The Curmudgeon


Monday, December 31, 2007

Moral Fibre

December: drunk with resolution
January: virtue soon
February: disillusion
March: cool patience is a boon
April: virtue in the spring
May: we shall improve, fear not
June: virtue's a summer thing
July: the weather's far too hot
August: progress, never fear
September: temporary lapse
October: "By this time next year..."
November: unforeseen collapse
December: drunk with resolution
Pettifer Mugley

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Glorious Achievement Must Be Radically Reformed

It appears to have dawned upon the Glorious Successor that even a man who is not Tony Blair cannot afford to go on like this. Accordingly, one of the few proto-authoritarian governments to manage the extraordinary feat of pissing off the public, the armed forces and the police in the space of a few months has promised a year of "real and serious changes". Gosh. Another one. Gordon has, as usual, pledged to press ahead, step up, reform majorly and long-termily, and meet challenges. The education leaving age will be raised to eighteen, which will cut another sliver off the teenage-hoodie-what'll-we-do-with-them class. GPs will be compelled to extend their opening hours, doubtless in return for adequate remuneration. Hospitals will be cleaned (gosh, again) pensions will be reformed (gosh, even more), the Union will be defended (gosh, fancy) and "tough decisions", namely the ones Gordon and a few other people want, will be made on the question of nuclear power. There will also be "measurable changes", if not necessarily beneficial ones, in public services. "For Britain, 2008 will be a year of real and serious changes," Gordon said. Gosh. Another one.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Artemis 81

Alastair Reid 1981

Broadcast by the BBC on 29 December 1981, Artemis 81 treats of an epic battle for the future of mankind, fought between angel of light Helith (played by Sting) and angel of death Asrael (Roland Curram), through the mind of a successful but spiritually impoverished occult novelist, Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett).

The story is simple enough. After a visually superb prologue in which Asrael and Helith are seen pleading their respective cases to the Earth-mother Magog, Harlax's girlfriend Gwen (Dinah Stabb) meets celebrity organist Albrecht von Drachenfels (Dan O'Herlihy). An unwilling pawn of Asrael, von Drachenfels provides Gwen and Harlax with a series of clues about a broken statuette of the goddess, the pieces of which are responsible for a mysterious series of suicides around the country. Harlax investigates the deaths, seeing them as little more than useful material for his next book; but as soon as concern for Gwen's safety breaks through his habitual detachment he is spirited away by Helith. The scales (in the form of a pair of heavy spectacles) having been forcibly removed from his eyes, Harlax is cast adrift in a nightmarish, plague-ridden city; but with Helith's help he finds his way into an underground complex where Gwen, a film theorist friend of his, and the suicides' loved ones are being kept and brainwashed with fake stimuli. Harlax and Gwen escape in time to receive von Drachenfels' last signal and defeat Asrael.

Unfortunately, Artemis 81 suffers from a number of affectations which distract from its considerable virtues and make it seem more obscure than it really is; I distinctly remember, across more than a quarter of a century, one reviewer's plaintive cry of "What was it all about?" The screenwriter, David Rudkin, signally failed to learn the important lesson that what reads beautifully on the page may sound ridiculous on screen; and although there are occasional fine lines, Rudkin's cod-poetic dialogue sits very ill with the everyday locations in the first half of the film, and adds little or nothing to the brilliantly conceived nightmares in the second. Pace that reviewer's complaint, the writing is also clunkily over-explicit at times, notably in a lengthy monologue just before the climax, in which Gwen tells Harlax a number of things which either have already been conveyed to the viewer, or else should have been conveyed in a fashion less dramatically inept. The film is also stuck with a painfully symbolic line delivered by Harlax direct to the camera at the end, and with a number of obtrusive quotations from Hitchcock which, despite the fact that Harlax's film theorist friend is apparently a Hitchcock specialist (he delivers a lecture on Vertigo), come across as irrelevant, heavy-handed and insufferably arch. Even the climax is nearly bungled, with a misplaced reference to Hammer's Dracula films.

Despite all this, and despite a running time of three hours or so, Artemis 81 is thoroughly compelling. The related mysteries of the suicides and the statuette, and von Drachenfels' clues involving some sheet music and a golfball typewriter, are intriguingly set up and lucidly worked out. Visually the film is very sophisticated; and such extraordinary images as the waking of Magog in the prologue, and such scenes as the meeting of Gwen and von Drachenfels on the ferry or Harlax's bewildered wandering of the nightmare city, would redeem almost any amount of bad writing. The city is a darkened slum where train passengers collapse coughing blood and a strange language is spoken - symbolising, perhaps, the fact that Harlax has yet to grow into his newly acquired vision. The place seems populated entirely by refugees; incomprehensible announcements echo constantly from loudspeakers; Harlax sees a copy of one of his own books, but the title is undecipherable. The sequence in the underground complex is equally mesmerising, as one of Asrael's minions interrogates his deluded charges from behind a laser screen; another minion, talking to Asrael on the telephone, reassures himself that it's all for the best really; and Harlax's belated attempt to return his friend's affection results in screaming, scalding agony.

