The Curmudgeon


Sunday, January 31, 2010

Miliband Approves Climate Despair Avoidance

The Lower Miliband has been doing his bit for the high and noble purpose of pushing the Lower Miliband's statesbeinglike credentials, preparatory no doubt to the post-defeat bout of throat-slitting and back-stabbing which will bring a cleansed and vigorous New New New Labour grinning and posturing into three or four terms of opposition. The Lower Miliband has opined that climate change sceptics are wrong, despite the fact that they are backed by so many of New New Labour's most treasured and coveted chums, and has lectured climate change activists on the inadvisability of despairing at his government's unwillingness to respond to the problem. The Lower Miliband gave a rallying cry of "don't mourn, organise", for the benefit of any activists who may not have thought of that, or who do not feel their experience of being confined and assaulted by the political wing of the police is quite extensive enough. The Lower Miliband observed the advisability of investing in sustainable energy, such as comely coal and pulchritudinous uranium, in order to avoid the unfortunate visual impact of wind turbines, whose extensive use is one of the very few unpopular policies which New New Labour has failed to adopt; presumably because it is unpopular with real people and not just with the public. The Lower Miliband noted that "everything we know about life is that we should obey the precautionary principle", although it is not clear whether, like the Glorious Successor and one or two senior Cabinet colleagues, he believes this should include neutralising non-existent weapons and pre-emptive imprisonment of people who have done nothing wrong.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yes, But Have They Passed The Britishness Test?

A Bolivian asylum seeker has been granted the hallowed but now largely unfashionable status of refugee, and the Ministry of Dawn Raids and Deportations has agreed to confer upon her the privilege of British citizenship and pay a hundred thousand pounds in compensation for falsely imprisoning her and her four children. Her initial claim for asylum and subsequent appeal were refused, although she was not told about the refusal of the appeal since she was, at the time, still only an asylum seeker. Police and security guards duly turned up to force the family from their beds, and they were placed in Oakington disposal centre where they spent six weeks being variously abused, threatened and denied, and where on one occasion a private security guard hit the mother in front of her children. The research and policy manager at Bail for Immigration Detainees, a charity for helping political correctness go mad, contrived to miss the point spectacularly when she said that imprisoning children causes them harm and has not been shown to help immigration control. Locking up units in prisons run by leading security solutions providers is not intended to benefit children or help immigration control. It is intended to benefit the shareholders in the leading security solutions providers, and to help ensure that the politicians who steer the contracts their way need not look forward to an under-funded retirement.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Pre-Emptive Detention

The first conviction for Islamist terrorist offences in Scotland will probably be quashed next week. The offences in question included owning CDs, linking to websites, plotting to fly to Lahore and "causing a breach of the peace at Glasgow Metropolitan College by threatening to become a suicide bomber", for which Mohammed Atif Siddique received an eight-year sentence at the age of twenty. He is "thought to have been held in isolation for his own protection for much of the time he has been in jail"; apparently nobody knows for certain, and Britain's leading liberal newspaper is certainly not the one to find out. One of the appeal judges said that some of the directions to the jury by the trial judge, Lord Carloway, constituted a "material misdirection", although it is not clear whether the responsibility for this lies ultimately with the noble lord himself or with the Blairite flexibility of Britain's anti-terror laws, which have been used for such diverse purposes as preventing the commemoration of lives lost in Iraq and clawing back money from failed Icelandic banks. On the bright side, Scotland does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police, so at least Siddique was not shot.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Daveybloke and the Pink Triangle

Daveybloke, the Cuddly Conservative, has been doing his socially liberal thing again. Asked whether he agreed with the Liberal Democrat leader that children should be taught that homosexuality is "normal and harmless", Daveybloke said that education "should teach people about equality and the sort of country we are - that we treat people the same whether they are straight or gay, or black or white or a man or a woman", though not whether they are rich or poor, well born or humbly born, or married or unmarried. On the other hand, Daveybloke also said that the style and content of sex and relationship education should not be "dictated from on high in Whitehall and Westminster"; translated, this means that however much Daveybloke himself may have approved of gay rights since it became expedient to stop thinking what Michael Howard was thinking, he has more important things to do than try to impose his will on every homophobe in eastern Europe and every faith school on the mainland. Among other things, he has to continue, possibly for as long as the next five months, with this delicate triangulation between his fairly recent repudiation of Clause 28 and his natural urge to avoid alienating his gay-bashing allies in Europe and his own parliamentary prefects and fags.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Happy? I'll Fix You

The Children's Society alleges, no doubt mistakenly, that living in a home in which those whom God has united and no-one put asunder devote more than the usual amount of time and effort to making one another unhappy tends to cause a certain discontentment in the offspring. The Society's study finds that children who live in families that "get along well together" are significantly happier than those who do not, although the researchers appear to have committed the gaffe of failing to ask the ones whose families got along badly whether tax breaks would help matters. Doubtless this is why Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives, whose biggest and greasiest bit of Blu-tak for fixing broken Britain is to pay broken families to paper over the cracks, have not lowered themselves to comment on the report. New New Labour's Minister for Tiny Human Resources agrees with Daveybloke's cant about married couples constituting the optimum upbringing facilitation provider community; but, lacking the moral luxury of being in opposition, he does not believe that anything should be done about it.

