The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Private Members, Special Circumstances

An empty suit has expressed its support for the private members' bill tabled by the former Conservative chief whip, David Maclean. The bill, which received a very discreet second reading on the day the Vicar of Downing Street's aide was arrested, proposes to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act because "new government guidance to 100,000 public authorities on releasing MPs' letters is complex and unclear". David Maclean does not understand the instructions, therefore nobody must listen to the stereo. The empty suit believes that "many members on both sides of the house would welcome" Maclean's bill, "not because they opposed the general operation of the Freedom of Information Act, but because of the special circumstances of parliament", which does, after all, claim to be nothing more than an institution of representative government. Under such circumstances, what possible objection could there be to those very special people in the House of Commons and the House of Donors veiling their modest talents and their slightly less modest budgets?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

True Blue

Amid the verbally hoodie-hugging, virtually green-talking, moderately Muslim-condoning whirlwind of political near-reform that is Daveybloke, it is refreshing to see that traditional Conservative values are still intact. The executive of the North Wiltshire Conservative Association voted to deselect James Gray when he was indiscreet enough to let it become known that he cheated on his wife of twenty-nine years while she was under treatment for cancer. A postal ballot of the membership has reinstated him, proving that whatever the whims of Westminster, Back to Basics, Family Values and good old healthy country ways are not yet dead. In accepting the result, Gray spoke of delight and humility - in that order, naturally - and made coy mention of "an MP's divorce"; so evidently we may take it that his wife has been considerate enough to stay alive; and that, in keeping with traditional Conservative values, the act of adultery bothers him less than the payment of alimony.

Monday, January 29, 2007

You Will Believe A Pig Can Fly

The Guardian's Michael White leaps gallantly to the defence of the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose, who is "determined to get out alive and serve as G. Brown's loyal law-and-order lieutenant", to the inestimable advantage of British justice. "Elected politicians are not always wrong," even when they have a mandate from thirty per cent of the voters, "and the great army of mouthy judges and commentators, or, more discreetly, civil service and police briefers, are not always right". The present Minister of Unfitness for Purpose is made of "sterner stuff than Steve Byers or Charles Clarke; he is less vulnerable than David Blunkett", all of which appears to send a shudder of pleasurable excitement through the Guardian's Michael White. The Minister "has no intention of being bounced into resignation or dismissal by the tabloid-Tory pack, the very people who want more offenders locked up at £40,000 a year, more paedophiles monitored, but also less government 'nannying' and lower taxes" and, of course, the very people to whose little whims and megrims the Minister and his colleagues have so resolutely pandered. Hence the prisons crisis. The Tory press wanted more people locked up; New Labour has given them what they wanted; yet the Tory press have formed an alliance of convenience with a couple of powerful trade unions, the Prison Officers Association and the Police Federation, because "in pursuit of a Labour home secretary the Daily Beast is not choosy about its allies". Which shows that if you give a tapeworm food its appetite will increase, even unto the possibility of doing business with the unregenerate Scargillites of the Police Federation. Quite how it demonstrates John Reid to be anything other than the dithering right-wing incompetent most people seem to think he is, the Guardian's Michael White unfortunately fails to make explicit. Michael White also waxes indignant about "a couple of provincial judges shoot[ing] their mouth off over prison policy" and tries to bring a bit of perspective to the matter: "the lord chief justice intervened twice at the weekend to explain that what the home secretary had done in reminding judges about non-custodial sentences was to restate existing policy", rather like his colleague, Patsy Hackitt the Nurses' Friend, advising health professionals on their rotas. Why on earth should any real professional, any genuine public servant, take offence just because a minister who cannot run his own department chooses to lecture them on the bleeding obvious? The Guardian's Michael White cannot understand it. "The home secretary may not quite be the macho Superman he sometimes seems to suggest he is", but it looks as if the Guardian's Michael White may have his Lois Lane costume ready, just in case.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón 2006

Alfonso Cuarón's superbly designed adaptation of P D James' novel opens in the grey, grimy London of November 2027, a Blairite paradise whose drab streets and rusting vehicles are colourfully illuminated by animated advertisements and government exhortations to report illegal immigrants, who are kept in cages as they await deportation. Images of violence and social chaos from across the planet are capped with the Union Jack and the slogan, "The World Has Collapsed - Only Britain Soldiers On".

The cause of this collapse is an eighteen-year plague of infertility which has afflicted the entire human race. As the film begins, the world's youngest person has been knifed to death by an insulted autograph hunter. Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a boozy ex-activist working at Britain's somnolent Ministry of Energy, hears the news on a public television in a café which is blown up by a terrorist bomb moments after he leaves. The explosion, like all the violence in Children of Men, is as far from Hollywood's pretty holocausts as can be imagined: no slow-motion or bright orange flames, just a loud ugly noise, billows of dust, the screams and moans of the injured and a ringing in Theo's ears which his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) later informs him is the sound of the cells in his aural canals dying: "once it's over you'll never hear that frequency again, so enjoy it while it lasts."

Julian is part of an underground group which shelters illegal immigrants and needs Theo's help in getting a travel permit for one rather important individual. Theo, who has spent a considerable portion of his past life trying to numb a once active social conscience, finds himself guarding and sheltering a specimen of that most threatening enemy of the state, a teenage, unmarried illegal immigrant mother - first against a ruthless faction of Julian's group, then against the authorities.

It's unfortunate that the thriller element is never properly integrated with the story's basic premise. In P D James' book, the infertility epidemic and the miraculous new pregnancy are explicitly a religious allegory: rather than Cuarón's vision of social collapse, James portrays a world in which the increasing dearth of human beings has led to a soulless affluence. Her Theo Faron is a bookish, fiftyish academic, whose acquaintance with Britain's despotic ruler is vitally important to the plot; in the film, Theo's relationship with Nigel (Danny Huston) is forgotten after a single scene. This is a shame, as Nigel is the kind of character of whom one would like to see more, and is certainly more interesting than Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo's aged-hippy ex-cartoonist friend and moral guide: Nigel has rescued Picasso's Guernica from the anarchy in Spain, has a socially handicapped teenage son, and says he copes with the world by not thinking about it. The infertility epidemic receives the same casual treatment as the character, being largely reduced to a McGuffin on which to base a thoroughly conventional, though flawlessly executed, chase thriller. As a religious and political unbeliever, I was left rather cold by James' Anglican-Tory dystopia, and found it far inferior to her detective fiction; but she did at least take the trouble to bring her premise and her plot into some sort of convergence.