I saw Artemis 81 on its original transmission and never forgot it even though, at twelve years of age, I undoubtedly had very little idea myself as to what it was all about. Watching it again, I was reminded of the Scots novelist David Lindsay, who is now known almost solely for his outstanding first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). Lindsay, whose other books amply repay the difficulty and expense of finding them and the frequent dissatisfactions of reading them, displays a very similar combination of visionary imagery and verbal clumsiness. Beautiful, annoying, half-baked and haunting, Artemis 81 stands as a brilliant example of the way in which interesting pretentiousness can be a good deal more satisfactory than solid professionalism and good old-fashioned storytelling.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Old Labour Values

Government papers, released today after the thirty years necessary to make the knowledge safe, reveal that Tony Benn's energy ministry showed rather less than the required enthusiasm for the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977. Good for them. The ministry noted that floodlighting buildings "could be psychologically extremely damaging to public acceptance of the need to save energy", an attitude which will come as a considerable surprise to those who know only New Labour's engaging mix of gnat-straining and camel ingestion. The chairman of the London Celebration Committee blamed "the anti-monarchist in DoE", presumably a reference to the republican Benn. The prime minister, James Callaghan, blamed it on "pernickety bureaucracy", the horrors of persnickety, thusly and so forth being then far in the future.

Callaghan's government also braved the wrath of Edward Heath's dear old pal, Idi Amin, who by that time was well into his barking phase and promised to "personally attend the [Commonwealth] meeting and also be present at all the functions organized for the celebration of the silver jubilee ... accompanied by a delegation of 250 people, including dancers of the Heart Beat of Africa". Since no arms sales were at stake, he was rebuffed. He threatened to invade the United Kingdom, but in those unenlightened times this was not considered sufficient provocation to start a war, even though Uganda probably had nearly as many weapons of mass destruction in 1977 as Saddam Hussein did in 2003. What progress we have made.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Send Me Your Huddled Book Tokens

Hong Kong's greatest excuse for an arbiter of good taste, the miraculously resarted Fumier, has done me the honour of awarding me the Fumie for Best Blog in the World, which this year ranks inferior in prestige only to the Fumies for Post of the Year, Best German Humour, Best Hong Kong Welsh Occasional Photographic Blog in English, and The Two Bloggers He'd Most Like to See Making Out. I am duly gratified, and have posted an appropriate acceptance address in Fumier's comments; but I'd like to take a moment here to reflect on what is perhaps, considering the time of year, the most salient point in my humble speech, namely the plug for my books. The period immediately following Christmas is often a time of dilemmas over how to get rid of superfluous cash presents or unwanted book tokens; and, while Lulu probably don't take book tokens, I am certainly prepared to consider them, provided they're transferable, if it means relieving my readers of just a little of that unwelcome post-Yuletide clutter.

Beelzebub is an epic horror fantasy which leaves the Left Behind series choking in the dust. An extract is available here. The novel has been reviewed by Larry Teabag and praised for its tone of grouchy discontentment and eyeball-rolling irritation.

Radical Therapies collects three tales, including the novella "The Little Doctor" (extract here), a story of one man's struggle with fundamental human values. Scruggs reviews the novella here, and a review of the whole book by another eminent blogger (writing under a shameless pseudonym) is available if you scroll down the Lulu page.

Terminals is a lightly science-fictional 9/11 satire which is considerably shorter than Ian McEwan's Saturday, is not written in the present tense, and does not feature a thrusting upper-middle-class protagonist. An extract is available here.

Selected passages from all three books can be read by clicking "Preview this book" on their respective Lulu pages.

Most flattering of all, none of these works has ever been called "vital and significant" or "life-enhancing" or "warm, witty and wise" by any reviewer in a national newspaper. I think that says a lot.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's great novel, about the last survivor of a plague which has caused a deadly mutation of the human species, has now been filmed three times. I have not seen the first version, The Last Man on Earth (1964), an Italian production starring Vincent Price. It was scripted by Matheson himself, but his private Alan Smithee pseudonym, "Logan Swanson", was substituted in the credits, presumably because of liberties taken by the makers.

The second version, The Omega Man (1971), is one of three big-budget science fiction ventures at the turn of the seventies to benefit from the presence of Charlton Heston; the other two being Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). On balance The Omega Man is probably the least satisfactory of the three, thanks largely to a maudlin ending which the new Will Smith version appears, predictably enough, to have reprised with minor variations. Still, The Omega Man remains very watchable, and I have it to thank for inducing me to hunt down the book, thus initiating a Matheson addiction which persists to this day.

The film's protagonist, Robert Neville, is a military scientist, apparently the only human being immune to the germ-warfare epidemic which has killed almost everyone else and turned the other survivors into photophobic homicidal maniacs. They are initiated into a black-cowled order of Luddites called The Family, led by one Jonathan Matthias who, before the apocalypse, was a TV newscaster: one of the film's many fine touches. Neville's ongoing battle with The Family, for whom he epitomises the evils of science and machinery, is interrupted by the appearance of a group of relatively healthy hippy types, whose partial immunity he is able to augment by using his blood as a serum. Although Neville dies at the end, the serum is preserved, thus enabling the Family to die in peace and the hippies to light out for the mountains and, no doubt, breed like rabbits and found a brave new world.

The book is better.

In the novel, Neville is not a military scientist; in fact, all we know about his working life before the war is that he was employed at "the plant". During the war he was stationed in Panama, where two possibly vital things happened: he had a large cross tattooed on his chest one night when drunk, and he was bitten by a vampire bat. Later in the book, Neville speculates that the bat's bite may be the reason for his immunity to the plague; he killed the bat, and perhaps he was the first human being it attacked.

Obviously, this kind of thing has no place in the film versions. In all three films, Neville is a military scientist, and hence has some moral responsibility for the catastrophe; in The Omega Man, it is Neville's privileged military status that allows him access to the drug that saves him from the plague. A last survivor who is just some poor bastard caught up in the machinery, and who owes his survival to sheer chance, is clearly not an appropriate cinematic identification figure.

