mention that I have chosen the name of my blog not because I am a Nazi, which I'm not, or because I'm unaware of what The Tin Drum is about, which I'm also not, but because I just like the idea of someone, like me, pointlessly going on and on about stuff when no-one is listening or wants to listen. And as a metaphor for that banging on a tin drum is pretty good. Plus a few people at school used to think of me as a poisonous dwarf mouthing off ignorantly to all and sundry, even though I'm of average height.

Still, Grass's confession this week puts the book in a slightly different light.

England playing poorly at the moment, Pakistan bowling well. I would think Australia have worked out now that Pietersen is so pumped up at the start of his innings that he is extremely vulnerable between 0 and about 35. All they have to is bowl quick and straight at him and he is a candidate for a rubbish score. Today does show you that good though England are, against good, probing bowling, they can be made to struggle.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Fourth Test

Weather seems to be playing up for tomorrow's non-decisive final Test at the Oval. I think it would be a shame to lose the Test as Test Cricket is a gift from God, and anything that causes there to be less of it is evil. Why is Test Cricket wonderful?

1) It is played out over a nominal 5 days, allowing for the game to be the focus of ruthless tussles for dominance over an extended period.

2)It brings together the best players in the world under rules which are more equally balanced than ODI cricket, which is biased against good fast bowling.

3)It is sapping, emotionally exhausting stuff for the players. That's why it's called "Test" cricket.

4)The possibility of redemption (the second innings) after initial failure. Stepping up and saving the team after getting them into dire trouble a couple of days earlier.

5) It is a team game, to be sure; but the individuals concerned know there is nowhere to hide. You bat alone and bowl alone and if you are, say, Mohammad Yousuf or Panesar, however good you are at your chosen discipline, often you field alone too.

6) A single moment can change a series like a know the rest. And it could be something so totally minor, like Angus Fraser keeping out a Donald yorker. In that sense almost every delivery has the potential to be the equivalent of a penalty kick. No wonder Ramprakash was always so nervous.

7)The match can be all but won after five days of dominance...only for the something to go wrong at the very end - a wicket falls, or doesn't fall, a dodgy decision, a dropped catch. I can't think of many sports where unrelenting dominance can be, in the end, so pointless (if you compare effort to result I mean -for example Old Trafford 2005). Obviously football matches can change with 90+mins on the clock but it is 90 minutes, not five days of effort.

8)Test cricket is where the best players play their best. Yes, Ponting hit a 100 in the WC Final of 2003. But Tests are where the great players most often step up to the mark and the ones who don't quite cut the mustard, don't. Think of Shoaib this winter, or Vaughan and Trescothick, two players with average county records, both excellent Test players. Or think of Ramps, again creaming county bowling, but just not quite good enough at the highest level.

9) Test cricket is an extended human test of the crowd and umpires too. Who would have been Billy Bowden on that final day at Edgbaston? What a momentous decision to have to give after such a wonderful, sapping game.

10)As if all that weren't enough we have the random element too - weather and the toss.

What other sport could be more like life itself?

Monday, 14 August 2006

Dreary Rationality

I wanted to expand on some of the points I made in yesterday's post, except the one about Ray Santilli being a twat. That, surely, is self explanatory.

It was really the reason I left the study of Forteana. If you don't know what that means, I guess the easiest way of putting it is to say that it is the study of weirdness, as pioneered by US author Charles Fort, and carried on by Fortean Times.

In my mid-late teens, about ten years ago, I was passionate about it. With my friends, I would go UFO spotting, go to ancient sites (the most wonderful being Silbury Hill at midnight with a full moon) and read and write endlessly on the subject. A friend and me even started an extremely short-lived magazine about it.

I suppose, firstly, it was the discrediting of a lot of UFO stuff that sent me off the subject, even though Forteana is a much bigger subject than just that. Mexico City footage from 1991 that looked so brilliant and then turned out to be easily achieved fakery; the Ray Santilli bullshit; the exposure (somewhat self inflicted) of Graham Hancock; many other photographs which turned out to be fakes when examined with computer equipment. But more than that, much more, it was the death of friends and family who since then have left no trace of themselves at all, not at all, not even in the dark spooky winter hours. It was the skies always seeming to be clear, whenever I stood out and looked. It was the fact that life really is, barring the odd coincidence, absolutely rational and boring. When I realised I was looking for things that just were not there, I realised I was looking for a second kind of religion; at about the same time cultural interest in Forteana died down and the X Files came to a barely noticed close at least in the UK. Have we finally passed the point of being a post-religious culture in need of something to believe in and suddenly entered the phase of a genuinely secular society? Interestingly Forteana was far more prevalent as a cultural theme in the 90s, with its sense of the "end of history" and hence need for something else, than it is now, with key battles to be fought.

