Thursday, November 30, 2023

About Kissinger

Rolling Stone, for the first time in many decades, nails it.

And we have to return to Anthony Bourdain’s summation of the man:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

Sadly, Bourdain didn’t live to dance on Kissinger’s grave and nor did Christopher Hitchens. But we still have Tom Lehrer who may or may not have said that he stopped writing songs because satire died when Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. So that’s OK.

PS: Also, this:

Thursday, November 23, 2023

About Half Man Half Biscuit

I’m afraid I’ve rather lost track of the career of those fine Birkenhead troubadors Half Man Half Biscuit, so I wasn't aware that while I was working on my dissertation (see posts passim) they released a song that would have fitted in quite nicely: 

Born too late for the First World War
Siege of Troy was long before my time
Naseby, Jutland, Agincourt
Characters perhaps from pantomime...
I don’t watch films in black and white
The trees and flowers and birds have passed me by
I’ll just guess and hope I’m right
The first man into space was Captain Bligh...

Saturday, November 18, 2023

About the House of Lords

I try not to do too much politics (with a capital ‘P’) on this blog, but this piece, by Janice Turner, is just too good to miss. So let’s say I’m including it as an example of good journalism, good writing, good art, so we’ll allow it to circumvent the rules. Which is strangely appropriate...

“It has been quite the journey,” said Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge, beginning her maiden House of Lords speech. But “journey” has many modern usages, so which does she mean? Geographically, the red benches are but a half-mile from Downing Street where the noble lady was an undistinguished special adviser. Temporally, just eight years have elapsed since Charlotte Owen, now 30, graduated from the University of York.
Was it a social mobility journey? Owen spoke of her maternal grandparents who bought their own council house (yet not of her own private school). So her elevation, as the sadly thwarted Baroness Dorries of Anfield might have said, constitutes a one-woman levelling up. Or was it an “emotional journey”, the stuff of Strictly triumphs? Hard to tell, given that Owen declines all scrutiny about the exceptional talents that make her worthy of spending a probable half-century formulating British laws.
I used to compare the House of Lords to my freezer: where you shove all the pushing-its-sell-by-date stuff you can’t bear to bin. But lately it’s more an air fryer, which, with magical speed, turns raw into cooked or can give the stale and flaccid a palatable crunch. David Cameron, fattening in a fleece in his shepherd’s hut, curdled by dodgy lobbying dosh, writing rose garden memoirs about a milder political era he carelessly kiboshed, is now crispy Lord Cameron, foreign secretary: all kingly again in his Savile Row suit.
It’s awkward to say, given that my colleagues on these pages include nobility, but what a national disgrace is the House of Lords. (At a Times leaving do I realised too late I was scoffing about its corrupt appointments to a baroness: “Oh, sorry, I don’t mean you!”) But after decades observing the establishment at close quarters, I’ve seen how, with a few stolid exceptions, political appointees rarely bring a fine mind, specialist expertise or unique perspective to public life. They’re the mates at the Chequers barbecues, the solid backroom blokes, the big donors and brown-nosers, the clubbable, never the cussed.  
Most likely, the “journey” Baroness Owen refers to is through a flaming tunnel of tabloid speculation. Questions about whether she could be Boris Johnson’s daughter or lover would be purest sexism if she’d been appointed by any other politician. But with his unknown number of children, rackety love life and a nepotism so shameless he ennobled his own brother and tried to knight his father, Stanley Johnson, it seems perfectly fair to ask.
Youth in itself is not the issue: few would balk at Baroness Malala, aged 26. But you can look at Owen’s CV from every possible angle and find no clue. The House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac) never shows its workings, so all we know is that Owen “is in good standing in the community in general” and her “past conduct” will not bring the upper chamber into disrepute. But does the Lords have any repute left to diss?
Johnson finally killed the golden goose, which for generations parped out lovely eggs, rich in attendance allowances, central London parking spaces plus the kudos born of our abiding deference to aristocratic titles, which secures other lucrative sinecures and places on boards. Perhaps we should be grateful he was so flagrant, doling out peerages to his partygate crew, so that the need for reform is so clear, and desired by 71 per cent of the public now.
After Owen’s speech, which kindly older peers indulged like a grandchild’s school play, another Johnson appointee materialised. This was only the second speech by Lord Lebedev, Baron of Hampton and Siberia. A bit ungrateful really, given the urgency and unusual zeal with which Johnson championed his peerage. That he ignored MI6’s explicit advice that Lebedev posed a national security risk is as creepily suspect as Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Russian response to the Skripal poisonings, and has never been fully explained. It demonstrated too the powerlessness of Holac to constrain a PM’s most egregious patronage. Johnson overrode its ruling, so a KGB officer’s son swaggered into our democracy’s heart.
More even than the feudal obscenity of 92 hereditary peers or the cash for honours practised by every party, which has turned the Lords into a bloated 785-member Mr Creosote, Lebedev and Owen signal urgency for change. Labour has already published Gordon Brown’s constitutional review, which proposes the second chamber become a house of the nations and regions: fully elected but not synced to the Commons cycle to ensure a different political composition. But much small print is missing, such as the type of proportional representation by which peers (or whatever they’ll be called) are elected. If this is the European list system, the appointment and ranking of candidates will be just as driven by political patronage.
Besides, do we want a house of ex-councillors or local grandees, with none of the specialist knowledge that the best of the Lords brings to legislative scrutiny? Every year Holac itself recommends exceptional individuals for peerages. These have included the scientist Susan Greenfield, statistician Claus Moser, spy chief Eliza Manningham-Buller and Big Issue founder John Bird. Brown’s paper does not allow for any non-elected appointments but what nation wouldn’t welcome such diverse talents, or even wish to keep a few bishops, as long as other religions are represented too.
Every government for decades has promised Lords reform, but never got beyond tweaks. Constitutional change is always seen as dry, too time-consuming to be worth the political capital. Now it looks inevitable, thanks to Baroness Owen: a scandal, a mystery and a national joke.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

