Monday, September 26, 2011

On Lemon-Flavoured Napkins, And Other Things

In one of his 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy' books, I cannot remember which, the late Douglas Adams placed his sublime antihero Zaphod Beeblebrox on a passenger spaceship which has crashed on to a wilderness planet.

Beeblebrox is startled to find the passengers sleeping, when they all instantly wake up screaming. A robotic steward later explains to him that the ship crashed while searching for lemon-flavoured napkins. With none available, the passengers have been placed in stasis until a civilisation capable of producing lemon-flavoured napkins can arise, at which point their journey will resume. They are revived once a year for coffee and biscuits, explaining their extreme reaction to a being with two heads. Link
The story, tall as it is, sprang to my mind after cancelling my Internet subscription a few days ago. For reasons of the type easy to imagine in our current economic climate, but which good taste dictates are still best kept to oneself, the decision has been made to disconnnect oneself from the online community until such time as its activation can be justified again.

Although this might seem hard to believe, it isn't really going to be much of a loss. This is the first time I've been online in days. I have not broken into cold sweats, nor been observed muttering to myself on the streets of Lanarkshire, or certainly no more than usual, at least as far as the muttering's concerned. Life goes on. There was life before the Internet, and there will be life after it. Blogging is a uniquely self-renewing medium. My best man The Big Lad has recently started his own blog, and a very good one it is as well. He has my best wishes for its success. Without wishing to engage in a maudlin 'Vitai Lampada', this kind of churn in creative personnel amongst bloggers is a good thing, a very good thing, for it keeps the medium fresh.

And having had more retirements from blogging than Frank Sinatra from Caesar's Palace, it's a fair bet I'll be back at some point, God willing.

With that in mind, I thought I'd give some last random thoughts before my blogging career goes to the Great Dashboard in the Sky, where everyone can read HTML and nothing is overcoded.

While Orlando Figes may at times have been mercurial and capricious in his personal dealings, his brilliance as a Russianist cannot be doubted. 'The Whisperers' makes the case that Stalin set out to destroy private life in Russia. There never was any real need for eight or nine families to be sharing apartments, but it suited the ideological agenda; fifty people sharing one toilet, and that indoors, can have few secrets from each other.

Having read that book, one can wonder whether neoliberalism has a similar agenda for the destruction of public life. The constant assaults on workers' rights to withdraw their labour - shamefully abetted by leaders of the Labour Party who have never seen a strike, no matter how just, which they haven't deplored and whose consistently spineless failure to defend working people's use of their bargaining chip of last resort will hopefully cause historians of the future to spit their names with venom - the petty indignities inflicted upon Scout troops unable to go to the park or the seaside because they don't have insurance and so on, all seem to indicate the workings of an ideology totally opposed to people having any kind of communal lives, either in the workplace or in pursuit of a shared interest. If it's true then it's rather sad, if only because it's so pathetic.

Murdo Fraser MSP wishes to become leader of the Scottish Conservatives and then reform the party into oblivion. The application of Occam's Razor makes me wonder why he just doesn't resign from the party he's in and start his own.

I am still getting to grips with the new English translation of the Mass. The overly pre-Free State Irish, at times overly-clericalised nature of much Catholic worship in Scotland may have been why the old lady behind me, 85 years old if she was a day, was bobbing up and down with slothlike nimbleness. It would be very sad to think she was putting herself through a set of physical jerks worthy of a Nazi summer camp in order to satisfy her conscience that she has tried to do everything a priest has told her to do. For the first few weeks, a little bit of the Mass's dignity was, to my mind, stripped away as worshippers seemed to be engaged in some sort of arthritic Pilates, a geriatric Zumba class for people who don't yet understand whether they should be standing up or kneeling down for the 'Agnus Dei'. Seeing the apparent discomfort of some of the old, and not so old, people around me at this point in the worship they have chosen to join, I have to confess that an uncharitable recollection concerning public comments made by the Scottish Catholic Church's spokesman regarding the Hokey Cokey has flashed through my head more than once. However, the element of unexpected physicality introduced by the new translation seems to be settling down now. Maybe the hip replacements are finally screaming for mercy. I'm also puzzled by some of the wording. In the Creed, the words 'of one being with the Father' have been replaced with 'consubstantial with the Father'. One would have thought that the words 'of one being' have precisely the same meaning as the word 'consubstantial', while also being very much easier to explain to young children. The more mean-spirited might think that 'consubstantial' is the sort of word best tossed out as refectory repartee, and while theologically exact doesn't really sit well with those, like me, who have no desire to be the most accomplished theologian in the graveyard, particularly when a very much clearer alternative is being pushed aside in its favour. These matters are not in my hands, thank Goodness, but for the first few weeks I was extremely disoriented, a sensation I never handle very well - quiet mutterings, quieter raspberries and all that - and came to understand and develop great sympathy for those souls who must have been disoriented by hearing the Mass in English for the first time. Given that the Mass is, or should be, an act of orientation towards the ultimate, I hope that the grace of the God who has guided the production of this new translation will descend upon His worshippers and lead them to appreciate its subtleties.