Secondly, and more prosaically, it was also the fact that as the security services of the western world had missed several devastating terrorist attacks - it made it highly unlikely that they have been successfully covering up something as massive as alien visitation for 60 years.

Thirdly, and connectedly, the events of the past 5 years have made me realise that conspiracy theories of all kinds are much more psychological than they are real. I know that sounds devastatingly obvious but when you have been involved in them and thought about them, and seen them as a rational part of the world, it comes as a bit of a shock to realise what you have been doing is utterly irrational and depends in part on networks of elaborate, even fiendish construction; on frankly bizarre coincidences - for example this is how a well known writer, let's call him GH to spare his blushes, argues: "but let's suppose x is not the case; let us suppose instead that y is: now z begins to seem more than just a possibility" - this is fine, except that, usually, x is the case; above all these theories and their relation to the real world depend on the entire world being against you. Politically speaking, it made me realise I had been doing what some total idiots (some of whom write for well known newspapers) have done this week by imgining that the terrorist alert was all cooked up to deflect attention from Israel - utterly logical to a certain mindset, totally rational to someone who thinks the world is run by Jews, but all the same, utterly ridiculous.

I would love there to be other things. I would love the universe to pop up and say "ho ho, I bet you didn't see that coming!" but I just don't think it will anymore. What if Brian Greene (say) is right and string theory really is the final theory of everything, and we have cracked it? What then? Where to go after that? the pub? Not that I am saying knowledge is dangerous, just that I would like ultimate knowledge to be impossible, just to keep us going, and hoping for more. I really want there to be weird, inexplicable stuff - I just don't believe any of that anymore.

Sunday, 13 August 2006

Alien Autopsy

Sat down last night a little bit the worse for wear to watch Ant and Dec's film, Alien Autopsy, based on the Ray Santilli saga of 1995. Ant, or Dec, played Ray himself as a shuffling idiot, funny and accident prone; Dec, or Ant, played his mate, a sort of straight man propping up the chaos. The look and feel of the film is very mid-70s, maybe it is cashing in on the style of Life on Mars (ho ho). This was all well and good until, through the acohol and pizza daze I had been laughing through, I realised that this was just not funny.

Santilli is a con-artist and a shyster, not a fool. I have lost count of the number of straight faced interviews he sat through in 1995 and afterwards, earnestly proclaiming his honesty. I even had one of these on video, until I threw it in the bin; perhaps I can now produce an amusing little film about howI did really did have Ray Santilli on video insisting he was telling the truth but the tape got destroyed so I made one up instead. That he has allowed himself to be portrayed as such a tool only goes to prove that he is still sticking a massive two fingers up at the people he lied to for ten years.

Did I think the autopsy footage was for real? Well yes, I did - until I saw it. I wanted it to be real, like many people desperate in those grim 90s for something to come along and give us something new to believe in; but the footage itself was so disappointing and taken apart so well by almost any magazine you care to name (except the execrable UFO Magazine, I think) that it would have been fair enough if Santilli at that point had said "Ok, you've got me bang to rights", instead of which he continued to try and milk the thoroughly discredited footage for all it was worth. Now the film, which is so jokey in style and substance that you know that Santilli is still taking the piss, continues that milking. I left Forteana some years ago, disgusted with the disappointing rationality of much of the world so I may be out of touch on what the weirdness-community thinks of Santilli now. I think he is a twat, but then at least I didn't pay to watch his film.

Friday, 11 August 2006

Patrick Allen

Patrick Allen died this week.

So what? Big deal? He was a C movie actor who found belated fame (at the age of 78) as a voice over artist for E4. One might argue that he was made as it were post-apocalyptically famous and that these voice overs were his ultimate acts of irony.

But there was more to him than this. In 1975 he took on some voice overs for a series of animations made by Richard Taylor Cartoons. These animations were to be the tv and radio broadcasts for when the tv people, along with the government, had headed down to the shelters before a nuclear war. They were called "Protect and Survive". There was no irony intended, or needed, for many thousands of people could have protected and survived, using its advice - enough, at least, to provide the labour to start again. It did not, and never intended to, mean that everyone or anyone could survive. In fact, the deaths of most listeners are encoded in the broadcasts if you listen carefully enough; it is the suburbanites that the films are aimed at (damn that ammunition for socialists!).