The plague in the book is specifically a plague of vampires. They have long teeth, they drink blood, and they hate garlic and mirrors (although they do have reflections, and not all of them are dead). The story opens some five months after the apocalypse, with Neville, devastated by the deaths of his wife and child, spending his days hunting for sleeping vampires and pounding stakes through them. After dark he tries to distract himself with classical music and occasional drunken frenzies while the creatures besiege his house, which he has fortified and equipped with a generator; and something that used to be his next-door neighbour gives a ritual cry: "Come out, Neville!"

This horrible stasis is broken when Neville begins asking questions. Supposedly, in order to kill a vampire you have to hammer the stake through its heart; but Neville is not a biologist and doesn't know exactly where the heart is. Many of the vampires' attributes, such as the aversion to mirrors and garlic, could be explained on psychological grounds without any need for the supernatural. Other attributes, such as the ability to change into bats or wolves, the vampires have never displayed. Neville starts to research systematically, and eventually discovers that the vampires are victims of a blood disease, caused by a bacterium with a life cycle so ingeniously worked out that it's easy to share Neville's reluctant admiration of the "dirty little bastard" he has isolated on a microscope slide.

If this were the extent of the book's originality, it would still be one of the more innovative vampire novels, easily on a par with such works as Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and S P Somtow's Vampire Junction. Matheson's style is spare but never banal, effectively evoking Neville's unparalleled grief and loneliness without recourse to sentiment, soap opera or action-hero cool. However, what makes the book great is its ending. If you haven't read it, you may care to rush out and buy it now, and come back to this afterwards.

Having discovered the answer to the vampire plague and arrived at a certain emotional equilibrium, Neville is shocked one day to see a woman walking in the daylight, and further shocked when, after a fragile trust has grown up between them, he examines her blood and finds the germ in it. The vampires - the living ones, who have the disease but are not reanimated corpses - have been doing some research of their own, and have formed a functioning society of nocturnal, blood-dependent people. The woman, Ruth, has been sent as a spy. She warns Neville to get out, but there is absolutely nowhere for him to go. When the vampires come for him, he fights them and is mortally wounded. Ruth, as a member of the new society's elite, is able to visit him and give him pills to ease his passing (and prevent a barbaric public execution). He looks out at the new people of the earth and realises what he is to them: something that comes while they sleep and leaves as evidence of his existence the bloodless bodies of their loved ones. The last man on earth passes into legend as a vampire to the vampires.

It's one of the most devastating payoffs I have ever encountered; naturally, the Hollywood bloodsuckers have dropped it with all the alacrity of a script doctor draining the interest from Planet of the Apes. George A Romero's Living Dead films were directly inspired by I Am Legend, and they certainly don't fail to rub in the Them-as-Us part of the message, as expressed by Neville himself in drunken rumination ("Are his deeds more outrageous than the deeds of the parent who drained the spirit from the child? ... Really now, search your soul, lovie - is the vampire so bad?"). Still, even Romero doesn't go as far as Matheson did in 1954. Romero's zombies are a distorted mirror image of ourselves, epitomising and satirising the greed, stupidity and violence of the living; Matheson's vampires are the living, for whom we ourselves will soon be no more than a tale to frighten children.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Modern Classics, Perennial Favourites

Or "repeats", as they're known in Oldspeak:

Fit the First

Fit the Second

Fit the Third

Fit the Fourth

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dormant Senses

A spokesbeing for the Church of what C S Lewis piquantly called "Christianity and water" observes that "Rumours of the demise of Christmas as a Christian celebration are baseless". Goody; perhaps we'll hear less whining about it from now on. The rumours are baseless because "the dormant desire to recapture a sense of the wonder of the Nativity draws people from across communities towards churches across the country". The degree of respect in which the priestly caste holds its dupes has rarely been more apparent. People are not drawn to the celebrations by faith, by respect for tradition, by a feeling for the beauty of the services, much less by an active desire to recapture a sense of wonder. What pulls them in is a dormant desire; they flock to the churches, apparently, without conscious motivation, lured perhaps by vague memories of the Nativity plays in which they participated as toddlers, like flesh-eating zombies doddering towards a shopping mall where Jesus waits with his rifle of redemption. Or something.

Anyway, what a flock it is: the usual church attendance figures at weekends are 1.2 million, or two per cent of the population, but now that the dormant desires have worked their holy magic "more than 2.8 million people", or a staggering 4.7 per cent, are expected to turn up. Attendance at the country's grand cathedrals over Christmas has risen by thirty-seven per cent; doubtless a symptom of Christian respect for the virtues of poverty and humility.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Argumental Positivity, Mantle-Oriented Relishingness

The Fabian Society, whose chair is Brown's Balls, has suggested to the Glorious Successor that, if he wants to retain the few thousand votes in the few dozen marginal seats on which his overall majority in Parliament depends, it might be a good idea if he pulled his finger out. "'The government's autumn horribilis has made Gordon Brown the underdog", according to an article in the Fabian Review by the society's general secretary. The missing disks, the almost-election and the donations scandal have outweighed Gordon's chief advantage, namely that of not being Tony Blair. Nevertheless, on less important matters, such as policy, "they are doing pretty well - changing the school leaving age, the Children's Plan - but have not painted the full picture". Gordon's present unpopularity has nothing to do with, for example, pay awards that don't keep up with inflation, the threat to extend internment to six weeks, the investment in green technology like the new Heathrow runway, and the general impression that, like many who hate each other's guts, he and Tony Blair in fact have a good deal in common. Gordon's present unpopularity is merely a matter of failing to show his fairness, his greenishness, his commitment to liberty in their proper light. During ten years in office, New Labour have been working so hard for the rebirth of the nation that the poor things still haven't learned that what counts is presentation, presentation, presentation.