Still and all, Children of Men is a creditable piece of work: well performed; full of lovely touches like Theo's "London 2012" Olympic sweatshirt; and, population aside, in its urban scenes an unpleasantly convincing vision of what London will in fact be like in twenty years' time. The climactic battle scene is grimly authentic in its noise, dust, confusion and general ugliness, and the ending (despite the time-honoured abdominal bullet wound which has somehow gone unnoticed until things quietened down) is admirably inconclusive. It's just a pity that Cuarón and his four fellow-screenwriters could not bring the same degree of imagination to the script as Jim Clay and Jeffrey Kirkland evidently put into the production design.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Comprehensive Radicality, Tantalising Significance

The world is potentially on the verge of a breakthrough on climate change. Tony says it, so it must be true. Tony says that "the mood in the US is in the process of a quantum shift", presumably a reference to the Bush administration's shift from denial of the existence of climate change to refusal to contemplate any but the most ludicrous solutions. Tony whipped up another cadaver into his extensive repertoire of dead horses by pushing the "opportunity to agree at least the principles of a new binding international agreement to come into effect when Kyoto expires in 2012". Such an agreement would be "more radical than Kyoto", insofar as such radicality might be achievable without exerting undue pressure on polluters to do anything that would inconvenience them; and also "more comprehensive because it includes America, China and India". Perhaps nobody has yet plucked up the courage to inform his reverence of America's dislike for binding international treaties and its preference for large clouds of radioactive dust. Tony also made some urgings to the world's richest countries to do something about "international commerce and Africa", and talked to Bill Gates and Bono. This "Being A World Statesman" thing must certainly be exciting for him.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Climate Calumny

The Bush administration is doing its best to keep the United Nations on message as regards global warming. The US government is lobbying the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forget about binding treaties, cutting emissions, legal constraints on profiteering, and all those other tedious matters with which the Bush administration has never deigned to concern itself. The Vicar of Downing Street is said to be in favour of "a new worldwide climate treaty based on binding targets to reduce emissions"; but doubtless he will prove as flexible as ever now that the Bush administration has made its wishes known. The Bush administration thinks that we should tackle global warming by "putting a giant screen into orbit, thousands of tiny, shiny balloons, or microscopic sulphate droplets pumped into the high atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption", preferably by voluntary means, and despite the fact that, in its latest report, the IPCC "tends to overstate or focus on the negative effects of climate change." The IPCC has described the Bush administration's ideas as "speculative, uncosted and with potential unknown side-effects", even though they come from the very people who brought us Operation Iraqi Liberation.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


It isn't often that a report in Britain's leading liberal newspaper uses a verb like "sneak", even when discussing the House of Commons; but Westminster correspondent David Henckek found it to be le mot juste in referring to the former Conservative chief whip's private member's bill to emasculate the Freedom of Information Act.

"The two-clause bill," says Henckek's report, "effectively removes both the Commons and House of Lords as public authorities obliged to release information under the act. It also protects all MPs' correspondence from release and stops authorities even being able to confirm or deny whether they have received a letter from an MP. ... The bill would also prevent challenges to the information commissioner or to an information tribunal if a member of the public wanted an MP to provide more information." It received what is tactfully called a "second reading" in the Commons on the same day as the Vicar of Downing Street's aide Ruth Turner was arrested in connection with his reverence's unofficial privatisation of the honours trade.

The main purpose of the bill, according to its sponsor, David Maclean, is "to prevent MPs' letters on behalf of constituents being released to the press and public"; but he acknowledges that one unforseen side effect would be "to exempt parliament from the [Freedom of Information] act at a time when the parliamentary authorities have lost a case at an information tribunal after trying to block more detailed disclosure of MPs' expenses". Well, fancy that. When some cynical hound observed that Maclean had chosen to get his second reading at the end of a more than usually hectic Friday, he said: "I am showing some of the younger hands how you can get a bill through parliament after long experience as a whip in both getting and blocking bills through parliament." I suppose that if one is showing the new bugs the ropes, virtually anything is excusable. Maclean also noted that the bill "will now go to a committee where all the issues can be debated" by people chosen by David Maclean.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP who recently used the Freedom of Information Act to make public the details of how much our faithful representatives spend on transport, commented on the silence of the government whips, "which I can only assume means they are secretly sympathetic to this proposal as it fits in with their plans to curb the Freedom of Information Act." Well, really. As if it had ever been a secret.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

News 2020

Blair sparks community care debate

Lord Blair of Belmarsh today thrust the Government's community care programme into controversy today by escaping into the community.

Evading attitude enhancement personnel at the Ronald Macdonald Luvvicare™ Rest Home, the former Prime Minister drove his motorised bath-chair three times around the House of Donors at its top speed of 50mph.

He appeared to be under the impression that a debate was taking place, and to be looking for an open window, witnesses said.

Police attempted to stop the bath-chair without endangering innocent identity-card carriers, but were unable to prevent Lord Blair from gate-crashing a general meeting of the Confabulation of Business Interests which was taking place nearby.

A police spokesperson said that officers were uncertain whether Lord Blair constituted a breach of the peace, an illegal demonstration or an Islamo-extremist threat, and that therefore "their reflexes were understandably petrified".

Once in the lobby of the building where the CBI meeting was taking place, Lord Blair was heard to claim several times that he was a little teapot.

It has been thought for some time that such a claim was made in Lord Blair's unpublished volume of autobiography, Me, God and Martin Kettle, but the rumours have never been confirmed.

Lord Blair then switched on a recording of the late US President and Commander-in-Chief, George W Bush, singing the Elvis Presley hit Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear, and started lip-synching along with it.

A brown paper bag was placed over him and he was painlessly removed from the scene.

The leader of the opposition, Boris Johnson, called the episode "a disgrace" and called for greater police powers to stop and detain people who played loud music at CBI conferences, so long as the rights of such people were respected according to the conscience of everyone present.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How Your Taxes Pay For BBC Communists

Despite what you may suspect, the Daily Mail, that bastion of clean living and plain speaking in a Britain inundated with asylum seekers, infested with Islamofascists, owned by lesbian feminazis and besieged by Europeans from Brussels who don't know their place, is not always thrown together by sheer misfortune. Unlike its fellow ugly sister, the Express, which famously published the extent of Robert Kilroy-Silk's ignorance about the Arabs without apparent volition by anyone involved, the Mail does sometimes make use of the expedient of an editor.

At present, the expedient is something by the name of Paul Dacre, who last night delivered the Hugh Cudlipp lecture. Although Cudlipp was apparently a real journalist, Dacre's presence is not so inappropriate as it seems, since Cudlipp's Daily Mirror was sufficiently squalid to be praised as "honest, passionate and committed to the decent values of the decent majority" by the Grand Presidential Carbuncle of the David Kelly Memorial Society. It appears that the BBC is exercising "a kind of cultural Marxism" because its journalism, even after the Hutton report, remains "too often credulously trusting" and "lacking scepticism" on such matters as asylum seekers, Islamofascists, lesbian feminazis and European bureaucrats who don't remember who won the war. Dacre believes that the BBC "in every corpus of its corporate body is against conservatism with a small c", whatever that may mean; which, he would argue, "just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons". The journalism of the BBC is "reflected through a left-wing prism that affects everything" and doubtless explains why any given news programme will tend to marginalise the Reverend Tony and his shadow, Daveybloke, in favour of a barrage of quotes from such reprobates as George Galloway, Tariq Ali and George Monbiot. The reason for this is that the BBC is part of a malignant left-wing cabal of non-profit news outlets, which also includes the Murdoch Times, the Guardian and the Independent. Members of this cabal tend to be "consumed by the kind of political correctness that is patronisingly contemptuous of what it describes as ordinary people".