While I was not party to the negotiations, and have great sympathy for their loss as a family no matter whatever foibles some of them might possess or have possessed as individuals, the compensation reported as having been paid or which is becoming payable to the family of Milly Dowler by News International for the hacking of her mobile phone seems excessively high.

Earlier this evening, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary entitled 'The Wonderful World of Tony Blair'. This is a very good title for any item which is either written or broadcast about that gentleman, so good in fact that I used it as the title for an article I wrote for 'The Washington Dispatch' almost exactly nine years ago.

And that, for the time being, is that. Thank you all for your kindness in reading, and may God bless you and keep all of you in His tender care. I have made many generous friends through this blog, and wish all of you all the very best. Ave atque vale.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Does The Royal Family Use Tax Avoidance Vehicles?

This is probably a most unworthy thought for such a loyal subject as myself to have, but given that the Queen now actually pays tax one can't help but wonder whether she or any of her immediate family are the beneficiaries of any schemes the purpose of which is to legitimately minimise their tax liabilities.

I realise that in some circles that question might be regarded as being as tasteless as asking whether any of them have offshore bank accounts - Heaven forbid - but if their advisers have allowed such schemes to be set up on their behalf then that would send out a very poor message to the rest of us. Even if the person in whose name tax is collected isn't aware that they aren't paying as much as they could, what message about paying tax does that send to the rest of us?

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'Downton Abbey'

The second series of Julian Fellowes's sublimely produced period toff porn is shaping up quite nicley.

The first episode, broadcast earlier this evening, was set in 1916. Some of the younger male servants are still not at the front - to the apparent chagrin of some of the more bloodthirsty female characters, it must be said - and at a concert in the Big House two young women start distributing white feathers. Enraged by this, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) shouts at them 'You are the cowards here!'

Later on his gallant valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) leaves Downton at dead of night, apparently to prevent a sexual scandal from engulfing his empoyer's family.

It's edge of the seat stuff, I can tell you.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

'The Rational Optimist'

In my last post, I described Matt Ridley's book 'The Rational Optimist' as being 'thoroughly squalid and meretricious'. Having now finished it, I fear I might have been pulling my punches.

With the justified garlands gained in his previous career as a scientist and populariser of science now tarnished by that irrational optimism which led him to believe that he could help run a bank, Ridley may have felt that he had something to prove to his public, with this book being the result. If that was the case then in my opinion he has failed, for to my eyes it merely reads like a frantic restatement of his really quite right-wing economic beliefs; the thoughts of a man desperately clinging on to the hope that the beliefs he holds and has held are true beliefs.

It is blighted by Ridley's belief, perhaps a predictable one given his background, that human beings evolved from apes, a proposition for which, to my knowledge, not a shred of evidence sits on the scientific record. Earlier this year, it was very interesting to see two different writers advance almost exactly the same argument for this faintly absurd suggestion; that it was so credible that it could only be true, and to think otherwise could be deemed unreasonable. One was H. G. Wells, in his 'Short History Of The World', published in 1928, while the other was Simon Schama, in his appositely titled anthology 'Scribble, Scribble, Scribble', published in 2010 (and a wonderful read it is as well, if only because the author, already much beloved on this blog, manages to skid from extremes of fanatical Obamaphilia to the most dessicated pointy-headedness when discussing art to his apparent default mode of Tiggerish harmlessness, all souffles and Charlotte Rampling, in the way other men change their socks).

Ridley might not have set out to be self-serving, but it is certainly my opinion that his perhaps legally accurate description of himself as having been 'non-executive chairman' of Northern Rock at the time it required to be rescued does seem self-serving. Were the words 'non-executive' included to try to put even a little distance between himself and what was going on inside the institution? If they were, it hasn't worked.