The answer, according to the Fabian Review article, is that "the party should have a period of calm to restore stability". After the period of calm, there should be "a Truman-style comeback", the victor of Nagasaki having gone on to an unexpected election win in 1948, thus providing a model for the victory over Daveybloke by Brown of Basra. Appropriately enough, Truman is the president credited by Gore Vidal with the overthrow of the American republic and the foundation of the present-day National Security State. Brown should, "like Harry Truman before the 1948 US election ... relish the mantle". Despite having no detectable meaning, or perhaps because it has no detectable meaning, this "could be precisely the way to make the political fightback Labour needs". The comeback, according to the Fabian Review article, should involve "no more mistakes", which sounds like jolly good thinking by the author of the Fabian Review article. Brown should then set out "the positive argument for change", being, apparently, in profound disagreement with the policies he has helped put into place over the past ten years.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The God, the Bland and the Ugly

The economic missionary to the Palestinian infidels, formerly known as the Vicar of Downing Street, has finally converted to Catholicism. No doubt the Universal Church's robust attitude to dissent appealed to him, as well as its long and famous traditions of simony (or cash for honours), crusading (or killing Middle Easteners) and being at least as rich as a Bee Gee or two.

The Society for the Protection of Nonexistent Children has reacted by "writing to Tony Blair to ask him whether he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated throughout his political career"; presumably he has, now that it seems morally imperative (or, in Oldspeak, expedient) for him to do so. In any case, Tony has plenty of anti-life positions to spare, notably the Christian conviction that life on earth is merely a preparation for an eternity of union with the Sky-daddy or wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the unfortunate incident of scapegoating on which the whole faith is based.

The Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who rivals Tony in reasoning power as in command of the English language, noted that "It's perfectly possible to be a practising Catholic and play a very major role including the most major role in British politics in this country", raising intriguing questions about the religious proclivities of George W Bush and Rupert Murdoch.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dedicated Officers, Regrettable Circumstances

The forces of conservatism have once again demonstrated the perils of basing terror trials on mere evidence. The trial of terror suspect Sean Hoey for the Omagh bombing of 1998 has resulted in acquittal of the terror suspect on all counts. If only it were permissible to intern people like him for six weeks without charge, of course, this sort of thing wouldn't happen. The judge noted several unfortunate incidents involving dedicated police officers faced with a difficult job. Evidence was "beefed up", lost, misfiled, stored in "thoroughly disorganised" fashion. DNA material was collected in so "thoughtless and slapdash" a manner as to be beneath consideration. Vehicles involved in the case, including the car which carried the bomb, were lost or allowed to rust. Two officers, including a detective chief inspector, failed to wear protective clothing when they collected evidence, and then did their best in court to protect the reputation of the force and the honour of dedicated officers faced with a difficult job. The judge referred to this as a "deliberate and calculated deception" and said that he had referred their evidence to the police ombudsman. There may also be an inquiry, just in case the whole fiasco turns out to have been nobody's fault once again.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Respect Where It's Due

Nick Clegg has made a fine non-theistic Blairite start to his tenure as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Asked in an interview whether he believed in God, he answered "No", and later "issued a statement in an attempt to ensure that his answer did not offend people with religious beliefs". Apparently Nick Clegg not only thinks that people with religious beliefs tend to be offended by those who lack such beliefs; he also thinks that such attitudes should be pandered to. This is because he has "enormous respect for people who have religious faith" and also possesses the courage of his wife's convictions: "I'm married to a Catholic and am committed to bringing my children up as Catholics." This is certainly principled of him. As a nonbeliever, Nick Clegg respects religious faith to such an extent that he is committed to having his children inculcated with a doctrine he apparently thinks is false. He also agrees with Daveybloke, the Cuddly Conservative, that "politicians are entitled to a private life before they go into politics", although he evidently has few qualms about using his children in an attempt to endear himself to any floating Ruth Kelly fans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Britishness Battered By Barmy Beak's Brazen Blunder

The near-terminal irrelevance of the courts in New Labour's New Britain was demonstrated yet again today when a force of conservatism interfered with the Ministry of Internment and Expulsion's efforts to prevent Britain being swamped by asylum tourists.

The fifteen-year-old threat to British jobs is a native of the sovereign, independent state of Iraq. He was seized last month in a pre-dawn raid so that he could be appropriately informatised of what may be awaiting him at home now that the country is orderly enough for British troops to flee from without excessive unseemliness.

The unit of excess benefit claimancy was returned unaccompanied to Austria, where he demonstrated his Britishnessless shiftlessness by spending three days and nights on the streets. Despite having consumed precious London air and living space, he was described as "unprepared for the cold and the rain".

The potential destroyer of British national identity was eventually given shelter in a charity-run hostel. Despite this happy resolution, a judge has criticised the Ministry for a "total lack of humanitarianism", which makes about as much sense as criticising a cluster bomb for dropping without due care and attention.