As it turns out, the biggest source of unhappiness for children - aside from other children, I presume - is their appearance; but there is as yet no indication as to whether Daveybloke the Plastic Poster-boy intends handing out free airbrushes for the aesthetically under-endowed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Offender Management

The Ministry of Kettling and Photography Prevention has issued some new guidelines about domestic extremism, which is defined as "unlawful action that is part of a protest or campaign". The unlawful actions covered by this definition include anything from minor public order offences such as civil disobedience or looking at buildings in a funny way, through making jokes on the internet about blowing up airports to, presumably, plotting the assassination of party donors and conspiring to cause explosions in the service of causes other than the continuing fiscal welfare of oil companies and mercenary outfits. Such unlawful actions are "often associated with a 'single issue' protest such as animal rights, far-right and far-left political extremism, anti-war and environmentalist extremism" and, while more criminal than activism, fall short of actual terrorism. Asked about the justification for lumping environmentalists and anti-war campaigners in with political extremists, a Ministry spokesbeing was forced to answer a completely different question, stating that: "It is not true to say that offenders who have committed criminal offences in connection with an extremist cause are 'all treated the same'." Far-right political extremists are generally arrested quietly and placed on trial with due regard for their human rights; a very different proposition from the treatment meted out to suspected Muslim extremists, who can be placed under house arrest, deported or, if sufficiently unarmed and innocent of any wrongdoing, shot and defamed. Anti-war campaigners and environmentalists, on the other hand, are merely harassed, provoked, confined, abused and assaulted.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Valued British Business Partner Killed in Iraq

The sovereign, independent Iraqi government has carried out a bit of good old-fashioned justice today - the sort of no-nonsense, pre-1960s, Texas-and-Saudi justice that moistens virtuous pleasure-gussets from Fox News through the Daily Mail to the birch-and-rope wing of the British Conservative Party. The execution is reported in appropriately sober terms by Britain's leading liberal newspaper, which refers to the beneficiary as Chemical Ali for the comfort of those readers who regard the presence of Arabic names in the headlines as contravening Enlightenment values. Should the Vicar of Downing Street or any of his choirboys ever fall victim to the Nuremberg precedent, no doubt Britain's leading liberal newspaper will report the stringing-up of B-Liar, Buff-Hoon and the rest with equal sensitivity.

Ali Hassan al-Majd, better known in Britain's leading liberal newspaper as Chemical Ali, was executed for crimes against humanity; specifically the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds during the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was a chemical ally and trading partner to several members of the Coalition of the Willing. Britain's leading liberal newspaper does not mention the companies which sold Ali Hassan al-Majd the wherewithal to carry out the said attacks; nor has Britain's leading liberal newspaper anything to say about the response of the British government at the time. If I remember rightly, the response was to blame Iran, whose cities were being attacked with similar weapons. Nor does Britain's leading liberal newspaper mention any present efforts to track down, try and punish the people who ordered the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous in Iraq during the early 2000s. Well, I wonder why that could be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Leaking Bilge

Andy Coulson, the chief of propaganda for Daveybloke and his Cuddly Conservatives, has been accused of making policy on the hoof (or perhaps, given Coulson's credentials in the scumbag press, on the trotter would be the better phrase). The policy in question is the one about solving the overcrowding in Britain's prisons by spreading it onto ships, which would mean worse conditions for prisoners - no room for training or exercise - and is therefore a policy which Daveybloke's core constituents, Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, would look upon with favour.

Alan Duncan, Daveybloke's Cuddly Minister for Profitable Incarceration, has apparently told a conference at Oxford University that the noted Conservative slogan "prison works" is simplistic and that the noted Conservative policy "lock 'em up" is "Key Stage 1 politics"; but this is merely Daveybloke's Blairite strategy of substituting slogan for policy and then varying the slogan according to the audience one is addressing, as when one promises the City to slash public spending while promising the public to maintain public services. Official Conservative policy on prisons, as on everything else that doesn't belong to the Conservative party's chums, is to sell them off - at least the ones in "prime city-centre locations" - and then to use the proceeds for building a lot of new prisons, presumably in more unfriendly and isolated locations so that, in the interests of family values and self-reliance, prisoners' relatives may work out for themselves the logistics and expense of visiting. However, falling property prices as dutifully screamed every other week in Dacre's Daily Mail have put a bit of a damper on this idea, and even Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives seem to think they ought to make some sort of show at keeping their promise to end New New Labour's early-release scheme, which has contributed to so many of our recent fictitious crime waves.