Paul Dacre is not a frequent public speaker.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Unless Ye Become As Little Heterosexuals

The Sectarian of State for Communities and Necessary Ostracism, Ruth Kelly, has attempted, with the blessing of Tony but in her own inimitable manner, to reassure her less godly Cabinet colleagues that discrimination against gay people is not the right and privilege of the Roman Catholic church alone. With regard to those faith-based adoption agencies to which the Government wishes to outsource its duty of care for its immature human resources, "the debate around better protection on the basis of sexual orientation has been beset by wild speculation on all sides," she said. I do not know what "protection on the basis of sexual orientation" means; as far as I am aware, sexual orientation is like gender and skin colour, in that the protection of the state does not depend on it. Or am I out of date again? "There have been absurd claims, for example, that ministers of religion will be forced to bless same-sex couples"; ah, so that's what it means. Ministers of religion will be protected against the horrible prospect of mumbling and gesturing over the evil queers, presumably whether the evil queers want these blessings or no. Well, I'm glad we got that settled. "Equally there is no question of preferential treatment for an individual faith"; so if Catholics are permitted to discriminate, all other faiths must be permitted to do likewise, leaving secular adoption agencies with no choice but to cope with the Human Rights Act as best they can. Given the constant trouble which the Government itself has suffered thanks to this Act, the prospects seem hardly optimistic.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Soft Power, Fair Play

The Secretary of State for Lesser Breeds, Margaret Beckett, has given the Observer the benefit of her insight into various matters. Peter Beaumont, the warrior for truth who has the honour of coaxing this verbal press release out of her, appears a little overwhelmed by the surroundings: "an office designed by George Gilbert Scott that has witnessed history's high drama - for better and worse - and has been used by Foreign Secretaries since 1868" - surroundings so awesome that they very nearly give him qualms over asking about Celebrity Big Brother. Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing. Needless to say, the Big Brother furore is "quite awful" in Beckett's opinion, apparently because our underlying values did not receive sufficient exposure.

These values, it seems, are to be the "chief weapon in the arsenal of soft power" - soft power, as opposed to the "'hard power' of the British squaddie on the ground", being due to come back into fashion once New Labour's fealty in the War on Terror is again owed to a Democrat rather than a Republican. Soft power is helpfully defined by Beaumont as "influence", and its chief weapon as "being seen to be 'fair and even-handed'", as when we tell neither Israel nor Hizbullah to cease firing while we facilitate arms exports to Israel. "If you ask on the Arab street, where there may not be a great deal of familiarity with the UK," says Beckett, "you might get a different response from some places that are more familiar with how Britain historically, as a people and as a country, has had this approach to being even-handed and fair." The question of Beckett's familiarity with Arab streets is, sadly, not explored.

"In their heart of hearts," Beckett continues, "a lot of people who are critical of us - and they have every right to be - feel things we have done have not fitted to that template [of British values]. But if that template did not exist they would not react in that way." If Blair, Brown and Beckett were not there to inform the Arab street of the nobility of British values, the Arab street would perhaps judge our actions less harshly, because they would see us as just another country, like the French or the Germans or the Italians or, if they were feeling particularly uncharitable, the Arabs themselves. It is precisely because our values are so much more exalted than those of these lesser nations that our occasional shortcomings are seen in such an unsparing light.

As to our fair and even-handed condoning of the Righteous State's Lebanon rampage, Beckett is aware that "Arab governments would have preferred us to have said more, and say it more loudly and differently"; nevertheless, those Arab governments - faithful representatives of the Arab streets, one and all - are "perfectly well aware of the amount of work we were doing behind the scenes to bring about what they wanted to see - an end to the violence and hostilities". Here Beaumont observes that "there is a problem. It is not those who are familiar with 'British values' who need to be persuaded they are a force for good. It is on those Arab streets that these arguments need to be made, and where persuasion is most difficult"; possibly because, as Beckett noted earlier, "if you big up your 'values' and then fall short on people's expectations, there is a double disappointment." Or maybe it's just the bombs.

On the subject of fairly and even-handedly bombing people whether they have weapons of mass destruction or not, Beckett says that "most Iraqis are happier than under Saddam"; her evidence is "opinion polls". Despite the hefty competition, Beaumont considers this "her weakest answer of the interview", and he senses she knows it, but again forbears from causing further distress to someone who is, after all, sitting in an office designed by George Gilbert Scott. Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing. Concerning Peter Hain's "public soul-searching over Iraq", Beckett says that he "was very clear, as we were discussing this in the run-up to the war... that Iraq was a danger to the world". Well, gosh. Perhaps somebody lied to him.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

To A Breached Ozone Layer

Between our greatness and the light of day,
Thou art complacent, far above our place:
Officious barrier 'twixt man and space.
Shall mere gas interpose itself this way,
Or shall our good smoke not arise and slay
This high presumption? Shall our sapient race
Live like the dim brutes, unprepared to face
Unblinking stars, the sun's unshaded ray?

Nay! punctured is thy pride at both the poles;
Our chlorofluorocarbons breach thy mail.
Our aerosols have hurt thee passing sore,
And healthy ultra-violet lights the holes.
Without our cosy greenhouse must thou fail;
Therefore begone, and trouble us no more.

Boddser Pingle

Friday, January 19, 2007

Slanted Research

In an enigmatic and highly sinister response to American peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Heathen Chinee appear to have carried out a space weapons test without first informing the world that it was intended as part of the War on Terror. Officials in the Chinese defence ministry, and even ordinary Beijing saleswomen, have proven unable to say anything about the test, because there has been no official announcement. Obviously, this kind of thing could never happen in the West, where defence ministries are customarily the least secretive of places; and certainly not in the United States, where ordinary citizens are so well informed by their government that they can point out the latest surge of pre-emptive humanitarianism on a map provided it's labelled clearly enough. The Chinese government's space researches have apparently followed "a Russian model of development, from manned missions, to space walks, to moon walks, to space station development - all for military purposes", rather than the American model, which discarded this illogical sequence of development so as to favour disinterested scientific research. Naturally, such niceties have no place in the Heathen Chinee philosophy. "This is a weapon pure and simple, and a very offensive one," said the editor of health and beauty publication Air-Launched Weapons. "The number one target is the US." It is to be hoped that the editor of Air-Launched Weapons is a more reliable source of intelligence than those who predicted mushroom clouds over New York as the alternative to the Iraq adventure.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Minutes of a Meeting

Those private talks in full, as minuted by P Challinor and a traitor

The Prime Minister welcomed the Secretary of State and informed her how glad, how very, very glad he was to be speaking on equal terms with a black person from America who was, what is more, a woman. Such encounters, he said, were what freedom and democracy were all about, particularly during the bicentennial year of Britain's almost ending slavery, by making it an anomalous condition except in the territories of the British empire. The Prime Minister hoped he could convey, in plain American and without recourse to windy rhetoric or superficial charm, what a deeply, deeply felt privilege it was for him to receive President Bush's instructions as to the will of the British people from an ethnic minority whose high position in the government of the greatest democracy in the world, which was also Britain's number one ally, proved beyond doubt the folly of judging a person by his gender or the colour of his skin when it was so much more effective to judge him according to greed, fanaticism and mutually parasitic self-interest.