The thrust of the book is that human development has grown up through trade and, in Ridley's rather squalid phrase, 'ideas having sex'. Organised religions seem to be bad because, in Ridley's rather sweeping view, they need temporal empires in order to spread themselves - what Saints Paul, Thomas, Patrick, Columbkille and Francis Xavier might have thought of this view can only be speculated upon. But while organised religion may be a very bad thing - and organised religion is, incidentally, the only entity that lends legitimacy to the ranks held by the aristocracy of which Ridley is a member, on the basis that they are or have been granted by monarchs whose own very slender claims to legitimacy have depended upon their seizure of the title 'Fidei Defensor', that title which they claim to be theirs and which is so important that it's the only one on the coins - spontaneously ordered religion seems to be very good, and that old Mitteleuropan hack Hayek is its prophet. According to Ridley we should be actively seeking Catallaxy, not a good idea in my opinion for, as he should know very well, Catallaxy bites. We are not into science here, folks, but we are very heavily into eschatology of the most brutally materialistic sort.

This would all be a better class of agitprop if he hadn't made such sweeping judgements, nor tripped over himself so much, nor made such glaring mistakes. One mistake that really jumped off the page appears on Page 129, when he writes that,

"Other descendants of the Black Sea refugees took to the plains of what is now Ukraine where they domesticated the horse and developed a new language, Indo-European, that would come to dominate the western half of the Eurasian continent, and of which Sankrit and Gaelic are both descendants".

If you wish to read one book of universal history, read Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's 'Civilisations'. In that most wonderful of books, Professor Fernandez-Armesto writes that there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of, in his words, an 'ur-Sprach' from which the Indo-European family of languages sprang, nor of any particular place, no 'ur-Heimat', from which they sprang. If Ridley had studied this area of history more closely before sitting down at the PC, he might have learned, possibly even to his great delight, that modern scholarship in this area believes that the Indo-European languagess grew from, of all things, trading links. To my mind, this error reveals a glaring gap in Ridley's scholarship in matters outwith his own area of expertise, which in turn leads one to think that anything he writes upon anything not within his own area of expertise isn't really to be trusted.

And you really can tell something about a man by hearing what sort of people he admires. On Page 170, after listing all...zzz...of the achieve...zzz..ments...that they...zzz...made by, with almost tedious predictability, having little or no government and virtually absolute freedom to trade, he writes 'But in truth, was there ever a more admirable people than the Phoenicians'?

Well, yes, in fact just about anybody who doesn't or didn't practice child sacrifice is more admirable than the Phoenicians. I am perfectly willing to accept that Ridley's over-evolved enthusiasm for his economic beliefs got the better of him when he wrote that sentence, but to my mind it's a shocking, and squalid and meretricious, error of judgement. Then again, it might not be the first one he's ever made.

He trips over himself. On Page 291 he includes the name of Naomi Klein amongst those he seems to think are modern prophets of doom, yet on Page 318, in the context of how the aid system actively impedes development in Africa, he writes,

"...in recent years, much aid has been granted on condition of free-market economic reform, which far from kickstarting economic growth, frequently proves damaging to local traditions, undermining the very mechanisms that get enrichment started".

This sentence could have come straight out of 'The Shock Doctrine', by, er, Naomi Klein. Accordingly, I have to wonder whether Ridley read 'The Shock Doctrine' before denigrating its author.

This may indeed by cold comfort to Ridley, but in this matter he even seems to be to the left of John Pilger.

The last nail in this book's coffin is its list of acknowledgments: Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, Johan Norberg, Nigel Lawson, Russell Roberts, David Willetts...the gang's all here. I merely report that having listed Nigel Lawson among the acknowledgments, the paperback version carries a very favourable quote from his son Dominic Lawson on the front cover, quite some way above the title.

This book was not worth reading. In my opinion it reads like a frantic iteration of belief from a man whose experiences may have shaken it. At times, Ridley's writings on economics seem like the outpourings of a fanatic, if only because he will analyse every aspect of the physical world around him but seems to accept the teachings of Hayek absolutely and without question. After reading it, I actually felt quite sorry for him - he puts everything under the microscope but himself.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twenty Years After

My apologies for not posting recently - been catching up on my reading, although in the case of Matt Ridley's 'The Rational Optimist', in my opinion a thoroughly squalid and meretricious book, I might as well not have bothered - I couldn't let the occasion pass without comment.

I became physically symptomatic on Friday 13th September 1991 - a day that will live in infamy.