The judge also demonstrated the casual, unselfconscious racism of the complacent left-liberal elite by referring to the menace to Britain's shores as "a vulnerable minor" despite the fact that human resources tend to come of age much faster in primitive, war-torn societies.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fuel Foolery

It appears that New Labour's measures to build a new generation of nuclear power stations upon those parts of the country not covered by Heathrow Airport will not be quite enough to satisfy the Glorious Successor's lust for direct action on climate change, even when coupled with the Environment Secretary's recent orgasm over the Bali waterdown. Like Britain's greatest and most fragrant ally, Gordon is not the kind to allow the letter, let alone the spirit, of a mere international agreement to stand in the way of his doing what is right. Accordingly, Gordon is considering plans to build the first new coal-fired power stations in thirty years. The director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies seems to think this would be a bad idea. "There is much more CO2 in coal than there is in oil, and oil is going to run out. There is enough CO2 in coal to take us far beyond the dangerous level to produce a different planet," he said. "The strange thing is that in the countries that talk the greenest, like Germany and Britain, the policymakers just don't yet get it." The shy implicit optimism of that yet is rather touching, is it not? Fortunately, Gordon has never prided himself on scientific thinking; only on Britishness, piety and a steady hand on the economic tiller as long as the goodwill of the global markets held out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Doing Well By Doing God

The AH Trust, a group of businessmen who are "alarmed by the direction in which they see society heading", plan to build a Christian theme park in Lancashire. Apparently Orlando, Florida has already been blessed with something of the sort: the Holy Land Experience, where patrons "can see a bloodied Jesus forced to carry his cross by snarling Roman soldiers". However, this Gibsonite view of Christianity is not that of the AH Trust, whose website explicitly draws a connection between sex and violence in the media and binge drinking. Denying themselves the joys of bondage and flagellation, the Trust's members hope to produce "a halfway house for youngsters" who, according to one of the theme park's trustees, do nothing but binge drink and, as a result, require the curative effects of "a multi-media case that God created the world in seven days". The Trust's website, whose designer seems to have a slightly unnatural affection for the word "project", also promises that God will provide breaks for any workaholics who may have wandered in among the alcoholics: "Are you working more and relaxing less? Doing more but never getting everything done? Running here and there but only running yourself down? Maybe it's time you listened to God and took a break!"

The project is also intended as a "response to what the trustees identify as a sense of drift within the Church of England". This sense of drift is, of course, the fault of the theory of evolution, which "has falsely become the foundation of our society". Well, that makes things clearer, to be sure. Hence, the AH Trust promises "to advocate Genesis across this land in order to remove this falsehood, which presently is destroying the church foundation". The Observer's reporter, Jamie Doward, employs the useful journalistic faculty of determining noble motives by rhetoric alone: it is clearly self-evident that "concerns about the direction of modern society are the trust's main motivation for building the theme park". It's true that a "business plan available to prospective investors suggests the park could bring in £4.8m a year - apparently 10 times its estimated overhead costs"; but obviously no group of businessmen, even Christian businessmen, would be interested in such crass and worldly matters.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Though He Reduce My Congregation By Several Million Africans, Yet Will I Trust In Him

Advent - or the pre-Christmas sales, as it is known to devotees of Britain's unofficial national religion - is a season of anticipation and hope; a time to await the coming of the Messiah and his stocking-fillers in patience and humility; a time, perhaps, to reflect on past sins and hope to do better in future, in sure and certain and unselfish hope of resurrection beyond this life and a blissful eternity in the Bosom of the Sky-Daddy - unless, of course, one happens to be a Christian. Yes, it's true - with politicians in Bali agreeing to do nothing about saving God's good earth, with war and religious terrorism erupting all over the globe, with little British lambs in their millions straying from the creed, the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken another non-stance on the question of gay bishops. It appears that "not everyone carrying the name of Anglican can claim to speak authentically for the identity we share as a global fellowship" and that "a great deal of the language that is around in the communion at present seems to presuppose that any change from our current deadlock is impossible, that division is unavoidable and that such division represents so radical a difference in fundamental faith that no recognition and future co-operation can be imagined." The Archbishop, who no doubt can claim to speak authentically for the identity he shares with a few other people as a global fellowship, cannot accept these assumptions, and does not believe that, "as Christians we should see them as beyond challenge". Meek acceptance of the Lord's evident wish to see the Church in deadlock, coupled with a steadfast refusal to compromise on matters of faith, are not beyond challenge for Christians of the Archbishop's calibre; no wonder New Labour found the cut of his jib not altogether uncongenial. The Archbishop's proposed solutions to the Church's difficulties are similarly calculated to gladden Blairite hearts: "professionally facilitated conversations" and "setting up a group of primates to produce proposals to put to next year's Lambeth conference". Focus groups and working parties - what could be more conducive to a fuller appreciation of I Corinthians 6 ix and the rest?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Titanic Enterprises

Luxury paedophilia classes and psychopathic workshops in Marbella will soon be a thing of the past for Britain's ever-increasing number of prisoners, the Prison Governors' Association has revealed.

From April next year, all inmates in Britain's hundred and thirty-one crime hotels will spend twenty-three hours a day locked in their cells between Friday lunchtime and Monday morning. Friday afternoon "classes and workshops", during which prisoners cost the taxpayer unnecessary financial hardship and moral indignation, will be cancelled.

According to the president of the Prison Governors' Association, the average weekly time spent outside cells by each inmate will be reduced to its lowest level since 1969. Also on the positive side, the move will free up a cost saving of £60 million, which can then be spent on the ID card scheme, which will help to reduce crime, which will mean the Government's emergency early release scheme can be ended in time for the planned "titan jails" to be appropriately filled.

The chief inspector of prisons and hotbed of wishy-washy liberalism, Anne Owers, claimed that the French "abandoned building titan prisons after the population of the first, which was built outside Paris in 1992 to hold 2,800, had swollen to 3,600 overcrowded inmates". Obviously that cannot happen here. In the first place, we are building three titan prisons, not one. In the second place, we are British.