Patrick Allen would have been, probably, the last voice you ever heard, had there been a nuclear war between 1975 and 1983. The Protect and Survive series of PIFs, classified for quite a while (though obviously made available for the Threads team to use) would have been broadcast on TV and radio in the run up to a nuclear war. His brilliantly deep but never heavy nor not too RP (less so than Peter Jones, whose voice would have given us an ironic world war III) voice was perfect to tell Britain what to do in the event of the unthinkable.

He was the end of the world.

"If, however, you have had a body in the house for more than five days, and if it is safe to go outside, then you should bury the body for the time being in a trench, or cover it with earth, and mark the spot of the burial." [Casualties]

Casualties, and especially this passage, would probably, because of its extreme pessimism (ie realism) have been the very last broadcast before the alarm. I mean, given that most of it would have been on a cycle, the last one to go to air before the final unchanged cycle began on a loop, would have been "Casualties". This may have been as late as the day before a strike; Threads suggests no more than two hours before. It is surely a piece of post-modern irony inherent in the world itself that in 1986 the piss-poor tv series "Casualty" started, and was a huge success.

RIP Patrick Allen, RIP the C20, RIP the Cold War.

Norman Geras

I hate to sound like a lickspittle, but honestly, Normblog is one of the most decent, well argued blogs around. As more of a conservative than a liberal I err towards Iain Dale in terms of political blogs but I seem to always agree with what Norm posts, which is often explained carefully for those (like me) who don't get it first time. More to the point, perhaps, Norm is a leftist who truly believes in emancipation of the weak and social justice, instead of just cheerleading for today's left terrorists (Provos, Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigade, "Angry Brigade" - bunch of twats - ETA, Hamas and Hezbollah - not that these two are proper leftists, but they're attractive to leftists, it seems) against an imaginary capitalist conspiracy. Norm is a bright guy, much much brighter than me, and he believes in a better, thoughtful, unprejudiced future. If his posts seem uncritical of Israel that is not the case, but he is extremely critical of leftists who think that the future is to be secured by shacking up with homophobes, religious extremists, borderline racists and, let's be honest here, fascists. There are many sites which are full of unthoughtful leftists, so let's celebrate Normblog, one which unashamedly promotes everything that is brilliant and intelligent (rather than clever) - not least of which is cricket, although his clear Australian sympathies mean he should perhaps be put on trial.

More on Memory

I can't help trying to think about memory again, even if I am not getting very far. How do things that were habitual become forgotten? Why is something that until recently was familiar suddenly seems never to have existed? for example, a tree was recently cut down outside my house. It had been there for 20 years but already I can barely recall its appearance or position from my window here. Most car journeys are forgotten even while I am still driving - I frequently wonder how I got to a certain point and find I cannot recall how. But, as I said before, I remember all my humiliations, even down to the actual feelings of embarrassment! Not remembering anything from, say, 1979, as far as I am concerned I was there as much as I was in 1975 (ie not at all); have those days actually died within me? Have they any effect at all on me (they must do, surely)?

Moment to moment, regardless of whether I recall, say, an early event that led to a fear of wasps, I still run away from them.

I do remember my beloved late grandfather, whom I last saw on his deathbed, a couple of days before he died not all that many years ago, but when I close my eyes I find I cannot see him clearly, though he turns up in my dreams reasonably frequently and I think he looks like I remember him.

Thursday, 10 August 2006


It is a funny thing; but I exist and think and feel despite huge swathes of my 30 years being closed off to me, for reasons I cannot fathom. I first realised it when I was about 15 I think; that I could not remember being 5,6, or 7 at all. I thought and thought, looked at photographs, tried to remember, walked over and past old haunts; but nothing came back. Today I just feel something; a shudder or a glow or something else, more ambiguous, that is a mixture of pleasant and worrying sensations, when I see certain things, including, bizarrely, the side indicators of old Fiats (don't ask - I don't know and don't really want to know) or painted black wooden window frames. But even now I remember very little about being 15. I don't remember what it was like being at school, what it felt like, what I thought; I remember what it smelled like and that brings back - self confidence, arrogance, immortality, fear - but I couldn't tell you what I actually did all day, or all night (probably just as well). I remember my humiliations - of course - but what else, I'm not really sure. I vaguely remember Oxford, but what I read there needs to be re-read to be remembered properly. And I half remember my near on year spent in Australia. But not the air, the birds, the feel of my feet on the ground.