According to the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Coulson's announcement has caused concern to a number of Conservative front-benchers who have spent four or five years "developing carefully thought-out policies on crime and justice based on extensive consultation" with the devoted readers of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, and have now developed a belated concern for democratic accountability (ministerial influence, in Oldspeak). A spokesbeing has more or less called the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform a liar, but has also confirmed that Daveybloke's Cuddly Cabinet is considering the possibility of prison ships even though it isn't in their carefully-thought-out, five-years-in-the-making manifesto. Alas, it appears that crime has placed Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives in some danger of becoming a broken society.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Last Place on Earth

Ferdinand Fairfax 1985

Central Television's lavish seven-part series was based on Roland Huntford's 1979 book Scott and Amundsen, which sought to redress the imbalance implied in the DVD tagline: "Scott and Amundsen both wanted to be first to the Pole. One of them was. The other became a hero". Huntford put forward the then wildly controversial idea that the England team lost the race to the South Pole mainly because Amundsen was better at his job than Scott was at his.

The series gives equal time to both expeditions, neither of which sets sail for the Antarctic until episode three. Amundsen (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is really interested in the Arctic, but Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the North Pole first means that the funding for exploration dries up. Amundsen responds in style, by doubling the equipment for his own expedition and secretly plotting a "minor diversion" to take the South Pole as a publicity stunt to raise money for his more serious work in the North.

Meanwhile, Scott (Martin Shaw) is introduced in the process of being carpeted by his Navy bosses for sitting in his quarters dictating a birthday telegram when he should have been on the bridge of his ship - a foreshadowing of the confused sense of priority which will dog his expedition to its ignominious if brilliantly propagandised finish. Scott's fiancée, Kathleen Bruce (Susan Wooldridge), an artist and a liberated New Woman, initially appears as a potentially relaxing and humanising influence on the morose and uptight captain; but her frustration at her inferior position as a female in Edwardian England means that she uses her superior strength of character to push her vacillating husband into fulfilling her own dreams of reflected glory.

Both before and during his expedition, Amundsen maintains good and productive relations with the people he needs. Fridtjof Nansen (Max von Sydow) provides his ship, the Fram, and much important support, although he later has occasion to feel that he has been rather shabbily treated. The resentful and hot-tempered Hjalmar Johansen (Touralv Maurstad) is skilfully tempted aboard and later, when he becomes a source of dissent, put firmly in his place. Amundsen also has a couple of touching scenes with Cook (Brian Dennehy), whose friendship he retains despite Cook's prior claim to the North Pole and his later trouble with the law in America. Scott, by contrast, alienates Ernest Shackleton (James Aubrey) with high-handed demands that he not use McMurdo Sound as a base; drives his engineer, Skelton (Cliff Burnett) off in a huff when it becomes necessary to give his promised position as second-in-command to Teddy Evans (Michael Maloney), the potential leader of a rival expedition; and arbitrarily overrules, bullies and variously irritates Evans, Oates, Meares and a number of others. Later on, Scott's personal inadequacies as a leader are summarised in a delightful rant by the snow-blinded Meares, who observes that this most British of Antarctic explorers spends most of his time "sitting in his tent whining about the weather".

Amundsen's expedition is meticulously planned and compactly staffed with hand-picked men on whom he knows he can rely. Scott's expedition is multifarious and unwieldy, and seems to pick up people on no better grounds than that Scott likes the cut of their jib. Scott sends Cecil Meares (Bill Nighy) to buy ponies, even though Meares tells him he only knows about dogs, because he wishes to spare the expense of sending Oates (Richard Morant) from South Africa. The ponies are a disaster; as are the motor sledges, on which Scott spends £1,000 apiece only to leave the engineer in England and lose one of the machines down a hole in the ice. In Antarctica, Meares' repeated demonstrations of the superiority of dog-hauling over human and pony labour result only in the bruising of Scott's fragile ego. The British leave their main food and fuel depot eleven miles short of its intended location because of Scott's refusal to use a couple of doomed ponies for meat; at the end, the polar party starves, eleven miles from the depot in the opposite direction, partly because Scott insists on taking a fifth man along despite there being rations for only four.

The series is beautifully shot by John Coquillon, who made several films with Sam Peckinpah, including Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as Michael Reeves' masterpiece Witchfinder General. The acting is also very fine, with Shaw's self-divided Scott, Ousdal's charming and calculating Amundsen, Stephen Moore's faithful and kindly Dr Wilson and Morant's easy-going but quietly seething Oates merely the most memorable among a large and distinguished cast. Sylvester McCoy puts in an unexpectedly good turn as Birdie Bowers; Ståle Bjørnhaug makes an endearingly gung-ho Olav Bjaaland, and von Sydow is a dignified and intelligent Nansen. Though slightly marred by a brief but unnecessary premonition of death, and by the perhaps rather broad characterisation of Kathleen Scott, Trevor Griffiths' script is superbly paced, leaving plenty of room for the characters to develop - most obviously in the pre-embarkation episodes, which nowadays would undoubtedly be relegated to flashbacks in order to verify the structural Tarantinosity of the creative personnel.