The "titan jails" will cost only one thousand, two hundred million pounds, which is only twenty times more than the savings which will be made from keeping everyone locked up for twenty-three hours a day. This means that the "titan prisons" could cost the taxpayer almost virtually nothing except the usual innocent increments which often result from handing over public works to private contractors, provided that prisoners could be kept locked up for 460 hours a day, at least during weekends.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Niggling People to Death

Here is another bulletin from Dan Hardie on the way in which the Government is living up to its obligations towards those who helped British troops in Iraq. The Foreign Secretary was asked about the policy of offering assistance (or, to be pedantic about it, trying to give the appearance of offering assistance) only to those past employees who can prove they were employed by British forces for twelve months or more. His reply: "The scheme is open to all existing staff whatever their length of service. For previous staff who no longer work for us, there is a 12 month criteria (sic). I think this gets the balance right."

What balance does he mean, I wonder? Balance of what? Balance between what and what? Anyway:

"The fortitude of civilian staff alongside military forces has been amazing on the part both of British staff and locally employed staff. The new scheme tries to recognise this", which must be jolly comforting to the sixty per cent of applicants who have so far been refused any help at all. Absenteeism is a popular excuse, and must be proving particularly effective if, as Dan Hardie believes, the Government is not burdening itself unduly with the task of checking people's claims with the army units they claim to have helped.

Once again, please write to your MP, raising the points mentioned in Dan Hardie's post and politely requesting them to raise the matter with David Miliband. If they haven't signed Early Day Motion 401, ask them to do so. If they feel unable to sign it, ask them why, and tell them their reply may be published. Inform them that Dan Hardie is in touch with several Iraqis in both Iraq and Syria, and that he will be happy to brief any MPs who are interested.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Money Isn't Everything, You Know

Some people have no sense of gratitude. Jacqui Smith, poor Jacqui Smith, has been busting whatever passes for a gut in the New Labour anatomy to get the police the power of holding people for six weeks without charge, and yet the police are giving no indication whatever that they appreciate her efforts, and may even be preparing to deepen her miseries by voting to lift the ban on strike action.

Of course, the extension of internment to forty-two days is thoroughly necessary, since the Home Secretary obviously thinks it is, and has said so several times, with such positivity that the offering of actual evidence in favour of the idea would be an act of culpable bad taste. Still, one would think the police would give some show of gratitude for a measure which will give them so much more to do with their copious free time, and which, as an added bonus, is bound to make them even more popular and trusted than they have been since the taxpayer generously agreed to pay the fine which the Met incurred for failing to execute Jean Charles de Menezes in a non-public place.

The problem, as usual, is money. It is a perennial source of sorrowful ministerial astonishment that public sector workers cannot seem to take the same insouciant attitude to filthy lucre which is so upliftingly demonstrated by Conrad Black and his spiritual brothers in the boardroom, as well as, on occasion, by ministers themselves. In September, the Police Arbitration Tribunal agreed a below-inflation pay rise - in Oldspeak, a slightly smaller cut in living standards than would result from not raising salaries at all - and Jacqui Smith, poor Jacqui Smith, has simply decided not to backdate it. She has defended the decision with characteristic cogency, pointing out that everyone except junior doctors and the armed forces has got the same deal or worse, and that "the £30m involved was the equivalent of an extra 800 police officers". Well, that ought to clinch it. Like the public with its mulish opposition to ID cards, those poor silly policepersons are harming no-one but themselves. If this is the way they behave now, they'll be in for a short sharp shock once they're eventually privatised.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Poring Over Toby Jugg

Like Ellis Sharp, I too once read Dennis Wheatley's The Haunting of Toby Jugg. I may have been a bit older than twelve when I did so, which might account for the fact that it was the last Wheatley opus I ever got through. The first was probably To the Devil A Daughter, which pits a middle-aged female pulp novelist, her son and her Secret Service boyfriend against a Satanist named, rather splendidly, Canon Copely-Syle, in a story even less frightening than the 1976 screen adaptation which brought Hammer Films to their overdue and sadly ignominious ending. Aside from those two, the only other Wheatley book I read was The Devil Rides Out, an amusing thriller which was also filmed by Hammer. That one is among their better efforts, thanks to director Terence Fisher, a Richard Matheson script, and star Christopher Lee, who brought to the side of Christian virtue the impressive presence and aristocratic bearing which make his Dracula so effective. I'm not sure how far I was aware of the racism observed by Ellis, though it's certainly clear enough in the film: the evil Mocata's coven looks like a gathering of the United Nations, with dark skins much in evidence, while the virtuous and the redeemable are white to a man, woman and servant.

What I remember about The Haunting of Toby Jugg is the account our hero gives of his schooldays. Toby, if I recall correctly, was given a very free and easy education; possibly along the lines of A S Neill's notorious Summerhill, although I'm not entirely sure it was quite as free as that. Certainly he was given an awful lot of leeway to learn as he pleased. To me, then in the middle of the tedious, uniformed, psychologically brutalising misery that was secondary education in the 1980s, it sounded paradisal; it impressed me so much, in fact, that little as I remember of Toby's education, I remember nothing at all of the horrors that later haunt him. As far as Wheatley is concerned, however, a liberal education is nothing more or less than a corruption of the innocent; Toby notes particularly that he was never subjected either to sexual repression or to Christian doctrine, and during the course of the story it becomes clear that it is partly this lack of authoritarian faith-schooling that has placed him in supernatural peril. I don't think I'll be giving much away if I say that, as far as I remember, the imperfections resulting from his non-Blairite education are eventually purged from his soul, and brave, British Toby emerges purified, victorious and, as Ellis observes, white through and through.

