The Curmudgeon


Monday, May 30, 2005

Day of the Dead

George A Romero 1985

Ten years passed between the release of George A Romero's first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Romero said he spent half that time resisting the pressure to make a sequel, and the other half trying to set the damn thing up. Both films were box-office hits; but by the time the third instalment arrived, the public mood had changed.

According to Kim Newman, Romero's "original plan was for Night to depict the beginning of the holocaust, Dawn to follow the complete breakdown of society, and Day to depict a future society in which living and dead have come to terms". Romero's original script depicted a society of underground city states which used trained zombies as soldiers, and ended with the overthrow of this repressive order, the passing of the zombie plague and the establishment of an "ambiguously utopian" new society.

Forced by the vagaries of the film industry to scale down his ambitions, Romero eventually set Day of the Dead at an earlier stage in the story, where the walking dead have clearly overwhelmed the living but the living are too stupid or too inflexible to realise it. Although the film begins and ends in blazing sunlight, almost all the action takes place in an underground military bunker, where a small team of scientists, soldiers and technicians is besieged by hordes of risen corpses. Every so often the soldiers capture a couple of zombies for Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) to experiment upon. Logan is trying to domesticate the creatures. In one case he manages it by removing almost the entirety of the thing's head and hooking its cerebellum up to the electricity supply. The guinea pig turns out to have been the late military commander, Major Cooper: "He's helping us more now than he ever did when he was alive," Logan observes.

Cooper's replacement is Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who wears twin revolvers and delivers his keynote rant with the Stars and Stripes on prominent display behind him. His proposed solution to the Living Dead problem is the same one that's been tried all through the trilogy: "shoot the mothers in the head". This is also Rhodes' solution to any other problem that rears its head; when the heroine, Sarah (Lori Cardille) is about to walk out in disgust, Rhodes threatens her with execution. Indeed, throughout the film it is clear that living soldiers are far more dangerous than living-dead flesh eaters; the dialogue scenes between Rhodes, his men and Sarah, the only woman in the group, are often more tense and threatening than the scenes which feature the Living Dead. Neither Rhodes, Rickles nor Steel ever addresses Sarah by name; at the start she is "lady" or "woman"; once things deteriorate, "bitch".

Male WASP heroes, when they occur at all in Romero's work, are rarely regular guys; they include a psychotic blood addict (Martin), a quadriplegic in subconscious symbiosis with a megalomaniac spider monkey (Monkey Shines), and a writer with a serial-killer pseudonym (The Dark Half). In the Living Dead films, all the sympathetic macho men are black - Ben in the first film, Peter in the second, John in Day of the Dead. All three are effective survivors against the zombie menace - Ben is killed, but by a redneck with a rifle, not by a carnivorous corpse. By contrast, Rhodes and his happy band are a sorry lot. Steel (G Howard Klar) has brute courage and, unlike Rhodes, is not homicidally insane; but he is a racist bully who contributes to the deaths of three of his colleagues by refusing to accept Sarah's help on a zombie-hunt. Sarah had offered to replace Miguel (Antone DiLeo), whose lover she is and who is in the process of cracking up, but all she succeeds in doing is annoying Steel and denting Miguel's masculine ego: "You made me look like an asshole out there," Miguel tells her. Rickles (Ralph Marrero), Steel's buddy, is a cackling half-wit with a bulbous forehead who flings at a couple of decayed zombies the singularly redundant insult, "Hope ya fuckin rot!"

But Romero's anti-militarist satire reaches its apex with Bub (Howard Sherman), Logan's favourite zombie pupil. Bub has retained a few instincts from his life before death: he can remember how to use a razor and a telephone, and when Rhodes walks into the room, Bub shambles to attention and salutes him. Logan suggests that Rhodes return the salute, but the captain is lacking in either scientific spirit or military courtesy: "You want me to salute that pile a walkin pus? Salute my ass!" Bub is clearly offended, and it quickly transpires that he also remembers what to do with firearms: a tribute to the thoroughness of the US military's basic training.

Despite being led by the demented Logan, who seems to have regressed to the state of a child pulling insects to pieces, the scientists are a slight improvement on the soldiers. Fisher (John Amplas) and Sarah try doggedly to continue their work despite hopelessly inadequate equipment and Rhodes' despotism; the trouble is that their work is pointless. The world has changed; the zombies have inherited it. This fact is twice pointed out to Sarah by John (Terry Alexander), the Jamaican helicopter pilot. When he suggests, near the beginning of the film, that the only thing to do is clear out, find an island and enjoy the sunshine, Sarah is disgusted: "You could do that, couldn't you. With all that's going on, you could do that without a second thought." John is unimpressed: "Shit. I could do that even if all this wasn't going on." He and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), the boozy electronics technician, live in the tunnels outside the bunker; it's more dangerous but allows them to rig up a homely shack complete with plastic plants and patio furniture. After Miguel is bitten by a zombie, they protect him from Rhodes' prescribed shot in the head, but the standoff between the squabbling groups in the bunker soon flares into open war. By the time Sarah is persuaded of the need to leave the old ways behind, events have overtaken her.

Day of the Dead came out in 1985, right in the middle of the decade which epitomises almost everything the Living Dead films satirise; and although in many ways the best of the three, it did not repeat its predecessors' success. Twenty years on, Romero has made Land of the Dead, starring Asia Argento, the appetising daughter of Dario Argento, who provided the music and some "creative consultancy" on Dawn of the Dead. It may be that Land of the Dead is the film Romero hoped to make with Day of the Dead; but it would be a mistake to see Day of the Dead as merely a rehearsal for the new film or as a second-best substitute for the one Romero was unable to make twenty years ago. It has virtues enough of its own. Tom Savini's gore effects are among the most hideous and hilarious on film; the performances are good; the atmosphere in the bunker is convincingly oppressive. Even the happy ending manages to combine a jump-inducing shock effect and a cynical directorial shrug.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

News 2020

Public health advance to make repossession a thing of the past

Health service repossessions could soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new genetic advance by scientists working at the health research facility at Porton Down in Britain.

The pioneering genetic modification allows for a precisely calculated time limit to be built into the effective functionality of any given biological unit, including eyes, hearts, livers, hip bones and other health service commodities.

"It's a substantial achievement both for modern science and for public health in the twenty-first century," commented Professor Morgan Harvester of National Health plc, the company which the Government has contracted to deal with the health of those without adequate private insurance.

The Minister of Human Resource Conservation, Angharad Bollweevil, has promised to fast-track legislation enabling health companies to utilise the new time-limit technology in their transplantation products.

It is hoped that in as little as five years' time, organ repossession as we know it today could be a thing of the past.

"Hunting down defaulters and gouging out their transplants, the way we do today, has always been inefficient and messy," Professor Harvester said. "With this new technology, the transplanted product simply decays into nothing once the time limit is reached."

The proposed legislation will include an obligation for health companies to give consumers "adequate advance warning" that their transplant's time limit is about to be reached.

"It should be possible to build a warning system into the transplant product itself, which will cause the consumer periodic and increasing discomfort until he or she goes to the hospital to have the transplant replaced," Professor Harvester said.