The Norwegians reach the Pole before the end of episode six, and Scott's party die well before the end of episode seven, which is largely devoted to the start of the Scott legend and the sidelining of Amundsen's reputation. One of the first people to see the bodies of Scott's party diagnoses scurvy, and is immediately told to keep his opinion to himself as it would reflect badly on the organisation of the expedition. A little later, a committee of higher-ups is shown expurgating Scott's notes, with the willing if not actually cheerful connivance of his widow. Perhaps the most biting sequence is the one in which Lord Curzon (Peter Jeffrey), in the course of a speech ostensibly thanking Amundsen for a lecture on his own expedition, gives so thoroughgoing a demonstration of British fair play and grace in defeat that Amundsen decides such hospitality is a blessing he can comfortably forego. The last scene of all movingly contrasts Scott's slickly elegiac, portentous Last Words to Posterity with Amundsen's simple speech to his men on attaining the Pole.

I trust it is not merely my personal weakness for the bashing of patriotic icons (it occurred to me while watching that it would be wonderful to see this sort of treatment given to Clive Ponting's biography of Churchill) that kept me glued to this series for the entirety of its six-and-a-half-hour running time. Whatever the justice or otherwise of Huntford's view of Scott, it makes an outstanding drama, as well as an astringent antidote to the likes of John Mills' notorious Ealing comedy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

See His Banners Go

An American arms manufacturer called Trijicon has been stamping references to verses from the New Testament into its gun sights. This has raised concerns among the New Zealand military that the use of weapons so decorated may cause Muslims to believe that NATO is engaged in a religious crusade rather than a resources grab, and Trijicon has duly agreed to leave the proselytising to the "In God We Trust" motto which decorates certain other holy artifacts. The British Ministry for War and the Colonies said it was unaware of the Biblical references; which may well be true, even assuming any of the sights it purchased have found their way to the troops rather than sitting in someone's car waiting to be stolen. The most sensible response is perhaps that of the Church of England, whose nominal leader recently referred to the war against the infidels as having something to do with healing, building and justice. The Church said that the presence of Biblical references on weapons undermined the military effort, presumably by distracting the soldiers with apocalyptic boasts about what will happen when Daddy comes marching home. This is certainly more credible than the converse claim which I was expecting, that association with military violence undermines the Saviour's message of eternal damnation for everyone but an ignorant, infantile and lachrymose minority of Jews.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Insanity Plea

As our political parties vie to promise the most macho cuts in public spending and thus keep the bonus culture at a level which the City feels it can, in good conscience, accept, the head of the Audit Commission has taken it upon himself to condemn as insane their simultaneous promises to keep the spending on frontline health and education services at its present stratospheric level. The head of the Audit Commission is concerned lest the parties become so eager in their notorious zeal to purge the public sector of management consultants, human resource executives, public relations planners, logo designers, tick-box enumeration facilitators and so forth, that they will forget the many efficiencies (sackings, in Oldspeak) which could be made among the nurses, teachers, consultants, cleaners and other such throwbacks to a less humanitarian age.

New New Labour's idea of an efficient national health service is the model which is now failing so efficiently in the United States; the Conservatives' idea of an efficient national health service is the same, only more so. New New Labour's idea of a good national education system is one where those who can pay are trained for power and profit, while churches and charities teach the rest to be flexibly marketable consumers; the Conservatives' idea of a good national education system is the same, only more so. The Liberal Democrats disagree with them both, except insofar as they find it expedient to be more or less in debatably qualified accord with one or the other. Hence any promise to spare frontline services, be it a promise by New New Labour or by Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives, or even by the party of Nick "Who?" Clegg, is not insane at all; it is merely dishonest. Now that our Mother of Democracies has entered its terminal phase, with not just one but every available party manifestly incompetent to govern, the head of the Audit Commission must be an endearingly old-fashioned sort of chap if he thinks political promises have sufficient psychological reality to qualify even as mildly delusional.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Very Special Trip

An Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering found himself unnecessarily oppressed by a Suffering Mass which had materialised in his living room. Every day, when he came home from his job in the creative department of DeForrest and Greenwash, Inc., the Suffering Mass had grown larger and louder.

"Alas!" cried the Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering. "Is there nothing that can be done to prevent this Suffering Mass from overwhelming my life - some course of action which can be taken by somebody else in order to ensure that my compassion does not rebound against my own interests? For I have a mortgage, a car and a rich multicultural diet to support, and any major alteration in my way of life would cause vast and undue trauma to my sense of self-worth. This in turn would induce a humble yet not entirely insignificant deterioration in the world economy, to the further unnecessary detriment of all Suffering Masses."

And behold, as soon as he had repeated his lament three times (for the Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering was a great believer in freedom of expression), a Travel Agent appeared beside him in a carbonic cloud of air-miles. "If you are troubled by what you see," said the Travel Agent, "why not take a trip elsewhere and forget about it? There are all sorts of places in the world where the climate is friendly and Suffering Masses are treated with more discretion."