About Calvino

Something else I really should have included in my dissertation (a continuing, possibly never-ending series). This is from Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino:

If I read The Odyssey, I read Homer’s text but I cannot forget all the things that Ulysses’ adventures have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering whether these meanings were implicit in the original text or if they are later accretions, deformations or expansions of it. If I read Kafka, I fid myself approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ which we hear constantly being used to refer to just about anything.

Good points, but Calvino is reflecting on his own experience and, implicitly, that of his own socio-cultural circle. Who is the “we” that hears the word “Kafkaesque” at all, let alone constantly? What is your experience of The Odyssey if you don’t know what an odyssey is?

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

About Wordsworth


I am grateful to Robert Hutton for live-tweeting his perusal of Nadine Dorries’ new book. To be honest, when I saw the extract above, it rather reinforced my belief that her appointment as Culture Secretary was Boris Johnson’s idea of a Situationist prank – let’s find someone who wouldn’t recognise the most crushingly obvious slice of English verse if it bit off her face and put her in charge of poetry, among other things – but, hey, at least she admits to her ignorance.

What startles me more is that nobody at any point in the editorial process noticed that she’d got the quote wrong.

Monday, November 06, 2023

About Quora

When the Web arrived, and more specifically when it spawned social media, there was general optimism that it might effect a digital enhancement of Habermas’s public sphere, serving as a forum for discussion and debate in which we could all gain knowledge and understanding of our fellow users and their lives.

Then Quora happened.

Friday, November 03, 2023

About the Noughties, again, sorry, not sorry

More pondering on the decade I got wrong, but at least I had a go, this time by Johny Pitts

Lost in Translation appeared in the first half of a decade in which the left had power and lost touch, and gen Xers who’d modelled themselves as countercultural drifters and ravers in the 90s sold out and bought up east London, to let at inflated prices to the generation who missed the boat, us millennials. Multiculturalism wasn’t a dirty word then, and while the year 2000 promised a new dawn of peace in an increasingly globalised planet, it grossly failed to deliver. By the end of the decade it seemed to me, a young man then in his 20s, that the world was in ruins. The failures in those years, while we were averting our eyes and reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, listening to Chilled Ibiza and Air’s Talkie Walkie, paved the way for the dystopia that was to follow: the crippling age of austerity, Trump, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, Covid, growing awareness of the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, the fractures on social media, mumble rap.