Thanks to the probable decrease in the number of defaulting transplant consumers, the Government's proposed safeguard would probably not inhibit the economic viability of the scheme, Professor Harvester added.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Hot Tips on Heatwave Survival

The Government believes that climate change is among the most pressing issues of our time. While not quite so pressing as getting everybody's name, number and habits onto a privately-run database, climate change is still a very important matter, not only for Tony Blair but for the human race.

Thanks to New Labour policy over the past eight years, Britain has become ever warmer and sunnier. Many of the hottest summers on record have taken place during New Labour's government. However, as with open government and ethical foreign policy, too much of a good thing can lead to unfortunate consequences.

Heatwaves, which are caused by public apathy on carbon reduction measures such as tree planting and household cistern adjustment, can be detrimental to the health if overindulgence is indulged in too much. Accordingly, the Government has provided the following easy-to-understand pointers for coping with heatwaves:

More Shade. Shade can be distinguished by the lack of direct sunlight wherever it occurs. It is darker and cooler than sunlight, and therefore enables minimisation of sunlight-related risks. The business community helps to provide shade by increasing the prevalence of non-transparent carbon molecules in the atmosphere and by providing covered shopping malls for the protection and convenience of consumers. These services are for your own good. Use them.

Minimal Exertion. Do not attempt to run at high speed for long periods in direct sunlight. Use your air-conditioned vehicle wherever possible, and hire a chauffeur to avoid road stress. If you use public transport, use it during off-peak hours when delays and overcrowding will be at their least disruptive.

Workplace Efficiency. If your workplace is equipped with air conditioning, ensure that the air conditioning is switched on while you are in the workplace. This will facilitate a de-temperaturisation effect which will cause the air to cool. Use your favourite skin creams and soft drinks (available from covered shopping malls, as above) to minimse personal desiccation and workplace coughing. If you do not work in an air-conditioned office, take advantage of New Labour's unprecedented social mobility facilitation and find a new job today!

Remember: Heat exhaustion, heat stroke and skin cancer can potentially cause human resource de-efficientisation and unnecessary additions to health insurance premiums. Have a pleasant summer!

Friday, May 27, 2005

News 2020

Concern at downgrading of terror threat estimate

The threat of terror-related activities in Britain has been officially downgraded from "extremely grave" to "not quite so extremely grave", the Home Office announced today.

The threat was designated "extremely grave" in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, when the United States was attacked by terrorists.

The threat has been officially downgraded three times previously, once to "very grave" and twice to "very grave indeed". The new designation "not quite so extremely grave" was introduced as a precisifying measure six months ago, and this is the first time it has been used.

The downgrading of the terrorist threat caused concern in Westminster, where MPs raised fears that the British public might become unduly complacent if encouraged to relax its vigilance.

But the Home Secretary said he was "very satisfied" with the performance of the new designation, and hoped to use it again in the near future.

"The British public is more responsible than politicians sometimes give it credit for being," the Home Secretary said. "I can assure everyone that if there is the slightest sign of renewed terrorist activity, the official risk level will be raised."

He added that the official risk level would probably be raised in any case during the autumn, as several new pieces of legislation came into effect. "In September this year, covering the head without official permission will become an official terrorist activity in Britain," he said.

"Obviously this will mean an upsurge in arrests for terrorist offences, and it is more than likely that the risk designation will have to be adjusted accordingly," the Home Secretary concluded.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

News 2020

Climate change plan to combat pensions crisis

The Chancellor today announced new measures to deal with Britain's growing pensions crisis, in the form of an adapted version of the watered-down proposals for "carbon debt" which were rejected by Britain and the US at the last environmental summit but three in Detroit.

The Government had found a way both to reduce the number of people claiming pensions and to increase the pensionality potential of those who were contributing most to the economy, the Chancellor said.

Under the new proposals, drivers and air passengers will be required to register the carbon emissions resulting from their activities. A new identity card will be issued with an automatic "carbon counter" built in, which the Government claims will cost users considerably less than the other identity card schemes in real terms taking appropriate adjustments into account and in the absence of some unforeseen alteration in circumstances which might cause the cost to rise.

The "carbon counter" will register when the card holder gets on or off an aeroplane, or into or out of a car, and will calculate the card holder's share of carbon emissions during the journey. These emissions will then be exchangeable for Government vouchers in part payment for private pension schemes. There will be special rates for company cars and business class flights.

In a statement today, the Chancellor said the new proposals were designed to dovetail economic efficiency with social responsibility. "The elderly are particularly susceptible to life function interference when the weather is exceptionally hot," he said. "It therefore seems clear that the effective targeting of climate change effects constitutes a promising way forward in the war against crisis on the pension front."

The leader of the opposition, Boris Johnson, condemned the scheme as "an unjustified experiment with trendy, left-wing, BBC-oriented over-centralisation and a communistic gulag for British market forces".

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Beati pauperes spiritu

Sainthood, like so much else, has gained pace. During the Middle Ages, when the Roman Church bestrode a flat world at the centre of the universe, burning books and heretics and taking early anti-terrorist measures against the Jewish menace, the process of attaining official canonisation was a leisurely one. Jeanne d'Arc, who was burned in 1431, was only granted sainthood in 1920, by Pope Benedict XV.

Under John Paul II, the media pope, the saints came thick and fast. Karol Wojtyla beatified and canonised more people than any of his predecessors. Perhaps he felt the need somehow to compensate his church for all the members his crankish mediaevalism was losing it. Then again, perhaps he was simply having fun, as when he promoted to official venerability the great whited sepulchre of World War II, Eugenio Pacelli.

Political saints still differ from religious ones in that religious saints must be physically dead in order to qualify. In the case of political saints, brain-dead will suffice. Which brings us to New Labour and its newly-appointed chairperson: the blessed Ann Clwyd, patron saint of Baghdad and points Abu Ghraibward. As the divine Tony's special envoy on human rights, as you may recall, she made rather a spectacle of herself during the early days of our glorious crusade in Iraq, regurgitating stories of Saddamite torture and mass graves like something in a hair shirt informing the populace that the Jews had eaten their babies.

So energetic was the Blessed Annie in pursuit of Iraqi human rights that she didn't know about the US forces' recreation centre at Abu Ghraib until she read about it in the papers. So outspoken was her moral courage that she denounced playtime with hooding and humiliation as a "fundamental error in policy". You can see that the Blessed Annie is eminently suited for high office in the holy choirs of New Labour's historic third term; her intellectual honesty and rhetorical fire are practically the equal of Geoff Hoon's, or even John O'Farrell's.

Perhaps it's just one of the many advantages of being out of touch, but it seems to me that the Blessed Annie has not been heard of for some time. I did read a while ago that she'd been made a Privy Counsellor, presumably as a reward for something or other; but her breathless paeans to Iraq's Salvadorean democracy seem not nearly so prolific of late. Can't think why.

Still, we must wish her well, just as we must hope for the speedy canonisation of the Venerable Pius XII. No one who hopes for the final collapse of Vatican Incorporated, or longs to see New Labour laughed out of office at last, can afford to regret the rise of two such resplendent ethical gargoyles.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Obituary: A J Beansprout

The death last Wednesday of Algernon Jehosaphat Beansprout has brought to an untimely end one of the most promising artistic careers of recent years - an end all the more unfortunate as it comes hard on the heels of the Tate Gallery's decision to lift the ban on his work which was imposed after the riot of 2002.