"That would be mere cowardice and self-deception," said the Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering; "besides, I could never leave my home and property at the mercy of this Suffering Mass, which may become lawless at any moment."

"You need not fear," the Travel Agent replied. "You can take the trip in this very room, without altering your way of life in the slightest. Simply follow the circular path of frozen aid which I have taken the liberty of marking out."

And indeed, the Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering saw that a glittering white circle had appeared around the edges of the room.

"So long as you stay on the path," said the Travel Agent, "the Suffering Mass will remain at a convenient distance, and will seem much smaller and less significant than it now appears thanks to the benignly blinding gleam of the ice. Pray utilise this bicycle, at no extra cost; we find that customers who participate in our White Gilt Trip feel the better for skidding around the issue on two wheels."

"Very liberal of you," said the Enlightened Opponent of Unnecessary Suffering, who quickly became so expert in sliding the bicycle along the ice that, without the least distraction from the Suffering Mass, he was able to start planning a lawsuit against the Travel Agent for causing unnecessary agony to the layout of his living room.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

That Ethical Dimension Again

It appears that the Vicar of Downing Street's chum, Colonel Gadafi, may suffer the displeasure of the present incumbent, who has done so much for human rights from Burma to the Guantánomaly. Nor is it merely a case of guilt by association, embarrassment over the al-Megrahi business or epidermally-oriented rough justice, as the uncharitable might expect. Hisham Matar, a Booker Prize nominee whose father was renditionised from Cairo twenty years ago, has induced a Liberal Democrat peer to ask the Government to ask the Libyans where the man might possibly have got to. Even the Upper Miliband is worried about conditions in Libyan prisons and the country's un-American use of the death penalty. As a result, New New Labour has given "a series of important assurances", one of them being that the British Government cannot quite see its way to being very best chums with Colonel Gadafi while this sort of thing is going on; and we all know the worth of a New New Labour assurance.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Terror Suspect Payout Taxpayer Terror Horror

A judge has quashed two control orders - house arrest, in Oldspeak - and brought the Minister for Domestic Espionage squeaking indignantly to the fore. Beyond the purely formal matters of mere human rights, the judge had raised the possibility "in principle" that those subjected to control orders on "secret evidence" - no evidence, in Oldspeak - might be able to claim compensation from the Government, albeit in low amounts; and since New New Labour is already strapped for cash now that its erstwhile chums are turning Tory again, this is an even more serious business than the prospect of doling out money to the multiculturally minoritous usually is.

It does not appear that any of Daveybloke's Cuddly Cabinet were available to comment on the matter; presumably because, as usual, they agree with everything New New Labour are doing but believe a Conservative government could do it a little more profitably for the members of the said Conservative government. Accordingly, the ex-shadow Minister of Unfitness for Purpose, David Davis, was permitted to beg once more for liberty or death: "Whilst I believe that control orders are ill-conceived, and both draconian and ineffective in their actions, the idea that subjects should be awarded compensation is in my judgment entirely wrong," he said. It is one thing to consider a law unjust, and another thing entirely to believe that anyone who suffers injustice as a result of that law ought to have some sort of recompense; especially when one's own party will probably be in government when the bill falls due.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Forwardish to Basics

David Willetts, who used to be something during the interregnum between the fall of Thatcher and the rise of Tony, and has now descended so far as to be Minister for Family Values in Daveybloke's Cuddly Cabinet, has been clarifying the Conservatives' policy on tax penalties for the unmarried. The Independent's political editor has made a valiant attempt at presenting Willetts' flounderings as some sort of rebellion; but, whatever his present degree of insignificance, it does not appear that Willetts is about to emulate Edward McMillan-Scott, the man expelled from the Conservative party for opposing Daveybloke's glamorous fling with the right-wing lunatic fringe in Europe.

On the one hand, according to Willetts, it is important to avoid "the ghost of back to basics" which, for those who do not remember it, was what used to pass in the Currie-spicer for a moral vision. On the other hand, commitment between two adults is intrinsically a "good thing". On the other hand, "we all know the real world", even Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives, "and how not every relationship stays together", and David Willetts completely understands that. On the other hand, "the last thing people want is politicians setting themselves up as somehow morally superior or telling people how to run their lives"; which is why the Conservative party intends to charge married couples less tax than other people. Daveybloke has said that the policy is more about the message than the money (the message being, apparently, that married couples are not better than other people, but that they deserve to pay less tax anyway); but on the other hand David Willetts has clarified this as being "not some kind of pompous attempt to tell people how to live their lives". As always, consumer choice is to the fore: you can either get married, or on the other hand you can pay more tax. After all, what sort of malcontent would claim that being made to pay more tax is a coercive measure, especially as Daveybloke drags us all along on his wonderful journey into austerity?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