It is said that you need memory for identity. Clearly you do - in some respects. I don't remember my experiences but am still composed of them - I think. At some level the memory of my first 8 years has not been completely wiped, but is retained in personality or in symbol, like a Windows icon - trees, sounds, fears. Is that why I find the crappy music of the early 80s so utterly evocative, so spine tinglingly close to a real feeling? I know my personality- I remember my favourite x, y and zs, my first day at school, my name, my old friends. If I forgot these, and my family, I maybe would cease to be me, and suffer amnesia. But I can survive barely knowing anything about my past, in some cases barely more than I know my future; and seem a coherent personality, a self aware being. Could things I do not currently remember somehow be erased from my whatever it is (subconscious, etc &c) and then cause me to suffer amnesia or personality problems?

The question I really want to answer is: is there any more? Is there more to me, more to any of us? Is there something waiting to be found? Are there memories that I glimpse in dreams or only see as symbols that can be shown fully for what they are, even if those memories are just me packing my old bag and heading off to school? This may just be a symptom of a wider issue - I would like there to be more. To me, to the universe.

My mistake in the previous posts made me think of all of this: I know something was wrong, terribly wrong, with what happened to England on the 1998/99 tour of Australia, and that I was there; but what the hell was it - I don't recall, properly. I see images, stills, hear noises, have vague feelings of outrage. Other than that it is guess work or Wisden.

-You see, all my life, I've had this feeling that there's something fundamentally wrong with the universe.
-Oh, that's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that.

(Remembered, not looked up, from Hitchhikers Guide, Arthur and Slartibartfast)

I think I have it wrong in the previous post: in Adelaide in 1998 I now think after a middle of the night recall, that it was Atherton given out by the 3rd umpire when the tv showed he was not caught, the ball bouncing before the slip fielder caught it. In any case, what definitely happened was that England did not get the rub of the decisions in that series, even if they had been saved by a storm at Brisbane.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Sajid Mahmood, England

There's plenty on the BBC and in various newspapers today about the barracking Sajid Mahmood received from a section of the Headingly crowd yesterday. Chants of "traitor" were shouted at him during his excellent couple of spells that helped win the Test for England. He was a bit annoyed but responded in the two best possible ways: 1) taking wickets and 2) attributing the chants to his dad, a Pakistan fan, and thereby showing he is a really mature head on young shoulders who should be pencilled in for Australia now. Yes he needs a lot of work and practice but he has the pace and the suggestion of reverse swing that says he could replace Simon Jones, if he is allowed to prosper. It has been a tough 18 months for England and they have come out of it well, and deserve to be rated No2 in the world. Wins v Australia, Pakistan, draw v India in India and a win in South Africa are excellent performances, even if the loss in Pakistan was rubbish and the draw v Sri Lanka appalling. It is even better when you consider that England just does not have the raw talent these other countries have - there are no great players in the England side, no Inzy, Yousof, Murali, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, McGrath, Warne and so on - and that playing at home is possibly less of an advantage for England than any other nation, given the number of foreign players who play (or have played) county cricket.

I do not think that we will retain the Ashes -home advantage and Warne might prove too much for us, but we are developing a good squad of players, and the days of Hick or Crawley being called up for a couple of tests are well and truly over (Jon Lewis notwithstanding). It is sobering to think that had Ramprakash been born in, say, 1979, rather than 1968, he would be enjoying a magnificent test career right now and England might have had a great player in the side. We have had good, very good, players, betrayed by short sighted management; we have, hopefully, seen the last of that. We have not seen the last of injury though, and if they are not careful the management can still repeat the disasters of 2002/3 by sending an unfit Jones, Flintoff, Vaughan and Giles to Australia. We can only hope that Mahmood, Panesar, Read and Cook have done enough to persuade them to take only fit and strong players.

A word on the umpiring. It cannot have escaped anyone's notice that over the last 12 months, England have received the rub of tosses, decisions, (often) injuries, and even weather. CMJ remarked, rightly, on TMS this weekend that during the long long spell that England were being thrashed by Australia, not winning any 5 test series, and not winning abroad, everything seemed to go against them. I still remember a run out so blatant at Sydney in 1999 (I was there), when the batsman (Slater, who then made a hundred in an innings when only one other batsman reached double figures) was already walking and England celebrating before the the 3rd umpire called him back; and Adelaide that same winter when the big screen showed so clearly that Atherton had taken a catch that we were all celebrating, only for us to be utterly dumbstruck when the verdict came back: not out.