Born into an impoverished family, Beansprout spent his formative years in a disreputable and occasionally violent neighbourhood where the test of maturity was the number of neighbours one had mugged. From an early age the young artist showed signs of being deeply affected by the deprivation around him; his earliest surviving work is an angry blob of red paint suspended in the frame without even a canvas to support it. Many years later, in interviews, Beansprout was to report that the entire household went hungry for a week after the work's completion, as he had used the only remaining egg in the family to obtain the necessary elasticity in the paint.

Circumstances were indeed straitened in these first years; so much so, in fact, that Beansprout was forced to do most of his early work on rice paper, so as to be able to eat the results should they prove unsuitable for consumption on the open market. Consequently, many early paintings, which could have provided invaluable clues as to the influences and development of the artist, were until recently thought irretrievably lost; fortunately, Beansprout's will provides for a post-mortem examination which will enable whatever remains of these hitherto inaccessible masterpieces to be recovered for posterity. Christie's have already placed a tentative asking price of seventy-three thousand pounds on the contents of the artist's small intestine.

But fame could not leave such genius alone for long, and his "Kamikaze Budgerigar" caused a considerable critical furore when it was displayed at the Tate Gallery as part of an exhibition for promising newcomers and congenital idiots. Two years later he produced "Revolt of the Stick Insect", his most uncompromising statement of the period, which caused a stampede of terrified audiences when the Tate displayed it the following summer. Perhaps unwisely, the gallery had included Beansprout's picture in an exhibition to which large numbers of adults, and others of a nervous disposition, were invited; but it was the artist who took the blame, and Beansprout's work was not shown in public for the remainder of his now tragically truncated lifetime.

This happened in spite of the frequent appearance of works, such as "Amoeba, Left Profile (mag. x30,000)" which revealed a much less aggressive side to the artist's persona. These pictures sustained Beansprout through the final difficult decade of his life, his burgeoning style illuminating countless subjects of remarkable diversity, from the austerely fascinating "Electroencephalogram of a Depressed Paramecium" to the romantically mellow and gently pastel-hued "Hedgehogs Detonating at Sunset, Euston Square Station".

In the last two years of his life, the artist's time became more and more occupied with human portraiture, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of his new-found patron, the reclusive and grossly narcissistic billionaire John Paul Giddy III, who appears in most of Beansprout's late canvases. These include such titles as "Unremarkable Profile", "Nonentity", "Smallish Person with Incipient Baldness Problem" and one of his very last works, "Man with Forgettable Features Destroying an Art Studio". Weeks after this last portrait was completed, Giddy inexplicably withdrew his sponsorship, and Beansprout was left in penury, to die by accident when a bus shelter fell on him.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Satanic Supplement

Blameless,adj. Powerless.

Dehumanise,v.t. To render efficient.

Fly,n. One of the more successful organisms of our time, by virtue of dining largely on shit and corpses.

Grope,v.i. To blunder hopelessly in the dark, as if conversing with a civil servant.

Insanity,n. Policy adopted the moment stupidity fails.

Managerial,adj. Relating to the provocation of strikes.

Poctifer,n. A device for making small circular indentations in the surface of golf balls.
He staggered, but the protective vest held true; the shotgun blast had merely poctifered his chest.
Ondigop Grucket

Refugee,n. Someone who has exchanged the political persecution of a repressive state for the racist persecution of a democratic one.

Skin,n. Cosmetic packaging for walking offal.
A lady the state of whose skin
Was a shame and a shock and a sin
Tried, with horrified squeaks,
To plug up the leaks;
But her insides still wouldn't stay in.
Rev. Wibley Beamish

Vampire,n. A bloodsucker which, because of its literary and cinematic notoriety, has had to share its name with a number of other species which do not really deserve the title. Examples include the vampire bat, which does not suck blood but merely laps it; and the politician, whose appetites rarely stop at blood alone.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

News 2020

Sun editor in shock denial of wanton sensationalism and international criminality

The editor of the Sun newspaper, Michael Portillo, today defended the paper against accusations of breaching international law in the interests of tasteless sensationalism. He said that the Sun had always stood for free speech and supported Britain's boys in the war on terror.

Controversy erupted last week when the Sun published extracts from the latest volume of the memoirs of former prime minister Lord Blair of Belmarsh.

Although Lord Blair has admitted that the words as published were indeed his own writing, he claims that the extracts were from an early draft of the work, which will be published this autumn in book form under the title In All Honesty.

Lord Blair claims that the Sun obtained the drafts under false pretenses from a discontented au pair who was sacked from the Blair household when doubts were raised about the sincerity with which she had taken her citizenship vows.

If true, the allegations would mean that the Sun is in breach of the international statutes protecting intellectual property rights. If found guilty in a court of law, the newspaper would be liable to pay Lord Blair substantial damages.

"Naturally, to an old social democrat like myself it isn't the money that matters so much," Lord Blair said today. "It's simply the fact that my work - incomplete and unrevised - has been published by people who had no right to it. It's a moral question above all, of course, but there is some personal embarrassment as well. It's as if they'd published photographs of me telling Cherie to order someone to scrub my socks or something."

Mr Portillo said today that the Sun had always stood for free speech and supported Britain's boys in the Middle East. "We find it very strange that a man who has published three volumes of biography about himself so far should object to having bits of a new book printed in a family newspaper," Mr Portillo said.

He added that the Sun had always stood for free speech and supported Britain's boys in the war on evil, and called on readers to show their respect for Lord Blair's achievements in office by entering the newspaper's "Denounce a Gippo and Win a Trip to Benidorm Lotto".

Friday, May 20, 2005

News 2020

Self-defence industry up in arms at new restrictions

Britain and her allies are committed to opposing new restrictions on the self-defence and perpetrator restraint industries, the Foreign Secretary confirmed today.

The restrictions, which were first proposed eight years ago by various countries of no particular significance, will be placed before the UN Security Council for final rejection tomorrow.

At present, under international law, all weapons and perpetrator restraint equipment must be clearly marked "For Humane Use Only". This rule was introduced during Lord Blair of Belmarsh's historic third term in office as Prime Minister, when he undertook a single-handed crusade for human rights across the world.

However, the rule has not been particularly effective in preventing human rights abuses, and the UN has been criticised for not doing more.

The self-defence industry has also complained that profits are being lowered because the rule imposes extra costs in time, labour and ink. The US government reimburses the industry for only 75% of these costs, and the British government only 70%.

The new ruling would oblige manufacturers to mark their products in the language of the receiving country as well as in that of the country in which the goods were made.

"This is typical of the kind of unrealistic thinking which has cost the United Nations so much credibility in recent years," the Foreign Secretary said today. "If this measure is allowed to pass into international law, it will simply be ignored. Industrial contributors will ignore it, and governments will ignore it."

Britain's ethical foreign policy would not permit the Government to stand by and permit international law to be breached, he continued. "And for that reason, Britain and her allies will be fighting hard to prevent this measure becoming law in the first place."