One of Our Boys

Well, here's a thing: an upstanding member of Gordon's white working class has been rather quietly jailed for manufacturing explosives, including nail bombs and booby-traps, and for possessing a dozen firearms. He also kept notebooks in which the most reportable sentiment seems to have been: "The patriot must always be ready to defend his country against enemies and their governments". Of course, no respectable mainstream politician would ever identify itself with such irresponsible rhetoric; in the civilised world, the patriot must always be ready to send other people against enemies and their governments. The culprit in this business is, in fact, a former soldier; and it is doubtless the probability that he might have fought back, rather than his lack of a beard, a bulky jacket, a student visa or any of the other common attributes of the terroristically-oriented, which accounts for his not being shot and the apparent fact that no further civil liberties are to be abolished on the strength of his case.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Curse of the Wise Woman

The recent film Dean Spanley, based on Lord Dunsany's novella, may possibly help to bring his other work a wider readership. If so, that will be all to the good, for Dunsany deserves to be far better known. Even today, he is probably remembered mainly as an influence on H P Lovecraft; and even Lovecraft, his most famous admirer, scarcely did his achievements justice.

Dunsany shot to fame at the beginning of the twentieth century with half a dozen books of short fantasy tales. The first volume, The Gods of Pegana, purports to contain the theology and cosmogony of a fictitious race of people, and is notable for combining a very simple prose style (derived partly from the King James Bible) with superbly sophisticated metaphor and such unsettlingly modern ideas as the infinity of space and time and the indifference of the universe to human endeavour. These were the works which earned Lovecraft's reverence; but after about the fourth volume Dunsany ran out of ideas in this vein and started camping it up - something for which Lovecraft does not seem ever to have really forgiven him.

But Dunsany was far from finished. He was born in 1878, published The Gods of Pegana in 1905 and kept on writing stories, novels, plays, memoirs and poetry until his death in 1957. He achieved immense popularity with his first fantasy stories and remained a well-known literary personality all his life; but almost none of his varied and voluminous output - which incorporates fantasy and supernatural fiction, humour, satire, drama and tragedy - is now in print. Somebody really ought to do something about it.

The Curse of the Wise Woman came out in 1933. It is set in Dunsany's native Ireland, and is written in a very different style to his early books; and different also from the deadpan conversational idiom which he adopted for his more humorous works. Narrated as the first-person memoirs of Charles James Peridore, a Catholic landowner's son, the book is written in an easy, flowing prose which makes it seem much shorter and simpler than it really is.

The possible presence of the supernatural is only one of several themes which are seamlessly interwoven throughout the story; and, this being an Irish story, religion and politics are naturally among them. Almost the first thing that happens is an intrusion into the Peridores' home by four armed men, who have come to kill the teenage Charles' widowed father. As they leave, having failed in their mission, one of the terrorists gives Charles a bit of friendly advice about shooting birds and men. His father's escape means that Charles is left to play truant from Eton (with the help of the obliging local doctor) and explore the bog with Marlin, the half-pagan peasant whose mother is the eponymous Wise Woman. Marlin believes himself damned because he cannot stop thinking about the pagan heaven at the expense of the Christian one - a religious difficulty which causes Charles considerable unease.

Though an Anglo-Irish landowner and a staunch Unionist (as a soldier in Dublin in 1916, he was wounded in the face during the Easter Rising), Dunsany resists any temptation he may have had to use his novel for the purposes of narrow propaganda. The political affiliations of Peridore père's would-be assassins are left deliberately vague; the men themselves turn out to be honourable after their fashion, and Charles ends up as an ambassador for the Irish Free State - certainly an ironic conclusion, but remarkably untainted with authorial ill-feeling, given Dunsany's low opinion of the Irish Free State as compared with the United Kingdom. Similarly, despite the scorn for conventional religion which Dunsany shows elsewhere, his handling of Charles' Catholicism, as set against the old ways of paganism and, later, the Protestantism of his fiancée, is tactful and touching.

There are a number of passages, especially at the beginning, where Charles discusses his hunting and shooting expeditions, which modern readers may find either tedious or distasteful; and I confess to a certain queasiness at the fox-hunter Charles' boast that he was "blooded" in his pram; but it soon becomes clear that the narrator's addiction to blood sports is part and parcel of his attachment to the Irish countryside, and specifically to the Lisronagh bog, which is soon to be raped by British industrialists. At the very least, Charles' sporting reminiscences are a good deal more poetic than the verbose obsession with big-game hunting which prevented my getting through Rider Haggard's She many years ago.