The Secretary of State replied by inclining her head approximately two millimetres in a forward direction for a duration of 0.75 seconds, in accordance with diplomatic courtesy.

The Prime Minister apologised deeply, sincerely and unreservedly about the comments of his Northern Ireland enemy, Peter Hain, which he recognised could under certain circumstances be construed as anti-American. Of course nothing was further from the Prime Minister's mind when Peter Hain was saying what he said, but it would nevertheless be made clear to Peter Hain that Britain was a tolerant country in which legitimate dissent must always bow to the rule of law.

The Secretary of State replied by displaying her incisors and left upper canine for approximately two seconds, and paid the Prime Minister the valued compliment of reaching for her laptop and starting to check her emails.

The Prime Minister informed the Secretary of State that he deeply, sincerely and unreservedly regretted the comments of various disloyal and indiscreet members of his retinue as to the possibility of attacking Iran. The Prime Minister expressed his deep, sincere and unreserved hope that America would not be forced to go it alone without Britain standing shoulder to shoulder while punching its weight at the forefront of nations. The Prime Minister intimated that the question of what to do about Iran - "stopping their shit", as he believed it was expressed in White House circles - could be considered part of a larger question as to what should be done about the Middle East as a whole. The Prime Minister confided that this was sort of what he called his Whole Middle East Plan which would bring peace to that troubled region and to which he intended to devote the few remaining days left to him out of a lifetime of public service. The Prime Minister imagined that the Secretary of State knew exactly how he felt, but made haste to reassure her that he had some flow charts waiting just in case.

At this point the Secretary of State was observed to be scratching herself and using her laptop for the purpose of making malicious edits to the Wikipedia entry on torture. The Prime Minister expressed his deep, sincere and unreserved gratitude for her urgency and drive, and his deep, sincere and unreserved admiration of President Bush for taking no notice of any positive comments which the Prime Minister might inadvertently have made about the Iraq Study Group report. If there was one thing the Prime Minister admired, he said, it was independence of mind.

Meeting Closed

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Big Brother

A bit of a row has blown up over Channel Four's Celebrity Big Brother. I am not personally acquainted with the programme's subtle pleasures, which appear to involve watching celebrities make fools of themselves - an occurrence whose rare and precious instances are reported in the national news, in the local news, in the printed news, in glossy magazines and on satellite television far less often than they should be. The object of the game, aside from providing workplace gossip-meat for those whose real lives are too dull to merit malicious attention, is for the housemates to get one another evicted; so it is always a bit of a shock when somebody starts behaving as though they were an exhibitionistic mediocrity fighting over shared accommodation. In the real world, after all, people who want their neighbours thrown out tend to be quiet, gracious, unassuming types; the kind of person with whom it would be a privilege to be confused by the National Identity Database and sent upon one's way without a stain on one's reputation, deserved or otherwise.

It seems that one of the current housemates has been subjected to "alleged racist bullying" by some of the other housemates. The result has been a tidal wave of condemnation by the kind of people who expect Celebrity Big Brother to provide them with positive role models, or whose imaginations are unable to compass the idea of lowering the show's ratings by pressing the OFF switch - people like, for example, the Vicar of Downing Street and the Prince in Waiting.

The Prince, who is in India, has had the pleasure of seeing Channel Four executives burned in effigy, and responded by condemning anything that detracts from getting Britain seen as "a country of fairness and tolerance", Rupert naturally if implicitly excepted. The Vicar, commenting through a spokesbeing, said that "the message should go out from this country loud and clear that we are a tolerant country and we will not tolerate racism in any way." The spokesbeing stressed that his reverence was not talking about the programme, had not seen the programme, would not be seeing the programme, and did not regard it as his role to comment on the programme. He was just being loud and clear and agreeing with Gordon.

Despite having nothing to do with the programme, his reverence's comments did mention the programme: "What the response to the programme has shown is ... that there is no level of toleration in this country for anything which, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to be racist." The spokesbeing evidently had been ordered not to confine himself to the gist of Tony's remarks; this is the ipsissima verba, direct from the Presence himself. Not "there is no toleration for racism", or even "the level of toleration for racism is very low"; but "there is no level of toleration", which ranks among his most comfortably meaningless pronouncements: the standard saccharine coating, if you will, on the inevitable shit sandwich.

What is it for which Tony, speaking for the country as he invariably does, has no "level of toleration"? Nothing so cut-and-dried as racism, an allergy for which might well be interpreted by dear Rupert's minions as something approaching the Islamo-socialist; what takes Tony's level of toleration down to the nonexistent is "anything which, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to be racist". As always, it is not the act which Tony finds problematic, but the perception of the act, as perceived by some anonymous party conveniently concealed behind a resonant passive voice; and, as always, it matters not a bit whether the perception is accurate. Under the provisions of Tony's legacy, of course, the whole country will soon come to resemble a vast Big Brother house: an endless media-manipulated squabble under continual surveillance. Who needs television?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Peace Is Our Profession

Good news at last from the Gulf - Washington has said that it refuses to be intimidated. The tiny but noble David that is the US navy, with its aircraft carriers and its Patriots of both varieties (launchable/expensive and fleshly/expendable) is daring to take on the Goliath that is Iran, which is guilty of failing to breach the Nonproliferation Treaty in a manner calculated to cause alarm and despondency to the kind of people who believe in forty-five-minute warnings and yellowcake from Africa. The vice-president of the sovereign, independent Iraqi government has called for a "tough international stance" against outside interference in Iraqi politics by the country's neighbours. It is to be hoped that Bush's approaching orgasmic surge of twenty thousand hunks of butcher meat will stop all this foreign meddling once and for all.