I was thoroughly annoyed at Wheatley; The Haunting of Toby Jugg easily ranks among the most disheartening literary experiences of my bibliomaniac youth, somewhere between Ian Fleming's slimy Casino Royale and John Buchan's inane The Thirty-Nine Steps. Many years later I exacted a terrible, highly satisfactory revenge.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Pensions Phish

From: "darlingbloke"
Date: Sun Dec 09, 2007 1:00pm Europe/London
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: let me S | T on Your Pakcage for Free

Dear Sir or Madam

i am darlingbloke (Darling Bloke). i Hopoe this find You well adn porsperpous. I am Chancerlor of thursting thurustihgn thrustingh adn Hihgly developped Nation in Prime of historical Thrid Term. As new new NewLablabour Bloke of the Worldd i offten have tot tot tottake take HARDD Dcisciosnns whihth other blokes perosnss money its a Hard life at teh Topp./ recnetly i have tklaken Harddd cision to Blale ourtt Northern Rock utilisisising Govt. Fnuds. thisd was Hrdad Decision butt i bleleievbe oit was Right for i am Darlingbloke. now i andd my Cabinet Coleagle gordon are Bieing Criticicicicssised for Nott VBlaling ourtrt a lot of Wrok adn 1250000thoasund Penisons Crisis. this wold maen 1 a utilisisisng £££725000000 milllion taxpayres money inn flationbustingference wthith FreeeeeeeemarKetforces things adn a Bad Thing. i donot donot not do not do Bad Thing for i am Darling (darLing) bloke (bloke). i am nott abvsolutely apalingly asboluetly dissgraceflul abssssslute btrayyyal i reffute all sutch algaegators algagation's for i am darlingbloke. WEE willl mkake an n nn ann annnnnn nouncem net in ndue c o urse. tlil thnen New New New Labor Blesssings on You all andd a happppy andd propsperporous Yaer Foirm Gordon and me.

YUors darlingbloke (Bloke)


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Waste Paper

Well, here's a thing: New Labour's Department of English Flooding and Related Affairs has been receiving advice from a fellow firm of marketing consultants. A spokesbeing claimed that "Munro & Forster have provided a pitch to Defra with some ideas for expanding the debate on waste. This is not a Defra document and no commitment has been made to taking these proposals forward"; so clearly it was done out of sheer marketing consultancy goodness. Nevertheless, the document's suggestions are hearteningly - the evil-minded might say suspiciously - close to the sort of thing New Labour likes to think of as dynamic and innovative and otherwise appropriate to the rebirth of the nation; which is to say, they amount to a PR exercise that is a good deal cheaper than actually doing anything.

Munro & Forster's document "draws up a dream shortlist" of celebrities who, it suggests, should be paid to promote the Government's green messages because ministers are "a turn-off". Ministers, particulary New Labour ministers, do not turn people off because they are venal, untrustworthy, mealy-mouthed, insincere, sanctimonious, hypocritical, nosey, niggardly, or simply unaware of what planet they are living on. Ministers, particularly New Labour ministers, turn people off because the public - doubtless for the same arbitrary and irrational reasons which have led it into the error of opposing ID cards and the Iraq war - responds to celebrities rather than to politicians. Hence, if a minister tells you to compensate for the inadequacies of your water company by turning off the taps while you brush your teeth, or informs you that global warming is mostly your own fault for having your thermostat one degree too high, the beneficial effect of the advice is dissipated by the turnoffability of the source. On the other hand, if Stephen Fry or Maggie Philbin give you the same message, the effect will be salutory indeed, since the important thing is not the message itself, but the celebrity orifice from which it emerges.

Apparently this particular marketing ploy works best on thirty-five-year-old women who are married with teenage children and "affluent and consumptive". Despite their tuberculosis, these ladies spend a good deal on cars and holidays; but they are nonetheless "environmentally aware" to the extent that they need to be reminded of their obligations by the likes of Tony Robinson and Ben Fogle. The Government also plans to "launch a big public debate next year on waste", which will doubtless be a classic example of the unity of medium and message, and will presumably provide similarly appropriate sources of advice to less important social groups.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tough on Blasphemy, Tough on the Causes of Blasphemy

The National Secular Society reports that the crusaders at Christian Voice have failed in their bid to prosecute the BBC for showing Jerry Springer - The Opera. The chief Christian Vocaliser, Stephen Green, claimed that "scenes depicting Christ wearing a nappy and swearing had 'clearly crossed the blasphemy threshold'"; apparently nappies aren't mean or swaddling enough, while the idea of a carpenter using curse-words is obviously off-beam. The judges concluded that the show "could not be considered as blasphemous as it was not aimed at Christianity but was a parody of the chat show genre"; that is to say, it was not aimed at the established church of the United Kingdom, but at that of the United States. They did also say that "the case raised important legal issues that were suitable to go before the House of Lords", but refused Green permission to appeal, which means that the law lords themselves have to decide whether this particular comedy can be sustained for another episode. The legal representative for Christian Voice said that the judgement is "tantamount to saying that blasphemy is of little, if any, relevance in today's society. But, as far as the Government and Parliament are concerned, blasphemy is still an offence", which sums up the situation admirably. Of course, the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords (remember those?) will solve the problem by ensuring adequate representation for Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans and Jedi Knights along with the bishops' bench; doubtless Christian Voice will, should it prove necessary, possess its collective soul in patience until that happy day.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Profitable Prisons

Following the recommendations of his chum, Lord Carter, the Minister of Prisons has announced a new package of measures to cope with the overcrowding in Britain's prisons; namely, the building of more prisons. After all, the Bush administration solved the problem of war in Iraq by escalating the war; and, as we all know, if it's good enough for George and the gang, it's good enough for New Labour.