The novel's major theme, which incorporates and unites all the rest, is its lyrical vision of the Irish landscape and the lives and ways of its people - ways which are dying out as "progress" and industrialisation take their course; or perhaps they are merely subsumed, like the pagan beliefs which underlie the peasants' Catholic piety, or the fathomless layers of former lives beneath the surface of the bog, where Marlin finally goes to seek his pagan paradise and where, as Charles observes, a man's body can last as long as that of an Egyptian pharaoh. The climax, in which a great storm causes the bog to swell and overwhelm the machinery that is ripping out its heart, is a superb set-piece, and all the more effective for Dunsany's continued subtlety in the telling: it is impossible to say whether the storm is a natural phenomenon or whether the Wise Woman has, as she claims, brought it about by calling on the spirits of the wind.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Sorry Effort

The Government has apologised over the thalidomide affair - or, in Standard English, it has trotted out a health privatisation spokesbeing with a mealy-mouthed expression of "regret and deep sympathy" plastered horribly over his press release, and then relied upon the media faithful to fill in any necessary contrition. The Government has also announced a compensation package which will be administered by the Thalidomide Trust and will be used for "adaptions and other preventative measures that are likely to reduce long-term demands on the NHS", since obviously one has to have some sort of excuse for spending public money on helping the disabled. At least the Government can hope for an extra four hundred and sixty-six votes, assuming the beneficiaries are forgiving enough to forget the fifty years which this and previous administrations have spent waiting for them to die quietly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two Unpleasant Items

First, as to the lack of posting: My New Year got off to an auspicious start with an attack of flu, whose attendant aches and shakes served to distract me from a lurking tooth infection. This duly burst into full abscessive glory a couple of days later, the upshot being that I now have a lump in my lower jaw about the size of a golf ball but not nearly such desirable company. I struggled to the dentist last Thursday and have thus been enabled to vary my festive diet of painkillers with a seasoning of antibiotics; and I have to go back on Wednesday to see the NHS dentist who wasn't available last week, whereupon hopefully this nonsense will cease.

Second, as to the comments facility: Haloscan has been taken over by a firm called JS-Kit, whose facilities are unable to cope with the quantity of comments which are posted via Haloscan. Rather than do anything silly like add to the capacity of their machinery, JS-Kit have opted to create an entire new comments system called Echo, with a great many new bits and pieces and new dials and buttons and new bells and whistles and new studs and chains and jewels and cogwheels and tweakers and bloopers and all sorts of other new delicious things whose usefulness is doubtless transcendental. Since Echo is so much simpler and easier and more economical than Haloscan, JS-Kit also charge a small fee for its administration. The alternative is to download all your Haloscan comments for free and, presumably, copy and paste them one by one beneath the appropriate entries. A few weeks ago, I received an email from JS-Kit advising me that they would be switching me to Echo soon and that I should choose between the new system and the download. I chose the new system, on the assumption that I would be able to switch off the 99% of it that I didn't need, and was promised a smooth transition. The result was that, a day or two ago, the Haloscan comments disappeared and not an echo was left in their place.

I have asked about it on JS-Kit's support message board (their support staff don't stoop to individual emails, apparently). I was told that according to their records I had not started the upgrade process but had "paid for the Echo subscription separately". I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, and requests for clarification have been ignored. Accordingly, I have switched to Blogger comments, asked JS-Kit for a refund and downloaded the Haloscan comments instead. I don't know if I'll ever be able to get them back up here again; but rest assured, they are not lost.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

True Grit

The Government has responded to the cold weather in predictable fashion, by telling local authorities to cut down on road safety measures. Daveybloke's Cuddly Communities Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has criticised the Government for failing to learn the lessons of last year's cold weather, and the London Haystack has urged head teachers not to burden working single parents unnecessarily by not thinking carefully enough before closing schools. The impact, it appears, would be "devastating", thanks to New New Labour's consistent coddling of single parents and its reliance on the free market in the matter of child care. Spelman also noted that the Government had "failed to build up a strategic Highways Agency reserve, and Labour ministers have sat on their hands instead of putting measures in place to safeguard grit supplies", as though the grit were in danger of being kidnapped by mineralic fundamentalists rather than simply running out. However laisser-faire they may be about those nice people in the banks, Daveybloke's Cuddly Conservatives are always prepared to admit the value of forward planning and government interference when there's a risk of the wage slaves being kept from the rowing benches.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Snow in Winter - Millions Flee

Vast swathes of Britain were plunged into chaos and global warming denial today as deadly crystals of dihydrogenated monoxide descended on the hapless North Atlantic island.

The substance, which was responsible for the death of national hero Captain Scott almost 100 years ago and still kills many pensioners despite Government efforts to incentivise them into employment, has closed schools and brought public transport to a standstill in the aspiring Third World nation.

Dihydrogenated monoxide, or "water" as it is called by those wishing to de-emphasise its perils, consists of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen.

Hydrogen is a component in some types of nuclear weapons and was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, in which an airship crashed and burned despite al-Qaida not having been invented at that time. Oxygen is a component in carbon dioxide, one of the most notorious greenhouse gases.