Meanwhile, there are rumblings in Iran. President Ahmadinejad is under attack from parliamentarians and is being snubbed by the supreme leadership, apparently because of economic problems and a perception by the theocrats that Washington might have the slightest interest in a peaceful solution to their differences, if only Ahmadinejad's rhetoric were a bit less intemperate. I suppose that's a point of view. Doubtless the pre-empting of Iran's bid for a nuclear world caliphate will be a bit less popular if Ahmadinejad is removed and replaced with someone more emollient; at worst, the US will suffer the kind of public-relations difficulties that arose towards the end of the Cold War, when Russia was no longer a sufficiently convincing Great Satan and some rather threadbare replacements had to be found in Grenada, Libya and Panama. But the Bush administration has always coped admirably with unpopularity.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Absolutely Right

Following threats by party donors to defect to UKIP, which might then bid fair to displace the Blair-Conservative coalition as the natural party of government, Daveybloke has been trying to reassert his Tory credentials without sliding into the dreaded Hague-Duncansmith-Howard syndrome, otherwise known as "barking mode" or, as Daveybloke once wrote, "are you thinking what I'm thinking?" He did his best to head off a relapse by noting that "The Conservative party has never been the party that is just concerned with tax cuts, Europe and crime. That is a complete misreading of the history of the Conservative party." Well, of course it is. The Conservative party is also concerned about immigration and fox-hunting.

Anyway, Daveybloke's effort today was apparently intended as a "careful renunciation of the centre-left". In this enterprise, Daveybloke has been helped a bit by the likes of Guardian troikanik Polly Toynbee, a tireless exponent of the idea that the Vicar of Downing Street has something to do with the centre-left: moderately high taxes funding a generous social safety net, a modicum of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor, perhaps even a secular state with a representative parliament pursuing a non-aggressive foreign policy based on collective security rather than military adventurism - all the things, in other words, that Tony and his chums are famous for.

Of course Daveybloke wants none of this. Daveybloke, like Thatcher, John Major and all those other great Conservatives, believes that "stronger individuals make for a stronger society". Therefore, it appears, the state must cease to concern itself with the welfare of its citizens, which can be perfectly well maintained by the twin forces of business and charity. Those who are strong enough to pay will have the privilege of helping to make a stronger society; those who are less strong can live on handouts from the voluntary sector, and if that isn't enough - well, we can do well enough without the weaklings, thank you very much. This is what Daveybloke refers to as "the Conservative party led by me standing for social responsibility". He also considers it, for reasons Polly Toynbee might possibly be able to explain, "a defining contrast" with New Labour.

Daveybloke believes that "New Labour was all about coming to terms with Conservative victory in the battle of ideas". Hence, "the modern Conservative party is about replacing the failed New Labour experiment, not aping it." Certainly it seems a good idea, where possible, not to ape a failure which is based on oneself. The failure of New Labour, it seems, has been the failure to ask "What is business doing in the area, what more could business do in this area?", as with the crypto-Leninist Private Finance Initiative. The failure of New Labour has been the failure to ask "well what is there already, what can people do, what can the voluntary sector do, what could we achieve with more professional responsibility?", rather than throwing money at time-wasting teachers and non-profit-making nurses. The failure of New Labour has been the failure to be more like Margaret Thatcher, belatedly rediscovered as Daveybloke's real inspiration (along with Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the usual lot, of course), who said: "Never call me laissez faire, government must be strong to do those things which only government can do" - things like buying nuclear weapons, removing irritating regulations about public service from the shining path of entrepreneuriality, and ensuring that only real people's snouts get to guzzle at the taxman's trough. And on that, thinks Daveybloke, "she was absolutely right."

Oh, make no mistake about it: New Labour is standing on the edge of a precipice, and Daveybloke is speeding up behind, ready to pass it and take the country with him.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Boy and his Dog

L Q Jones 1975

In L Q Jones' delightful post-apocalyptic buddy movie, the year is 2024; a decade and a half ago the politicians solved the problem of urban blight in a mere five days by starting a nuclear war; the city of Phoenix, Arizona has been buried under a layer of mud; and sixteen-year-old Vic (Don Johnson) roams the resulting desert, living on ancient canned food and trying to get laid. His companion is his dog Blood, a furry wiseacre who communicates with Vic via a telepathic bond. Blood has heard about a place beyond the desert where farming has started again ("yeah," sneers Vic, "they grow food right out of the ground, and clothes and beautiful chicks..."), but Vic seems complacently happy living hand to mouth and letting Blood sniff out females. Besides, Blood's information came from a police dog, and therefore is hardly to be trusted.

Female trouble turns up in the person of Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a perfect blonde all-American teen-angel who lures Vic away from Blood (Vic can generally be relied upon to follow his gonads rather than the voice of prudence) and into the subterranean community of Topeka, a vicious, black-skied satire of small-town America where all the inhabitants, male and female, wear plastered white make-up with rosy cheeks and where crackerbarrel homilies are broadcast over a public address system like the results of a Five-Year Plan. After suffering the indignity of a bath, and discovering to his horror that dogs in this place are tied up (a non-telepathic terrier, freed by Vic, is promptly and pointlessly interrogated for whatever he might have told it), Vic is informed by the head of the town committee (Jason Robards) that he is to be given a signal honour: life underground has rendered all the men in the community sterile, so Vic is needed to impregnate the women. Having sampled Quilla June's extensive favours, Vic greets this news with understandable enthusiasm, but the procedure is less fun than he imagines. Girls in wedding dresses queue up to sign their names next to his on a register while the town parson recites the ceremony and Vic, tied down and gagged, is mechanically milked so that the future American Wives and Mothers can be artificially inseminated.

Vic is rescued by Quilla June: as the perfect wide-eyed all-American teen-angel, she was willing to put out in return for a place on the town committee, but on returning from her mission has been patronisingly fobbed off by her elders, and has decided that it's time for the younger generation to take over and lead Topeka bowing and scraping to a better tomorrow. She has a few boys on her side, and with Vic as her armoured stooge it seems a simple matter to kill off the reigning committee and install herself at the head of a new one; but Vic has had enough and wants only to be reunited with Blood. Finally, he must make a choice about who really is man's best friend.

Animals in American films, and particularly dogs, and especially particularly talking dogs, tend towards the kind of cuteness that American film-makers also inexplicably find in babies, children, teenagers, old people, mental defectives and rodents; but the character of Blood is really rather a triumph. Ruthlessly pragmatic (when he and Vic are outnumbered by marauders soon after first meeting Quilla June, he immediately advises that they should clear out and leave her for the bad guys), addicted to popcorn and prone to histrionic displays of pique, he annoys Vic by calling him "Albert" and attempts, not very successfully, to give him a bit of character and background by rote-teaching him the names of recent presidents and the dates of the world wars. Blood's voice, as supplied by Tim McIntire, and the body-language of the canine talent are both flawless; few human mentors, not to speak of Yoda and his pestilential ilk, have been better played or less irritating.