The three planned new prisons will be much bigger than those we have at the moment, being designed to hold 2500 anti-social human resources each. In a brief access of quasi-Wagnerian fervour, New Labour's most durable empty suit has described them as "Titan" jails. The original Titans were Greek gods who castrated their father and were eventually defeated and imprisoned by the Olympian gods; but it seems unlikely that the grey suit's speechwriter had Greek myth in mind. He probably just meant that the jails will be awfully big.

The plan is opposed by the Howard League for Penal Reform, by Nacro, by the probation officers' union, and by the Prison Reform Trust. Fortunately, however, the new prisons are likely to be run by private companies, so they will serve the only purpose New Labour has ever recognised for public services, namely that of making a profit.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Role Models By Appointment

The Minister for Britishness Enforcement, Hazel Blears, has proclaimed that young black people, not having the likes of Hazel Blears to look up to, are choosing the wrong role models, and that it's time to cut through the bling and the rap stars. "Too often the role models for young black boys and young men are celebrities and rappers, who can glamorise crime, gangs and guns", a glamour to which young white boys and young men, not to mention our beloved rulers, are apparently immune. The white community is awfully well adjusted. Nevertheless, "research shows that in the absence of positive role models in the home, children seek their models from the street, the media or fantasy"; which must be why Blears has picked a policeman, a fashion designer and the winner of a television game show to appoint replacements. Along with the founder of Operation Black Vote, the three will "appoint 20 national role models who will be drawn from business and the professions"; government-approved role models being the logical next step after police-approved political demonstrations. Blears said that "the role models would visit youth clubs, offenders' institutions and schools, as well as appear on TV to show that young black people can succeed"; which will make all the difference, obviously.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Intelligence Failures

The intelligence agencies of Britain's greatest ally have said that Iran has halted its programme to develop nuclear weapons, assuming such a programme ever existed. Naturally, Gordon Brown is deeply disappointed. The intelligence agencies claim that Iran halted development on its nuclear deterrent four years ago in "a concession to international pressure"; the said concession was then kept secret by Tehran for four years in order that the international pressure could be maintained. Golly, but Muslims are strange sometimes. Therefore, the British government "believes that the report confirms we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons", much as the recent faux pas over the private details of half the population of the country confirms they were right about the protective efficacy of the National Identity Database. Britain "will continue to discuss the matter with our key international allies", possibly including the Bush administration and Olmert bar Sharon, both of whom share such vital New Labour values as disciplined immunity to inconvenient facts; "and we will be looking for further discussion at the United Nations in the weeks ahead". After all, Iran may well be interfering in the affairs of the sovereign nation of Iraq, quite possibly using explosives. We can't have that, can we?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Die Hölle Rache Kocht in meinem Herzen

I have despised Kenneth Branagh ever since his meretricious, smugly dishonest and reactionary Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, whose sole virtue - Robert De Niro's intelligent and articulate monster - is quickly outweighed by Branagh's scenery-chewing performance and by a climax which takes the form of a partial and inept remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale's charm and humour having first been excised with something nearly as large and blunt as Branagh's head. Hence, now that dear Kenneth has received his second critical mauling in as many weeks, the cockles of my little black heart are glowing nicely. Last week it was his butchery of Sleuth, in which he and Harold Pinter tried to improve on Joseph Mankiewicz and Anthony Shaffer; this time it's his trampling of The Magic Flute, in which he and Stephen Fry do their bit to make Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart a bit more, you know, relevant. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw finds it clear, energetic, generous and uncynical; but then, Bradshaw gave an equal number of stars (five out of five) to Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and Peter Jackson's King Kong. The Observer's Philip French, the Times and the Torygraph all give The Magic Flute a pasting; and, by the look of things, rightly too.

Aside from the peculiar decision to set the film in the trenches of Flanders (what, in Osiris' name, was he thinking?), Branagh has also committed the gaffe of having the libretto translated into English - apparently, in his role as purveyor-in-chief of cultchah-for-the-proles, he decided that subtitles were beyond us. Whatever the excuse, translated libretti are generally a very bad idea - even Powell and Pressburger, who are to Kenneth Branagh the director what Laurence Olivier is to Kenneth Branagh the actor, only just get away with it in their charming but uneven Tales of Hoffmann. Bergman had The Magic Flute translated into Swedish for his own film adaptation, with results I am unable to judge; but in general, since the music has been composed to the rhythms and intonations of a different language, a translated libretto must be either bad verse or worse translation. Subtitles, which need only convey meaning without the necessity of matching rhyme or metre, are a far more sensible solution. Then again, perhaps the idea of making his version a partial remake of Oh What A Lovely War tied Branagh's hands - a Tamino fighting in the trenches might be, you know, relevant (think Iraq, lovie, think Afghanistan); but a Tamino who is fighting for the Boche? Even if dear Kenneth had not begun his misbegotten career by squalling and bludgeoning his way through another lot of despised foreigners in Henry V, it seems doubtful such a thing could have been countenanced.

Anthony Quinn, in the Independent, criticises The Magic Flute on the bizarre grounds that "opera should be seen in the opera house: enclosing it within a film screen and obliging your cast to lip-synch along to their parts does neither art form any favours"; by which logic no-one should ever adapt a book, a play or a stage musical to film. After all, enclosing a novel within a film screen and obliging your cast to mouth edited gobs of the dialogue - surely that does neither art form any favours? But good opera films, which satisfy both musically and cinematically, have been made before. The aforementioned Tales of Hoffmann is one; Hans Jürgen Syberberg's astounding Parsifal, in which many of the cast did indeed lip-synch along, is another. But neither of those was directed by Kenneth Branagh.