A spokesperson for Hallibechtel Protection Inc., which manufactures attitude amelioration fittings and urinary arc enhancers for the Guatanamo and Abu Ghraib terrorist restraint complexes, said that the company welcomed the Allies' support.

"It will be a sad day for world freedom if the supply of this vital equipment is arbitrarily limited at a time when demand has never been higher," said Hallibechtel executive Wrackham Hoode.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Down the Drain

The baritone utrigle (Utrigulus cloacae) is becoming less common in Britain, largely owing to the destruction of its natural environment by the encroachment of new types of drain. The growing prevalence of plastic drainpipes causes the creature considerable difficulties in reproducing, because the relatively smooth texture of the inside of the pipe means that the female utrigle is unable to get a proper grip during mating, and more often than not the happy couple are simply swept away as soon as the plug is pulled.

Even when conception does occur, the problems of reproduction do not end. Once the young have been carried to term, the female must deposit them in the customary position just beneath the plug-hole if they are to have any chance of survival. Metallic plugholes in the familiar pattern, pitted with limescale and rust, are ideal for this purpose; but the modern plughole which is simply a hole merely causes the utrigle to become confused.

As everyone knows, the utrigle lives by hanging passively just inside the drain with its sucker-like mouth secured to the underside of the plughole, and swallowing whatever is washed down the drain. Accordingly, the creature's appearance varies a good deal depending on the nature of its diet. Utrigles in cities tend to be round and smooth, with the distinctive limescale encrustations (thought to be used in mating dances) on the toes and tonsils; while those in country sinks are smaller, darker and prone to constipation.

Adult baritone utrigles are usually about three inches in length, although they can grow much larger depending on what comes down the drain. Excessive amounts of solids can cause the utrigle's body to balloon, blocking the drain entirely; or worse yet, the creature may actually mutate into the emergent and far less convenient subspecies, the borborhygmic spraygurgle (Utriguliformicus expectorans). Like the baritone utrigle, the spraygurgle lives suspended beneath the plughole; unlike the baritone utrigle, it does not excrete excess water harmlessly down the pipe, but vomits it back with considerable force. Depending on the creature's size (spraygurgles have been known to grow up to four feet long), the water pressure per square inch can result in anything from a facial dampening to a dampened ceiling.

Utrigles are born in batches (the technical term is gobs) of three to five. At birth they are blind, helpless and not baritone; indeed, many young can barely gurgle at all. For two or three weeks after birth, the young hang by their long, dark purple uvulae from the mother's back toes, while the mother closes her gullet so that the drained water washes over her and feeds the gob. The presence of an immature utrigle in the drain is signified by its echoing the adults' gurglings, but in a tenor key. Once the young become too heavy for the mother's toes, their uvulae break and they are swept away down the pipe to seek out mates and start the reproductive cycle once again.

Contrary to received wisdom, the word utrigle is pronounced yoo-triggle, not utt-rye-gle; and the creature's gall bladder does not contain concentrated soap.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Satanic Supplement

Adoration,n. Passionate ignorance.

Deify,v.t. To turn someone into a god. The ancient Romans did this several times with living Emperors, and on a regular basis with dead ones. Whether any of the latter felt themselves adequately compensated has not been reliably recorded.

Grub,n. Immature form of several varieties of insect, with the exception of the money-grub, which is the mature form of mankind.

Logic,n. A train of reasoning whose journey terminates at your own opinion.

Morbid,adj. Addicted to suffering and death even where neither is likely to prove of financial benefit.

Optimism,n. Socially acceptable face of complacency.
I know a fine pig who can fly;
Politicians cannot tell a lie;
And rocks do not fall,
And love conquers all;
Life's a puppy dog, then you don't die.
Rev. Wibley Beamish

Prime Minister,n. The leading problem of cabinet government; in the United Kingdom, the serving ambassador for the government of the United States.

Seduction,n. Successful concealment of one's true nature until the following morning.

Tuckle,n. That part of a garment which ought to be tucked inside another garment.
The tip of her tongue protruded ever so slightly from between her lips, a mischievous tuckle.
Xanthe Blodgett

Umbrella,n. Ostensibly a protection from the rain; actually a malign instrument for the performing of impromptu eye amputations upon one's fellow pedestrians.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

News 2020

Statistical bulge in US military continues

The number of unwanted pregnancies among US army personnel rose again last year, despite increased access to TV evangelical channels and celibacy encouragement groups.

Exact figures are classified under the Prevention of Immorality in Military Personnel statutes, but it is thought that up to 250 unauthorised infantine additionalities have occurred over the past twelve months in the Middle East alone.

US critics of Pentagon policy point to the administration of the draft, which tends to place people from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds in the infantry.

Activist Munby Stark, whose group recently raised 20,000 dollars to send the troops 10,000 copies of the Attorney General's moral self-help manual The Purity of the Flesh, admits to "a certain frustration" that almost 75% of recruits will be unable to benefit because of functional illiteracy.

"They join up expecting to get a career and everything," Mr Stark said of his less educated compatriots. "But the military only teach them to fight, so when they come back home the only thing they can do is play video games."

Pentagon spokesperson Colonel Beulah Crambone denied that the US military was training its soldiers to be a burden on American society, but admitted that the problem of sexual indiscipline among troops was "still somewhat less than satisfactorily solutionised."

While praising the heroism of American forces, Colonel Crambone said that some of the more welfare-oriented ethnic groups were still suffering "a few problems of adjustment to a disciplined environment."

The scheduled construction of three new terrorist processing centres in the Democratic Republic of Baghdad should allow some of the battle-weary troopers to work out their feelings without undue risk of conception; and unwanted pregnancies among the natives are generally resolved quickly by means of "honour killings" - part of a "way of life which is more than five thousand years old," as a British human rights envoy once pointed out.

However, Colonel Crambone admitted that most of the pregnancies were caused by "inter-unit liaisons of a mono-cultural orientation" and that the only viable solution is to continue sending the infants to orphanages or grandparents until such time as they themselves are eligible for the draft.

"We hope to get the age limit lowered again pretty soon," Colonel Crambone said. "Once they're at the age when they can play video games, that's when we can start appealing to them. That way they'll be able to build up a good five or six years' service record before the hormones start kicking in."

Monday, May 16, 2005

News 2020

Teen solo sex statutes to go ahead

The home front of the war on disrespect will continue with legislation to control teenage masturbation and similar "underhanded activities", the Prime Minister announced today.

The new package of measures is the latest instalment in a package of packages reaching back almost a decade and a half, and reflects the Prime Minister's passionate commitment to a society of mutually respectful citizens.

"In order to be able to take their proper place in society as fully fledged consumers, young people must understand that they have responsibilities as well as rights," the Prime Minister said today.

"Our responsibilities exist in a dynamic equilibrium with the rights of others," the Prime Minister continued. "For example, it is a responsibility not to steal from others because they have the right not to be stolen from."

Another example of the same equilibrious dynamicism, he said, was "the responsibility not to engage in private practices which may disgust others, because they have the right not to be disgusted at the thought of what you might be doing."

The proposed bill is a slightly de-rampantised version of a proposal originally raised by the National Organisation for the Negation of Onanism (NONO), which suggested that all instances of masturbation, by persons of whatever age, be treated like other sex-crimes such as rape, child abuse and keeping a political weblog.