L Q Jones, the screenwriter and director, is probably best known for his role as one of Robert Ryan's gutter-trash bounty hunters in The Wild Bunch, wherein he was the recipient of Strother Martin's renowned line: "Come on, T C - help me git his boots!" Jones' original name is Justus E McQueen, which may explain the presence in the credits of a wardrobe assistant named Steve McQueen. To the best of my recollection, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of Harlan Ellison's original novella; the novella has been collected in a book called The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, but don't let that put you off.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


A local baron has joined forces with an arts festival to petition the Home Office for the pardon of Britain's last convicted witch. Helen Duncan was arrested by naval officers and charged with conspiracy, fraud and the use of black magic. It was 1944, the height of the latest Great War for Civilisation; Mrs Duncan had told the parents of a missing sailor that his ship had sunk; the news of the sinking had not been made public; and so the only logical explanation was that the lady had conspired with the spirit world to lower public morale before D-Day. Luckily for Mrs Duncan, the seventeenth-century practice of judging guilt by buoyancy had fallen out of fashion, and the twenty-first-century practice of tying the suspect to a board and half drowning them in a bucket of water had not yet received official approval among the forces of freedom; so she was merely jailed for nine months in Holloway prison. Churchill later repealed the statute under which she was convicted, but the conviction itself (for black magic only; Mrs Duncan was found not guilty of the other charges) has been allowed to stand until now. It's unfortunate that the Home Secretary whom the petitioners are approaching happens to be John Reid, a fervent believer in the principle of crimen sine lege and the faithful familiar of a Prime Minister who might easily be inspired to place Exodus 22 xviii back on the statute book. After all, his reverence's authority has started looking rather shopworn in recent months; there must be some reason for it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The BNP Ballerina

Why does it matter what Simone Clarke thinks about immigration? Fifty people stood outside the London Coliseum today waving placards with such improving mottoes as "Ballet Not Bigotry" (Simone Clarke is dancing Giselle, but is unlikely to spout BNP propaganda while doing so); "Ballet Should Be Nazi-Free" (surely it is a little more important that politics be Nazi-free) and "The BNP Has Got To Go" (and all this free publicity will surely help). Leaflets were handed out which noted that "When fascists come to power they destroy the freedom of artistic expression", and mentioned the founder of the Monte Carlo Ballet de l'Opera, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1943. It is not clear what connection is meant to exist between these deplorable facts and Simone Clarke's Daily Mail views on immigration, which she expressed after her membership of the BNP was reported in the news. The broadcasting union, Bectu, has called on the English National Ballet to distance itself, which the English National Ballet has done: "any personal view expressed by one of our employees should not be considered as endorsed by the company," a spokesbeing said.

Why does it matter? Simone Clarke has the same political influence as most of us, namely one vote every few years. Unless she lives in a marginal constituency, her vote counts as much as most, which is to say hardly at all. Unless one believes that people are going to cast votes for the BNP because that party has been endorsed by someone who can stand on the points of her toes, I fail to see why her political views should have any more significance than the sexuality of tennis players, the theology of film stars, or the daily habits of royalty. The only positive achievement of the present campaign has been to give Richard Barnbrook, the Barking BNP councillor - excuse me, the BNP councillor for Barking and Dagenham - a chance to express his views on eugenics: "I'm not opposed to mixed marriages but their children are washing out the identity of this country's indigenous people," he said, magnanimously upholding Simone Clarke's right to a relationship with a Cuban Chinese, so long as it remains childless.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Human Touch

It's a pity that this story is one of those which "emerged", as the journalese hath it, rather than coming from a named human being. Doubtless the idea is to protect the source; a singularly redundant precaution in this case, since the source is quite obviously the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose himself.

What has emerged is this: David Hicks, one of the Bush administration's longest-standing guests at the Guantánamo Bay anomaly, is a Muslim convert who has the misfortune to be a native of Australia. It's a misfortune because the government of Australia has been headed for the past ten years by John Howard, who is a Thatcherite, an enthusiastic Warrior on Terror and asylum-seeker basher, an expresser of Deep-Sorrow-Without-Apology for the derelictions of past generations and an insouciant breaker of "rock solid, ironclad commitments" to his electorate. Senior British judges ordered the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose to grant Hicks British citizenship, partly because they thought it his best chance for getting out of Guantánamo and partly, no doubt, because the Howard experience meant Hicks would experience minimal difficulties adjusting to life in the Vicar of Downing Street's parish.

Hicks' American lawyer - a member of the US military, no less - says that Hicks has "been mistreated, ranging from physical to emotional abuse", and that Hicks' supposed confession to MI6 of terrorist associations is unreliable, despite having been extracted after sustained torture; but of course lawyers will say anything - Tony and his good lady excepted, as always. Accordingly, the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose, with the scrupulous respect for the law that has characterised Home Secretaries from Michael Howard through David Blunkett to Charles Clarke, did award British citizenship to Hicks. Then, once more in the brilliant tradition of his predecessors, he invoked "special powers" a couple of hours later, and took it away again. He wrote personally to Hicks informing him that he (Hicks, that is, not the Minister) posed "a threat to the national security of the United Kingdom and that to deprive you of your British citizenship is conducive to the public good".

Hence the obvious fact that this story emerged directly from the Minister himself. On the fifth anniversary of the anomaly's Grand Opening, and on a day when his department is facing renewed difficulties which have already provoked the doom-laden "full confidence of Mr Blair" and may yet necessitate the sacrifice of a junior or two, there could hardly be a more opportune time to show us, once again, with what endearing cheek he can cut through the fustian of stodgy legalism; to remind us, once again, that his special powers of cranial lignification and ethical incorporeality are a match for any judge in the country; and to prove, just in case we didn't know it, that despite his advancing years he has a sense of humour as youthful and active as any happy-go-lucky teenager who ever kicked away a blind person's cane or tied a firework to an animal's tail.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Precision Escalation: an extract

The new Jake Baculum thriller from the bestselling author of Executive Imperative

"Of course I would like to help you in any way I can." The Somalian warlord smiled. His gold tooth glinted as he tapped Havana cigar ash into one of his smaller ashtrays. He continued on talking in his British accent while Jake sat coiled like a crouching panther awaiting the next danger signal.

"We are in Africa," Mrwanda continued on, "and Africa is not America. Freedom and democracy are all very well in their place, but Somalia is not Texas. Here, you do not have to establish that someone is a trespasser before shooting him." The warlord smiled again and made an expansive gesture with some of the Uzis he was holding. Beads of sweat beaded his dark forehead and darkened the traditional Somalian hakimachi with its tribal buffalo tied around his forehead.

"I haven't come to shoot anyone," Jake said, taking care to keep the crinkles around his ice-chip eyes as amiable as feasibility made it possible for him to do. "The airstrike will take care of the suspect." If they could find him. All those thin brown guys looked awful similar from the cockpit of a W-911 Unabomber, world's most advanced airborne pre-emptive defense machine though it undoubtably was.

"Ah yes, the airstrike." Mrwanda tapped more ash. Jake had heard, back on the USS Good Intentions Gone Awry, that Mrwanda had his ashtrays made from the skulls of his enemies' children. Jake didn't know about that, but it was clear he wasn't dealing with one of the nice guys.

If there were any nice guys. In Somalia.

"The airstrike, yes," Mrwanda said, smiling. "I hope it all goes well. I saw Black Hawk Down several times, but I do not think it would be so entertaining in real life."