The very insecure old solicitor whose tedious Rumpeltskinian shenanigans got the ball rolling is now dead, so, if only to preserve a point of good manners he was never very keen on observing himself, 'de mortuis nil nisi bonum' and all that. At that time in his life, his early '60's, he looked like Stroessner on the slide - a pot belly on a five foot five inch frame somehow miraculously suspended above a grey Bobby Charlton combover and a pair of Reactolite Rapides. Every damn day he would lose confidence in himself and what he had directed should be done, and blow his top with someone as a result. It seemed like every damn day there would be an apologetic missal posted on the office notice board saying that each day was a new start, or some crap like that; the classic behaviour pattern of an abusive spouse.

However, as far as I was concerned any relationship with the man ended at about 14.30 on Friday 13th September 1991, two months into a two year traineeship on, if memory serves, a very sunny early autumn afternoon on Sauchiehall Street, when the ritualised bollocking, almost a hazing, of being forced to stand in front of his desk while he ripped up my work in front of me while screaming at the top of his voice, got too much for me and both my head and right arm suddenly snapped from the middle to the right and would not stop snapping no matter what I did ('duties of care', anyone?). I remember running through the office from his room on the ground floor to mine on the mezzanine level just to get away from him, and I don't remember anything else of that afternoon. A year long diagnostic process followed thereafter, I was diagnosed in November 1992 and by the grace of God I'm still bloody well here.

It's been an interesting twenty years - you can't have 22 jobs in 20 years and not have an interesting time - but the high points have, of course, been becoming a husband and then becoming a father. He's a lovely boy, you know. I suppose many fathers look at their children slightly wistfully, hoping that they will be able to do more with their talents than their fathers have. Maybe he'll be the one to crack writing for a living.

On the other hand, I'm not dead yet.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Neil Lennon Verdict Explained (I Think)

While one side of my brain remains baffled by John Wilson's acquittal, the other thinks it might be able to explain why the jury reached its decision.

The critical element in the BBC report is this passage -

"The jury of seven women and eight men deleted the reference to making a sectarian remark from the charge relating to breach of the peace, and that the offence was aggravated by religious prejudice."

I may have this all wrong, and have not examined the relevant legislation - pulling out one's own fingernails with a pair of pliers would be an infinitely more enlightening and profitable pastime - but the wording of that report suggests to me that it has been framed in such a way that the alleged crime which is alleged to have been aggravated by sectarianism cannot be separated from the aggravation. In other words, in cases such as this, where a sectarian aggravation has been libelled, it is not enough merely for the crime to be proved for a conviction to be obtained; in order for the prosecution to be successful, the aggravation must also be proved.

If this is true then the law is not just an ass, it's ass backwards. For want of a better expression, an aggravation should always be the icing on the cake in such matters. A crime must always have been committed before it can be aggravated. What we might have here is an aggravation in search of a crime to attach itself to.

If this is the case, it suggests to me that the pitifully low standard of legislative draftsmanship displayed by the Scottish Parliament since devolution shows no signs of improving. Holyrood has a track record of producing badly written laws, and this one may be no exception.

It could also suggest that we might be on the way back to those days recalled by G. M. Trevelyan in his 'English Social History', when the phrase 'You might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb' had real meaning. Trevelyan records that in the 18th and 19th Centuries juries were often unwilling to convict in cases of minor crimes, often committed out of desperation, which carried grossly disproportionate penalties (ah yes, 'Merrie England', the birthplace of transportation and the man-trap). Given the political focus on stamping out sectarianism - a futile exercise to conduct in the west of Scotland, but I suppose God loves a trier - it may be the case that juries will not convict unless they are absolutely sure of guilt, applying a self-imposed standard of absolute and not merely reasonable doubt to their deliberations and allowing perfectly good cases which would have succeeded without the allegation of sectarian aggravation to fall.

And just as well, because as a self- proclaimed civil libertarian one can't really take any issue with 100 guilty men going free and so on and so forth and all that.

If any of the above is not the case, then I would be very interested to know whether the Crown Office was placed under any pressure by the soi-disant, ersatz 'Scottish Government' to prosecute this matter with a sectarian aggravation attached. The Tartanissimo has held forth at length on the need for anti-sectarian legislation, and what better way of driving home the need for such laws than a high-profile trial in which it will be alleged (with the word 'alleged' in this context meaning that the events were broadcast around the world) that a high-profile Catholic was subjected to a sectarian assault during the course of his employment as manager of Celtic Football Club, with the scene of the crime being pitchside during a league fixture. In Scotland, you don't get more high profile than that. If it is the case that the Crown Office was leaned on to make sure that the sectarian element stayed on the indictment to the bitter end, we're further down the road to Tartanitarianism than even I have feared.

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