"On reflection, the Government has decided to limit the scope of this legislation to those below the legal age of consent," the Prime Minister said today. This means that anyone masturbating to heterosexual fantasies will be immune from prosecution once they reach the age of 16, while males masturbating to homosexual fantasies will be immune once they reach the age of 18.

The Government hopes that the recent crackdown on pornography will help incentivise public co-operation with the law. Nevertheless, as a precautionary measure, all TV advertisements for cars, bubble baths and "priapically suggestive confectionery" will henceforth be classified as illegal viewing for unaccompanied non-adults.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

News 2020

Britain applies ethical foreign policy to violence-torn republic

Troops have been killed in Uzbekistan while putting down a potential revolt against the government. The four soldiers were all in their twenties and were good family men. An unknown number of rioters were also killed. "We don't do body counts," said Tashkent police chief Christian Kalashnikov.

International reaction to the incident has been one of concern tempered with understanding. Uzbekistan is a valued ally of the US in its war on impropriety, and Uzbek troops have been deployed in support of Allied operations in former Iraq, former Iran, former Syria, former Lebanon, former Afghanistan, and northern Africa.

However, the prevailing attitude of anti-Americanism in much of the world - even the civilised world - means that the US has been accused by critics of turning a blind eye to the Uzbekistan government's patchy human rights record.

The US and other allies have responded that sales of small-arms and perpetrator restraint equipment to Uzbekistan are always explicitly marked "For Humane Use Only", but some pressure groups are still dissatisfied.

The US State Department said today that Uzbekistan's efforts to improve human rights should be "greeted with encouragement rather than unconstructivity". Uzbekistan has an elected leader who regularly gains approval ratings of 80% or more in opinion polls, and although the number of people being boiled to death has increased since the onset of anti-government militancy, the underlying trend is set to start decreasing.

The US Commander-in-Chief today called on both sides in the conflict to show restraint. The Prime Minister, in accordance with Britain's ethical foreign policy, called on both sides in the conflict to listen to the US Commander-in-Chief's call to show restraint.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Satanic Supplement

Bulldog,n. Ugly, vicious and not over-intelligent canine. Symbolic figure with which the British nation is proud to identify itself.

Coward,n. Someone who discourteously denies the foes of his own government the blessed opportunity of dying for theirs.

Hypothetical,adj. Descriptive of any fact which supports the wrong argument.

Inherit,v.t. To profit by a relative's death in a manner other than emotional.

Justifiable,adj. Profitable.

Morale,n. The stupidity of a soldier.

Pith,n. That part of a fruit which most people ignore or throw away; hence the word also signifies the important or essential part of a message or statement.

Racism,n. The cause of racial tension in every country except this one, where racial tension is caused by excessively tolerant immigration laws.

Sulgid,adj. Resembling, in appearance, odour or consistency, a damp ditch in which something fairly unpleasant has, not especially recently, breathed its last.
Depression makes the mind quite sulgid.
Journal of Amateur Psychiatry

Weak,adj. Descriptive of the flesh of saints, as opposed to the spirit which is willing, and the brain which is tactfully omitted from mention.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Felosophical Speculations on a Puzzling Human Utterance

It has long been known among felosophers that human beings can communicate amongst themselves, largely by means of subconscious physical signals and crude vocalisations. In addition, the domestic school of felosophy has established that human beings frequently attempt to communicate with cats by these same primitive means.

This discovery came as a considerable blow to many of the more optimistic domestic felosophers, who believed that, given the proper circumstances, human beings might some day be trained in eyeball-to-eyeball telepathic contact. Many cats do still try to send messages to human beings in this way; but most felosophers are convinced that human eyeballs are simply not built to receive the necessary wavelengths.

Despite this setback for interspecies communication, felosophers have continued to study human vocalisations in the hope of uncovering whatever meaning they may have. One of the most controversial is of course that interesting double grunt, Bad cat. This vocalisation has been studied for decades by many of the most highly respected felosophers, some of whom have grown so disgusted at its intractability as to declare that it has no real meaning at all; rather like such strange and apparently redundant noises as No and Giddoffathat.

Nevertheless, prolonged and thorough study by generations of heroic felosophers has produced some positive results. It is now fairly clear, for example, that the Bad cat vocalisation generally occurs within a short period of, or even simultaneously with, certain other mysterious human activities such as pushing cats away from interesting breakables or removing cats' claws from interestingly textured clothing and/or flesh. It seems clear that there is a relationship between the vocalisation and these other seemingly irrational human instincts.

The nature of this relationship is controversial. Some felosophers believe that the Bad cat vocalisation is simply a freakish quirk of evolution, like bipedalism or the enigmatic disinclination on the part of many human beings to bite the heads off live rodents. Others have put forth the daring hypothesis that the human beings may be trying, in some primitive and largely unconscious fashion, to communicate with the cats at which the vocalisation is directed.

When considered in context, this idea is perhaps not as ridiculous as it sounds. It must be remembered that the impossibility of feline-human communication has never been proved, and that very few felosophers now accept the old theory that human beings evolved the tin-opener, the laundry basket and the airing cupboard out of their own unassisted consciousness. Although no definite proof yet exists, it seems reasonable to postulate that constant and dedicated feline eyeball telepathy may be having some effect on certain highly sensitised human cortexes. The influence is doubtless extremely limited, and probably badly distorted owing to the peculiar shape of the human pupil; but nevertheless, the presence of such an influence would explain a good deal, possibly including a sudden urge on the part of human beings to communicate with their feline friends.

What, then, are the human beings trying to say? It is far too early to do more than speculate, but the typical context of the Bad cat vocalisation has led some felosophers to a paradoxically optimistic conclusion. They believe that, thanks to years of patient eyeballing, the human beings have gained some rudimentary sense of decorum and are trying to warn cats about the anti-social urges to which they are about to succumb. This is why the Bad cat vocalisation always occurs around the same time as a human faux pas such as lifting a cat off the dinner table. Although the human being cannot control the urge to indulge its primitive, table-protecting instincts, it somehow manages to vocalise a signal of warning or apology for its irrational action. Sometimes the warning is delivered too late, e.g. after the cat has been lifted away; but it would be churlish to blame human beings for the undeveloped state of their cerebral cortexes.

More and more felosophers are now subjecting the Bad cat vocalisation to in-depth study and acclaiming it as one of the most significant progressions in feline-human relations since the demise of ancient Egypt and that society's healthy perspective on the place of cats in the evolutionary scale. It may be too much to hope that human beings will soon acquire anything like genuine good manners; but when one thinks of what has been achieved within a few short millennia, there are certainly grounds for optimism.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Good Citizen Questions Everything

Is your neighbour a terrorist? Does he behave suspiciously and meet strange people? Does he buy copious quantities of sugar, weedkiller, plastic explosive, apple pips or unknown substances? Does he look at things as if he wants to blow them up? Is he getting ready to nuke your children? If we work together we can defeat terror. Call 0898 STOPTURR for the information hotline and do your bit for society. All calls will be treated with strict confidence. Rewards.