Jake contented himself with hoping the guy would show just one little sign of Islamic militant fundamentalism before the assignment ended. Three warships, an aircraft carrier and enough firepower to turn the Sahara into a desert and Mogadishu into a ruin were just waiting to give him a nice, fat slice of entertainment if he did. That, Jake knew, was what real life was all about. Real life was you and your buddies facing the firepower of a zillion faceless Somalian ogres with sunglasses. It was nothing to do with Hollywood, that was for sure. If only the folks back home could know that.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Inexcusable Unforgettability, Unforgettable Inexcusability

Ten days after the stringing-up of Saddam Hussein, the Vicar of Downing Street has decided that it is safe to agree with John Prescott and the Prince in Waiting: the manner of the execution was "completely wrong". It was not merely an internal matter for the sovereign, independent Iraqi government to handle as it saw fit. It was not anomalous. It was "wrong and unacceptable", although his reverence seems to have been oddly inexplicit about what Britain will be doing to ensure that we are not forced to accept similar things in future. Instead, he talked about Saddam Hussein's crimes against his own people, which were endorsed by successive British governments and a source of profit to various British companies. The wrongness of Saddam's execution "should not blind us to the crimes he committed against his own people", his reverence observed. "The crimes that Saddam committed does not excuse the manner of his execution but the manner of his execution does not excuse the crimes," his reverence pontificated. "Of course any sensible, moderate person makes those points about the scenes that we have seen, about the execution, but it should not be then translated into some sort of excuse for the crimes he committed against his own people," his reverence lectured, noting in passing that "the people who he killed deliberately as an act of policy", rather than as collateral damage, ran into "hundreds of thousands" whom it would be wrong to "lurch into a position of forgetting" just because Saddam's execution was also carried out in a wrong and unacceptable manner, which we must never forget or excuse while not forgetting or excusing the crimes Saddam committed against his own people, whose sovereign, independent government, which they had the privilege of electing thanks in part to the efforts of his reverence, has just strung Saddam up in such a wrong and unacceptable fashion, and so, it would seem, ad infinitum. That latest celebrity residence which his reverence has blessed with his jet-setting presence over the holiday season must be home to some rather anomalous people, who clearly have been buttonholing his reverence day and night in order to urge him to excuse the hanging on account of the victims, or to forget the victims on account of the hanging, in defiance of what any sensible, moderate person, such as George W Bush's favourite doggie, would do.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Doing the Right Thing

Well, here's a surprise: Ruth Kelly, a former education secretary who is in an excellent position to understand the effects of nine years of New Labour on the education system, has decided to have her child privately educated at a school which "grooms children with a particular, relatively common condition for entry into elite public schools such as Harrow and Winchester". Ruth Kelly claimed today that she was "doing the right thing". Evidently this is news.

As a member of an outstandingly intrusive and authoritarian government, she is naturally much concerned for her own privacy: "Bringing up children in the public eye is never easy," she said, although the condition of her children has not, to the best of my knowledge, been splashed across the front of the Daily Mail as part of a campaign to cut her salary or throw her out of the country. The school will charge fifteen thousand pounds a year, but in order to avoid the indignity of the means test Kelly "will not seek the help of the local authority in meeting these costs". Dashed decent of her.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

They Hate Our Sanity, Too

One of the Bush administration's guests at the Guantánamo Bay anomaly is showing signs of the charmingly-named condition "secure housing unit psychosis", according to lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. The gentleman in question, Bisher al-Rawi, is a British-resident Iraqi who, in an act of blatant and vicious anti-Westernism, left the country as a child, when it was still being ruled by Saddam Hussein. With ruthless animal cunning, he retained Iraqi citizenship "in the hope that one day he would be able to claim the family's abandoned property" - a likely story. He, his brothers and two other men were arrested during a trip to Gambia for the transparently ostensible purpose of setting up a "peanut processing business". As in so many other cases at Guantánamo, this was such a cunning disguise for the men's true purpose that al-Rawi has never been charged with any offence. Nevertheless, Stafford Smith describes the conditions of his imprisonment as "worse than any death row I've ever seen", which must surely comfort all who believe that terrorist suspects deserve a fate worse than death. Stafford Smith's American colleague Brent Mickum claims that al-Rawi's "treatment is designed to achieve a single objective: to make him lose his mind"; so presumably there is still hope that his condition is a genuine aim of the Guantánamo secure housing unit administration, rather than yet another act of asymmetrical warfare against his helpless jailers.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hot Air and Cold Water

Where the sword of reshuffle cannot avenge, the gag of enforced discretion may sometimes appease. "It is not helpful for the Government to attack individuals" said an unnamed adviser to the Secretary for Talking about the Environment. This is quite true, of course. If one wishes to be helpful, one does not refer to rich people as "the irresponsible face of capitalism". At worst, one plants an anonymous smear with a co-operative news editor. That, after all, is what freedom of information is all about.

The Department for Environmental Profitability has denied that Ian Pearson suffered a "humiliating dressing down" over his comments about the airline industry's mysterious disinclination to do as it is told in the absence of any law to compel it. He has been told, no doubt, that the Government is listening and appreciates his concerns, but that a line must now be drawn. Humiliating it may have been, to be treated like a mere member of the public; but it was not a dressing down in the accepted sense of the term. It was merely a measure to "avoid fuelling controversy", controversy having no place in this Government except where such matters as Muslim headgear are concerned.

Ian Pearson has not been silenced, according to the Department of Environmental Freedom by Raising Airports; but "he has been told not to do any more interviews which might accelerate the story". Otherwise, he can say whatever he likes.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Hot Air

Compared with keeping Parliament Square free of demonstrators or ensuring that everyone's personal details are available to anyone who cares to pay for them, the problem of merely keeping the planet habitable is, of course, fairly insignificant. Hence the use by the environment minister, Ian Pearson, of tough language, rather than tough legislation, to deal with major airlines' lack of interest in cutting carbon emissions.

The attitude of the American airline industry is "completely irresponsible"; they are threatening to take the European Union to court if there is any attempt to impose a carbon trading scheme on transatlantic flights. Strangely, Ian Pearson does not appear to have taken advantage of the Special Relationship to rectify this regrettable situation. British Airways are "only just playing ball" by condescending to permit a carbon trading scheme covering only flights within Europe. Oddly, Ian Pearson does not appear to have considered demonstrating to British Airways that, by the rules of British fair play, those who refuse to play ball must leave the field. Ryanair are "not just the unacceptable face of capitalism, they are the irresponsible face of capitalism" although Ryanair, presumably, are simply trying to fulfil their obligations to their shareholders by turning as large a profit as they are able within the law. Amazingly, Ian Pearson does not appear to have considered changing the law to force Ryanair to act more acceptably and responsibly.