I could list all the cliches, but I really can't be bothered.

A word on language: I am taken by the Australian and perhaps US convention of referring to teams as singular nouns rather than the UK convention of assuming they are plural entities ("United were rubbish" rather than "United was rubbish"). It makes logical sense to me, and I think it is rather cool.

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Other Interests

Now that I have finally managed to master the most extremely basic html I have posted another site, with some of my researches into local cold war history, here:

Please bear in mind that it is no visual treat because it really is only the most very basic html that I have used. I am finding being stuck on Windows 98 a bit of a handicap, and also being crap at using html.
Self Criticises Houellebecq

In a reasonably well argued piece on Spiked Josie Appleton mentions that Will Self has dismissed Houellebecq as a "little guy who can't get enough sex". Frankly I'd have thought that was the whole point of all of Houellebecq's books, so full marks to Self for stating the bleeding obvious, but apart from that it is a remark that betrays Self's own departure from literary outsider with the volcanic junk fuelled imagination (or William Burroughs wannabe) to fully paid up member of the literary bore establishment. Reviews of Self's latest novel, The Book of Dave, which admittedly I have not yet read, have tended to gush about the criticism of holy and sacred texts it contains - thus maybe proving Houellebecq's point in The Possibility of an Island nicely: "[artistic recognition went]... to productions that.. challenged moral values conventionally described as "traditional"..." - and so on for a good page or so.

The Will Self of My Idea of Fun, Grey Area and Great Apes was a fearsome talent, of prodigious angry imagination whose obsession with identity bore strange and exciting fruit, especially in the short stories. His conception of different, essentially satiric states of mind was vivid and startling. It was the work of an edgy writer writing about edges of various kinds. I especially loved Great Apes for its exposure of so many things: language, sex, sociability, drugs, art, human animalness and so on. The Self of How the Dead Live, going back to an old idea, seemed to me at least to begin to lose this torrential imagination without replacing it with anything of real depth. His was a greater imagination than Houellebecq, whether he is as prescient I don't know. Self is, however, a fairly conventional lefty, but Houllebecq doesn't fit that category quite so nicely, hence the remark. Stick to bizarre, funny and frightening imaginary worlds, Will, it's what you're best at.

England won the Test and Series today, their first home series win over Pakistan since 1982. There are a number of coincidences here, currently being discussed on the BBC's TMS site: then as now, an unpopular UK PM kowtowed to a powerful US Republican president; Israel was causing havoc inside Lebanon; England were going down under that winter; England were lacking key players; Pakistan were unhappy with several umpiring decisions and so on. This aside, it is notable for being yet another instance of England being a great team without any great players. England has no-one of the talent of Yousof, Younis Khan, or Inzy. But hunting in packs they more than make up for that.

Sunday, 6 August 2006


I'm back from holiday so posting can safely resume. I read and loved The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though I don't know it well enough to see if the author has got her own murderer wrong yet. I did spot the murderer but couldn't quite put my finger on why until Poirot helpfully explained it for me. Not having read any other detective fiction at all I have nothing to really assess it against but I will be back with more considered thoughts later. For the moment I'll just say that I liked the idea that Poirot is really this kind of bully, convincing people with bluff rather than pinpoint detection to get them to reveal things. Despite this, he is clever, and does work things out. But a lot of things we do right start off as bluff or bluster, or even as lies, and take on lives of their own from there. I wasn't a reader until I persuaded Oxford to let me study there. I haven't finished the new(ish) Houellebecq yet; as predicted it does make me feel sick: there are plenty of meditations along the same theme he set out as early as Whatever (I think) that "sex is a system of social hierarchy" and that life without sex or sex drive at least is no life at all. Very little in it is, I think, completely original - most of it, including the stuff deliberately designed to outrage Muslims and the thoughts on the decay of society, has been discussed at greater or lesser length in previous novels. In fact, I've skim read a lot of it, which is a bit disrespectful so I guess I will have to re-read this too.

I'm not impressed by England's bowling today, even if Younis and Yousof are brilliant batsmen. I was however impressed with the interest some Dutch people showed when the cricket scores were shown on the telly on the boat from Dunkirk yesterday.