Is your neighbour a yob? Does he behave suspiciously and meet strange people? Does he buy copious quantities of cigarettes, glue, drugs, chewing gum or unknown substances? Does he look at you as if he wants to mug you? Has he just been released from prison, a psychiatric hospital, the armed forces or a turn on reality television? Is he getting ready to assault your daughter? Has he got a tattoo? Call 0898 STOPYOBS for the information hotline and do your bit for society. All calls will be confidently treated. Rewards.

Is your neighbour a personality disorder? Does he behave suspiciously and not meet enough people for your liking? Does he buy objects of which you disapprove for purposes of which you are not entirely certain? Does he look at you in an irrational and potentially violent manner? Has he just been released from prison, a psychiatric hospital, the armed forces or a turn on reality television? Is he getting ready to burn down your house, chop your entire family into small pieces and then cop an insanity plea and live out his natural life in the luxury hotel that is Broadmoor? Does he smell bad or mutter to himself? Call 0898 STOPNUTS for the information hotline and do your bit for society. All treats will be strictly confident. Rewards.

Is your neighbour an asylum seeker? Does he live in conditions of animal overcrowding despite being given near-luxury housing at the taxpayer's expense? Do he and his people jabber loudly in a foreign language? Do they look at you as though you were the intruder in your own country and not them? Do you think they might be about to kidnap your dog or your baby for food? Call 0898 STOPWOGS for the information hotline and do your bit for society. All constrictions will be fiddled a treat. Rewards.

Is your neighbour? Does he? Do they? Have they? Should they? Will they? Might they? Might they not? Rewards. Do you think? Are you worried? Are you afraid? Do you wish? Rewards. Take precautions. Lock your windows. Keep close to a telephone at all times. Call the information hotline and do your bit for society. Rewards. Call with confidence. Be strict. Rewards. We'll look after the treatment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

News 2020

New broom to combat festering sick-notes

The newly appointed Secretary for Human Resource Auto-Repair Encouragement, Lord Cupid, has announced new measures to combat the growing sick-note culture which he said was "festering at the heart of British society".

As from next January, illness will be officially abolished as a reasonable excuse for absenteeism, except in certain special cases such as duodenal ulcers, obesity or skiing-related trauma.

"Obviously this will decrease pressure on the health industry as it will free GPs from the necessity of filling out unnecessary documents," said Lord Cupid today.

"Therefore these measures will not only incentivise workplace harmonisation and upgrade productivity levels," Lord Cupid continued. "They will also allow doctors that much more time to manage their budgets and ensure that health industry overstretch continues to emerge as a diminishing factor."

More than 38 billion pounds a year are lost annually in profits alone owing to employees taking days off and claiming illness as an excuse, according to the latest figures.

The figure has been growing steadily since the Government began enabling flexibilitisation of working conditions. The relaxations in the so-called "Health and Safety" laws were intended to combat excessive outsourcing and protect jobs in Britain.

However, activists claim that the number of industrial accidents has reached "unacceptable levels". Ironically, a more managed economy could have prevented many acts of God and disincreased the rate of employee detrimentation, they claim.

"Despite the introduction of compulsory private health care over a decade ago, thousands of employees are still taking days off work and claiming ill health," said industrial spokesperson Nigel Feasting-Piranha today.

"The Government's action on this matter is a sensible start," Mr Feasting-Piranha said. But he warned, "Left unchecked for a sufficient period, this trend for hypochondria-driven employee antimotivation could potentially commence disincentivising fiscal throughput."

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Satanic Supplement

Arms race,n. Charitable event organised for the benefit of underprivileged weapons manufacturers, in the form of a government-subsidised competition with no referee, no agreed finishing point, and several billion losers.

Capitalist,n. Someone who believes that the crime of being poor should incur the severest possible penalty.

Devil,n. He who offers a fair price for your soul, while his rival demands it free of charge.

Freedom,n. A political tool whereby the subtler dictators maintain their regime, by the simple expedient of withholding as much of it as possible and then threatening removal of the rest.

Illegal,adj. Contrary to the interests of the legislature.

Map,n. Means by which, before setting out on a journey, the process of getting lost can be rehearsed in detail.

Popularity,n. A politician's ability to stop just short of provoking a revolution.

Specialist,n. Someone who is aware of the extent of their own ignorance with regard to one single subject.

Tenancy,n. Period of time required to render a dwelling uninhabitable to the next occupier.

Unipodgid,adj. Tubby in only a single respect.
"I may be overweight, but at least it's only my abdomen that suffers. You are not nearly so unipodgid - fatty!"
Clodagh C. Pondible

Volatile,adj. Flammable. The derivation, from the Latin volare, to fly, is doubtless a relic of those pious days of old, when those suspected of a talent for air travel were supplied by generous neighbours with a corresponding facility for combustion.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Ain't Folks Cute

As the mediocre English horror writer R Chetwynd-Hayes once observed, there are few better proofs for the existence of ghouls, vampires and zombies than a twenty-minute trip on the London Underground. It is true beyond doubt that, if you are unlucky enough to have to take the Tube twice a day in order to earn official permission not to starve, you do run across the occasional non-human unpleasantness besides all the human ones. There must be something about the atmosphere of the place - the harsh light, the omnipresent grime, the deadly noise - which makes it a haven for the damned and depraved. Perhaps it's the advertisements.

Certainly the party ambience must be a factor. I'm talking, of course, about the British version of party ambience, whereby nobody talks to anyone else but, at most, merely eyes them up and down in silent disapproval. Disapproval and self-pity are the British equivalents of bienvenida and mi casa es su casa, respectively, much as lager lout culture is what passes here for sportsmanship. This is what draws the creatures. There must be few things more attractive to the average ghoul than the margarine-thick miasma creeping like a poisoned mist out of forty or fifty covertly shifting glances of mutual dislike.

Ghoul-spotting on the Underground is a harmless sport which helps to pass the time and tedium of a journey which is too noisy for conversation and too uncomfortable for worthwhile reading. Even if they are aware of being observed, the creatures are prevented from attacking by the overcrowding and risk of capture; their appetites are in any case almost entirely satisfied owing to the preponderance of walking corpses among Tube passengers. Walking corpses no more object to a ghoul taking a chunk out of them, or a vampire having a cold drink, than they object to a day at the office or a glance at the newspapers.

The only real problem for the amateur ghoul-watcher is, of course, the growing difficulty of distinguishing the creatures from the rest of the crowd. Humanity's continuing evolution into a semiconscious species, and the natural fecundity of the delta-minus and epsilon types, means that only the thoroughly trained eye can be certain any longer that a genuine ghoul is in fact being observed.

Last week, for example, one of my fellow passengers was a thickset male creature with a token bristle of hair warning the unauthorised away from its scalp and the dead flat eyes of the habitual corpse-eater. Was it a ghoul? The fact that it was wearing a blue pinstripe suit was neither here nor there. It had its thumb in its mouth and was poking absently and audibly around in there; but this also is a deceptive sign which might have meant anything. For all I knew, the thing could have been an ordinary moron simply trying to find its tongue. It had one of those unique British chins which manage at once to be both belligerent and dramatically undershot, and it was reading - or perhaps I should say regarding - the pages of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with blank, uncomprehending resentment.