However, the minister is "determined to stand up to the intense lobbying by parts of the airline industry" by the tough, radical, forward-looking, instant and utter measure of "looking to bring the British airline industry on board for a voluntary industry-wide carbon offsetting scheme". That'll teach them.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Everyone who deserves it is doing well in Tony's Emporium of Prosperity and Moral Hygiene; and few better than these sterling little chaps. The number of brown rats in Britain has increased by nearly forty per cent since Tony and his chums began dropping their blessings among us.

According to the National Pest Technician Association's survey for 2006, it appears that people are littering, fly-tipping and putting out too much food for the birds; but no doubt such peccadilloes will be soon prevented by the introduction of identity cards. Nevertheless, several other causes of the increase are New Labour through and through. Urban properties are standing derelict, thanks to New Labour's dynamic housing programme. Always ready to provide a disincentive to public health measures, sixty per cent of councils now charge for dealing with rats; so people are less likely to report sightings. Preoccupied with the business of supplying water, for which so many of them are manifestly unqualified, private water companies have neither the time nor the resources to clear rats from their drains.

The brown rat is not an effective carrier for bubonic plague; that talent belongs to its relative, the black rat, which according to Wikipedia thrives mostly in warmer regions, such as Britain is now becoming under New Labour's dynamic environmental policy. Of course, like the war in Iraq, the Great Plague of London was a Good Thing in the end, because it eased overcrowding and paved the way for the Great Fire and Sir Christopher Wren's new design for St Paul's Cathedral, which is a profitable tourist attraction.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Casper Wrede 1974

Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson vehicle of the same title, Ransom is a modest thriller released by British Lion, the company which a year before had made The Wicker Man. I first saw it at a fairly young age, and for a long time it stuck in my mind, along with Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix, as that rare prize among films, the kind in which the story is not interrupted for purposes of time-wasting osculation. (The first film I ever saw in which the osculation seemed at all relevant was Hitchcock's Notorious; but that was some years later.) In fact, the only female character in The Flight of the Phoenix is a mirage, a belly-dancer nostalgically hallucinated by Ronald Fraser's rubber-faced army sergeant. The sole female character in Ransom does have the privilege of being contextually solid, but fortunately she is the wife of a British ambassador and, in any case, the situation leaves very little time for love.

The situation is that the British ambassador to Scandinavia and two of his household staff are being held hostage by one Martin Shepherd (John Quentin) and his colleagues, who appear to be a sort of British equivalent of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The authorities agree to Shepherd's demands for the release of imprisoned comrades and the placing at his disposal of a military aircraft; but before Shepherd can leave with his hostages he is contacted by Ray Petrie (Ian McShane), a trusted lieutenant who tells him that the planned landing site is known to the police. Petrie and his three men have hijacked an airliner to take Shepherd to safety, but the captain (Norman Bristow) deliberately blew the tyres on landing, forcing a wait of several hours on the runway. This wait, and the efforts of the Scandinavian security chief, Nils Tahlvik (Sean Connery) to discover who Petrie is and how to thwart him, take up most of the film's running time.

Petrie is a bit of an anomaly. He is known to the British police, but travels under his own name and has somehow been able to smuggle aboard the aircraft pistols for himself and his men and enough explosives to blow the plane up. Tahlvik's task is further complicated by the politicians, whose wish to get the terrorists quickly flown out of the country conflicts with his sense of the law's authority; by his orders, which specify that he should make every effort to stop the hijackers without endangering a single civilian; and by the Ambassador's wife, who angrily contrasts her husband, who fought with Tito's partisans and lost his health as a result, with "armchair warriors" who risk other people's lives without risking their own.

Today such a story would undoubtedly be artificially inflated, by the same post-cultural logic which would ensure that, in a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the character played by Walter Matthau would be twenty years younger and would probably end up pursuing the hijacked underground train through the tunnels while hanging off the outside of a helicopter. Mere professional concerns would be quite inadequate to motivate the Tahlvik character, whose wife, daughter or mother (perhaps all three) would almost certainly be placed aboard the airliner. The rather fine aircraft chase, when one of Tahlvik's men pursues an accomplice of Petrie's through the fjords, would certainly have to end a good deal more spectacularly than with the man's arrest and the noting of his plane's registration number. The fact that no shots are fired while the passengers are aboard the airliner, despite its importance as a clue, would unquestionably have to go; as would the scarcely less appalling fact that during the shootout in the airliner after the passengers' release, Tahlvik himself doesn't kill anyone - not directly, at any rate.

Ransom, which displays an interestingly unsympathetic attitude towards the British establishment, was directed by Casper Wrede, a Finn who had made a handful of previous films and TV plays, including versions of Twelfth Night and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Although he was only in his mid-forties, Ransom seems to have been his swan song. The screenplay is by Paul Wheeler, who later worked on television series such as Minder, Tenko and Bergerac. The cinematography is by the distinguished Sven Nykvist.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Fare Payers vs. Real People

According to the chief executive of Passenger Focus, a "rail customer watchdog body" for rail customers who still think they are passengers, "train travel is getting more and more popular". Characteristically, the Government is doing its best to reverse this dangerous trend and get people onto the roads and into airports, where Britain's radical plans for the environment (i.e. forget it) can be properly realised. Fares are subject to increases above the rate of inflation, apparently because, in the words of a spokesbeing for the Department for Queueing, Crowding and Standing Still, "Ultimately, there are two sources of income for the railways - fare-payers and tax-payers. Government is spending record sums - on average £88 million a week - and as a result, 42% of the costs of the railway are met by tax-payers." Think of it - all those nice, hard-working families who work hard and pay their bills are being made to subsidise those layabouts who do nothing but stand around on public transport all day long, and who don't even pay tax for the privilege. It's a scandal.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Satanic Supplement

Year,n. Astronomically, A single elliptical orbit of the planet around the sun, at an average distance of about ninety-three million miles. In Britain, this has been found to be the optimum solar orbit for perennial complaints about the temperature. Biologically, Approximately a fourth of infancy, a twelfth of childhood, a third of puberty, a third of adolescence, a fiftieth of working life. Proportions of senility and terminal decline vary depending on size of income and patience of offspring. Chronologically, A period of three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days, or eight thousand seven hundred and sixty-six hours, or five hundred and twenty-five thousand nine hundred and sixty minutes, or thirty-one million five hundred and fifty-seven thousand six hundred seconds, and no improvements to speak of. Economically, A period of growth, decline, stagnation, inflation, deflation, reorganisation, rationalisation or consolidation, as compared by various and diverging expert opinions with the situation at about the same time one year ago and taking into account any factors deemed relevant by the respective various and divergent experts. Historically, The present year is approximately the two thousand and eleventh since the alleged birth of Christ, and therefore is numbered 2007. Meteorologically, A period of four seasons: the January sales, the Easter sales, the summer sales and the Christmas rush. Morally, A period of good intentions, resulting in resolutions, followed by fifty-one weeks or more of normal behaviour. Socially, The interval between one New Year's hangover and the next.