The crystals fell from the sky in quantities unprecedented in modern times, except during various winters when nobody was expecting them.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A Legal Question

The attorney general has visted the Righteous State in order to discuss the means whereby Britain can be made more comfortable for foreign as well as domestic war criminals. Three weeks ago the Righteous State's former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, suffered the indignity of having an arrest warrant issued against her at the request of lawyers acting for existential threats in Gaza; and last week a group of officers from the Righteous Army felt obliged to cancel a visit here because the British authorities could not guarantee that they wouldn't be arrested. Either this betokens a hitherto unprecedented separation of executive and judiciary in the New New Labour mind; or else the British authorities are still waiting for the Upper Miliband to find out what the Americans have to say about the matter.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Well, Really, Mr Twiddle

The Independent has come up with even more of a non-story than the Sunday Murdoch's recent yap about an episode in the adolescence of William Golding. It appears that Enid Blyton, whose "reputation has been eroded by accusations of racist attitudes in her books", was present at a dinner in the late 1930s when the conversation turned to the subject of "appeasing" Hitler. (In fact, by the late thirties the British government had decided that it would probably have to fight Hitler, but Britain was militarily unprepared to do so until late 1939, as a result of the earlier policies of a certain Winston Churchill.) Blyton's husband, Major Hugh Pollock, walked out of the party, but Blyton stayed. This devastating revelation was imparted to the Independent on Sunday by one Ida Pollock, a factory hen for the Mills and Boon farm who married Hugh after he and Blyton divorced. Ida Pollock, who is a centenarian and hence is referred to by her first name in the Independent, does not know what Blyton thought about appeasement, but in compensation she claims that Blyton sent her "a fairly spiteful letter" some years after her marriage to Hugh. The literary correspondent at the Independent appears to believe that there is some connection between all this seventy-year-old gossip and the fact that Blyton's reputation has suffered because her books are written from a perspective that is no longer considered acceptable; or at least, he believes that there is some mileage in rather snidely implying it. Unfortunately, the crimes of sending nasty letters and being "happy to remain" at a dinner party where contemporary politics was being discussed are unlikely to brand Blyton as a Unity Mitford for the under-tens.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Gordon's Gin Lane

There is growing concern among our lords and masters about the nation's "growing addiction to alcohol", which is draining NHS resources in ways that the nation's unchanging addiction to fossil fuels and the Government's unparalleled addiction to scare propaganda evidently do not. "The role of the NHS should not just be about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm but also about active prevention," said the president of the Royal College of Physicians; hence the Commons select committee on health is expected to recommend a minimum pricing scheme per unit of alcohol, apparently on the grounds that addicts, being noted for their thrift, are more likely to throw off their addiction the more expensive it becomes. The Glorious Successor has previously ruled out minimum pricing, or imposing limitations on pub happy hours, presumably because the likely unpopularity of such measures has penetrated even the dank, dark clay wherein his struthious cranium is now permanently interred. The possibility that growing levels of addiction (assuming they are happening at all) may result from falling living standards or a politically facilitated lack of confidence in the future was evidently too ludicrous to contemplate. Living standards have not, after all, fallen among those who matter; so why can't the rest of us just give thanks to Gordon and get on with finding a job?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dull But Decent

The interregnum which preceded Tony Blair in Downing Street has indicated its very considerable discombobulation at the Vicar's recent confession that he didn't particularly care whether the weapons of mass nonexistence existed or not. The interregnum reminded its audience that it had been prime minister at some point and stated that "I knew when I said something I was utterly certain that it was correct". The interregnum's knowledge of its own certainty indicates a comforting degree of self-awareness, not to mention a certain echo of Tony's own perfervid belief in whatever Tony may find it expedient to believe at a given moment. As one would expect from something whose administration is even more famous for sleaze than for killing Iraqis, the interregnum claimed that doubts about the motivation for the war had done more damage to public trust in the political system than the expenses scandal. Most remarkably of all, perhaps, the interregnum said that it "supported reluctantly the second Iraq war", thus outing itself as one of the very few members of the Conservative party ever to be hesitant about slaughtering foreigners.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Our Spiritual Leaders

The titular head of the Anglican Civil War has called for people to respond to geographically remote problems "just as we do when our immediate family is in need or trouble". Presumably this will result in any remaining Anglicans hopping onto aeroplanes in order to bring aid and comfort to needy strangers, which will certainly do wonders for the environment. Change can be effected, the Archbishop said, by keeping up pressure on our governments. "We may be amazed by the difference we can make"; the first person plural here being used in the Pious Imperative mood, which translates it seamlessly into the second person without causing undue offence.

Meanwhile the sixteenth Daddy Goodspeak, who reinstated the Tridentine Mass and is an assiduous supporter of the canonisation of Pope Pius XII, has used his New Year message in the manner one would expect, by calling for an end to discrimination. His sense of humour was further in evidence, after a year of memorable revelations about the Catholic church's concern for the welfare of children, when he conjured up images of potential faith school fodder at the mercy of other people. He also appealed to armed groups everywhere to "stop, reflect and abandon the way of violence", which will doubtless have the usual momentous effect.