During the quarter-hour I spent observing it, the thing neither cracked a smile nor turned a page. I was wracked with uncertainty. If it were a ghoul, surely it would take better care to conceal itself among the other London Underground customers? Tube carriages at half-past five are rarely scenes of merriment and bonhomie, so that even the least ebullient of ghouls can generally pass unnoticed for a few stops; but this one didn't even seem to be trying. But if it was merely an ordinary epsilon, why was it holding the book the right way up?

It was an inconclusive encounter. The thing got out at my station, where the platforms are in the open air; but again this proves nothing. Many ghouls nowadays have a taste for sunshine in small doses, particularly in large cities where the dizzying reek of warm days has become almost an addiction for some of them. But that small-eyed, slope-browed face, slack with stupidity and leaden with inarticulate spleen, while its owner picked its teeth with its thumb, remains with me to this moment. There is something indescribably horrible about such faces, even when one has been spared the experience of seeing them open their mouths and talk. I hope the thing was a ghoul. If I knew that it was, I might soon be able to sleep again.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thanks, Mugs

Now that the election is over, the General Secretary of the Labour party has sent me a brief note of thanks for all my help. The optimism of New Labour is uncanny; not only did they assume I could be scared into line with threats of a Howard government, but they appear to believe I was a sufficiently fervent supporter to be wafted onto the campaign trail by the hamster-ridden humour of John O'Farrell.

"This election has been a tough fight from start to finish. It is a fight we have won," begins General Secretary Matt Carter. New Labour has "a clear mandate" for its "radical programme of reform." This evidently explains the pusillanimous continuance of Thatcherism which has characterised the Labour parliaments of 1997 and 2001. They were waiting for a genuine mandate; and now, with ninety-five seats lopped off their majority and with nothing to hope for from their Beloved Leader except a speedy exit, at last the mandate is theirs.

"What is also clear," continues Matt Carter, "is that the Conservative Party has stalled. Their failure to change, failure to come to terms with modern Britain, is reflected in their failure to secure any significant increase in their share of the popular vote." This is rather fine coming from the General Secretary of a party whose share of the popular vote amounted to a distinctly underwhelming thirty-seven per cent. Tony Blair won his historic third term on fewer votes than Neil Kinnock got when he lost to Edwina Currie's close personal friend, whose name has slipped my memory, in 1992.

Anyway, despite finally gaining that mandate for radical reform, New Labour "will, as the Prime Minister has said, listen to what the people said in this election and govern wisely". On the other hand, they will "continue to change Britain for the better". They have that programme for radical reform, of which the prevention of terrorism bill, the identity card scheme and the upgraded blasphemy law are presumably mere adumbrations; but at the same time they're going to govern wisely and listen to what the people said at the election. I believe what the people said at the election was mainly "X" - apart from silence, that's about the only option - but I am not sure how even the wisdom of New Labour will be able to translate it into policy. I might anticipate some fun watching them try, if I only had the option of doing so from a safe distance.

Matt Carter laments the loss of "some great MPs", but tactfully refrains from giving examples. "With a third consecutive Labour government we have the chance to change the lives of a whole generation for the better," he writes. Eight years of war and privatisation have not been enough; New Labour will not rest until a whole generation has been affected. "We have that chance because of you," Matt Carter concludes. So whatever happens, it's all my fault again. Even in victory, New Labour cannot stop blaming the electorate.

Friday, May 06, 2005

And Here We Are Again

Standing in front of No 10, Mr Blair acknowledged that Iraq had been a "deeply divisive issue", but said he believed the country was now ready to move on. (Guardian)

The stuff of Hollywood: Gruff, macho, authoritarian but basically well-intentioned Marine Dad (played by Tony) versus surly, sulky, insubordinate but basically well-meaning Son (played with slightly whimsical charm by the electorate). Provoked beyond words by Dad's thoughtless self-righeousness, and egged on by the evil kid on the block (George Galloway at his Muslim-pandering slickest), Son gives Dad a bloody nose, much to the distress of Mom (unless I am mistaken, the role of a lifetime here for Polly Toynbee). Dad staggers back a couple of steps, shakes his head, considers getting Son put under an ASBO... but no. With a rueful smile, Dad extends his hand towards Son in a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

"If you'd a had the guts to do that two years ago, none a this bad stuff would a happened... Put it there, Son. I'll buy you a beer and get you laid."

New Labour script directions (specially prepared; boneless, meatless, verbless for the public's delectation): Music up. Tears and smiles. Hugs and kisses. Lessons. Morals. Credits. The End. Sequel 2009.

So that's all right, then. Tony has gained his historic third term; his place in the history books as the historic Labour prime minister who historically gained a historic third term is assured; and the geometrically challenged British public can at last join with Tony in drawing that line under Iraq. Lessons are being learned even as we grimace; or at least, the one lesson Tony is capable of learning. One of the first acts of his historic third term was to fire Alan Milburn; clearly, another repackaging is in order.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Vote Labour Or Else

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have dropped into my inbox for a final wheedle. If I don't vote for them tomorrow, and Michael Howard gets into Downing Street, it'll all have been for nothing and it'll all be my fault and I should tell my friends to vote. "We know we haven't done everything. We know not everyone has agreed with all we have done. But despite the challenges that remain, we are proud that Britain is a better, fairer place than eight years ago."

Not everyone has agreed with all they have done; well, this at least is true. I myself do not agree with the erosion of the health service, the privatisation of the railways, the open-rectum approach to our thrusting corporate community, the detentions without trial, the bugging of the United Nations, the starving of Iraq, the bombing of Iraq, the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Iraq, the irradiation of Iraq, the special relationship with the Bush gang or even the plundering of Iraq. These things are not to my taste.

They haven't done everything; this too is eminently arguable. They haven't fired nuclear missiles at Iran, or sent British troops to help Ariel Sharon with his ethnic cleansing, or sold more than six dozen or so military jets to one of the potential belligerents in a nuclear war. They haven't set up more than the odd concentration camp, or arrested very many genuine terrorists, or kept their promises on tuition fees, or lived up to their obligations on greenhouse emissions, or killed, one way or another, more than a million or two people in the Middle East, or bothered to count the ones they have. They haven't reformed the electoral system.

Now, I have had the privilege of receiving several personal communications from Tony Blair or from his friends in the advertising business like Alan Milburn, John O'Farrell and, rather sadly, Stephen Fry. Milburn warns me that "if one in 10 Labour voters from 2001 don't vote Labour this time that we'll wake up 6 May with Michael Howard moving into No. 10. This cannot be overstated." Fry says in a PS that "If one in ten Labour supporters don't vote, or vote for any other party, the Tories will win." Blair and Brown say that "if just one in ten Labour supporters do that or stay at home, Michael Howard will be in Downing Street", and their email also has a little box at the top right-hand corner which says it again.

I find this rather odd. The last time I counted, Labour had 408 seats: an overall majority of 161. In our better, fairer Britain, surely a loss of one in ten votes should result in the loss of one in ten seats. That would leave Labour with 365 seats or thereabouts: an overall majority of seventy-one. Not spectacular, perhaps, but certainly workable. Whence, then, this claim that the loss of ten per cent of Labour voters means a Tory government tomorrow? Assuming the claim to be true (a large assumption, given the proclaimers), it must mean that ten per cent of votes does not translate into ten per cent of seats, but into twenty per cent or even more. It must mean that - gasp! - our electoral system is grossly unfair.

But, that being the case, why has New Labour not used its eight years of unassailable power to ensure that its programme of fairness, betterness and bombing the living shit out of people - the programme everybody wants - rests on a more secure footing than the whims of a small minority of voters? Statesmanlike and godly as Team Blair may be in other respects, this short-sighted approach to the very fundamentals of our democracy does not seem a very encouraging sign. He who lies first past the post, dies first past the post. In the unlikely event that Michael Howard does get into Downing Street, Team Blair (and the rest of us) will have only Team Blair to blame.


Seconds is the story of a rich, middle-aged banker who gets a telephone call from a friend who, supposedly, leapt into an active volcano some time before. The friend tells the banker about a rejuvenation service provided by a nameless organisation for very wealthy clients. Calling himself Wilson (we are never told his real name), the banker makes an appointment with the company - just to have a look, he tells himself.

A series of encounters with the company's personnel follows, including two sexual - one given as a relaxant and assurance of the company's good intentions ("We love you, Mr Wilson"), and one set up and filmed to look like rape as insurance against any possible indiscretions by Wilson. A scarred and sardonic doctor unnerves Wilson ("They gave you all that crap about love and rebirth, and now you find it's just a boneyard like everywhere else..."), but finally the elderly, rather forlorn figure of the company's founder appears at Wilson's bedside. Wilson, who has spent most of these preliminaries protesting that he is not a client, allows himself to be gently persuaded in favour of rejuvenation.

The author, David Ely, writes superbly, alternating black humour with poignant evocations of the emptiness of Wilson's existence. As the whole idea of rejuvenation is to leave their old lives behind, the company's clients have to choose the manner of their "death". Suicide is cheap, because judicious use of a shotgun obviates the need to find a corpse which bears a passable resemblance to the client. Wilson is "found very nicely dead of a heart attack" and, his physical youth restored by surgical means, sets off to take up a new life as a painter.

Naturally, it isn't quite as simple as that. Wilson quickly discovers that the resort to which the company has sent him is peopled entirely by other clients, dragging out an existence which is just as tedious and pointless as the one he left behind, if a bit faster paced. Worse, Wilson becomes obsessed with his old identity; indeed, however empty it may have been, he is unable to escape from it. Writing in the third person but entirely from Wilson's point of view, Ely beautifully points up the pedestrian presence of the fifty-year-old banker inside the youthful playboy's body.

Eventually, Wilson commits the cardinal sin of visiting his "widow", and is brought face to face with the sterility and emptiness from which he was, however equivocally, trying to escape in the first place. He is returned to the company establishment, where he spends his days in a vast room, filled with failed clients like himself, playing card games and board games. This, of course, is where the company gets its dead bodies. Even with the employment of this practical economy, as the old president explains to Wilson, the company's financial position is far from ideal. Indeed, the old man has found that his philanthropic enterprise is severely flawed in its very conception - why should a man who has fouled up one life do any better when given a second chance? But one cannot simply stop; the company has employees, responsibilities. Wilson is not rancorous: "It really doesn't matter," he says.

In 1966, Seconds was filmed by John Frankenheimer, who four years earlier had made the original The Manchurian Candidate. Shot in glorious black and white by James Wong Howe, and scored with eerie organ music by Jerry Goldsmith, the film starred John Randolph as the banker and Rock Hudson as the rejuvenated version. The sad, elderly president of the rejuvenation company is played by Will Geer, unfortunately better known for his role as Zebulon in the television series The Waltons.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Satanic Supplement

Ally,n.(Military) A country which, when you kill its citizens, will let you off with an exchange of diplomatic courtesies.

Conjugal,adj. Relating to the process of progressive disappointment.

Fanatic,n. Someone who pursues a wrong course of action with noticeably more consistency than you are displaying in pursuit of the right one.

Humane,adj. Descriptive of a foreign policy which involves murdering only those who refuse the privilege of enslavement.

Leader,n. He who is last to the field of battle and first to the field of victory.

Nulliphant,n. Someone whose exterior can be torn away to reveal a vacuum within.
Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister is no more than a posturing nulliphant.

Perfection,n. That which can be superseded only by the claims of its advertisers.

Subtlety,n. Quality distinguishing he who denies the crime from he who blames the victim.

Travel,n. Process of broadening the mind, usually by confirming and elaborating the xenophobic prejudices of which the mind is largely composed.

Unpatriotic,adj. In total agreement with the professed aims and beliefs of one's own government, and thus in total disagreement with its true aims and beliefs.

Wandering Jew,n. Mythical figure condemned, for the crime of mocking Christ, to wander the earth until Judgement Day. One of the earliest known beneficiaries of the Saviour's vaunted mercy, in which we have all been so happily basking ever since, and certainly the best known recipient of the famous other cheek.

Monday, May 02, 2005

News 2020

Inquiry reports on shooting incident

The US and Italian governments have "agreed to disagree" about the mistaken detrimentation of an Italian secret agent by US checkpoint personnel in Iraq last month.

The agent, Giulio Sgreno, was escorting a recently freed hostage out of the terrorist-held 90% of the country's area and into actual Iraqi territory. The US authorities say that the car failed to stop despite repeated warnings, was travelling on an unauthorised road outside curfew hours and was disguised as a weapon of mass destruction.

The freed hostage, a 52-year-old Christian nurse who waves her arms about, has never been married and is still recovering from her ordeal, insists that the freedom protection forces at the checkpoint fired without adequate warning.

A joint US-Italian inquiry into the incident concluded today with the issue of two separate reports, one in English and one not. Dr Buford J Huggins, who co-authored the larger and more extensive of the two reports, said that the American team's divergences with the Italian were over "matters of detail".

"In any account of an incident like this, there are going to be differing versions," Dr Huggins said today. "Remember, our boys are packing state-of-the-art firepower, which they often have to use on the basis of split-second decision-making. You can't really expect a non-expert witness to understand what's going on in that kind of situation. That's why we had this inquiry to clear the matter up."

The Italian president, Musso Maledetto, has been a staunch ally of the US in its fight to spread democracy, despite the unpopular nature of the war on terror with the Italian public, which lacks Britain's long tradition of liberalism in politics.

The US Commander-in-Chief, speaking from the White House bunker, said today that a line could now be drawn under "this regrettable incidence of traffic over-control by American humans acting in conditions of great stress and peril."

"Italy and the United States have had a long and fruitful relationship ever since we invaded them in 1944," the Commander-in-Chief concluded. "Now they've grown up enough to help us do for Iraq what we did for Italy all that time ago - depose an evil dictator, prevent a takeover by enemies of democracy, and provide opportunity and choice for all. It's a long road, and inevitably there are going to be a few bumps on the way."

Sunday, May 01, 2005


A strange mutation is taking place - I seem to be turning into a critic. S.T. Joshi at Studies in Weird Fiction and the editor of Robert Aickman: An Appreciation have both been kind enough to place some of the symptoms on public display.