...Views from mid-Atlantic
18 November 2006

Playstation 3 was released last week, in numbers so small that violence broke out in several places as people vied desperately to be among those who got this latest of gadgets. (Sony seems to be making a habit of undersupplying the market - their new electronic book device, the Sony Reader, which went on sale earlier this month, has also sold out. Roaming gangs of violent bookreaders are so far thin on the ground, but I'd be prepared to sign up if there's anyone out there with a plan and a spare cudgel.)

The coming week is also going to be one for new releases - though no doubt of a gentler nature. Thomas Pynchon's new book, Against the Day, will make its first retail appearance on Tuesday, a new album of remixed Beatles songs, Love, is out on both sides of the Atlantic on Monday and...wait for it...Kinky Friedman's new book, The Christmas Pig, is also scheduled to hit the stands. (Actually, it came out last week, but like any decent journalist, I believe there are occasions when awkward facts should go fuck themselves).

British writer Ian Rankin (Inspector Rebus is his character) has a really serious Pynchon habit. In a Guardian piece, he says: "The problem with Pynchon, however, is that people tend (now as then) to treat him with po-faced reverence, and this can put off as many readers as it attracts. The author himself seems to admit that he dug a hole when he called one of his early short stories Entropy. In Lot 49 he makes mention of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and thermodynamics, and continued his apparent interest in quantum mechanics in Gravity's Rainbow.

"All of this appealed immensely to the stoners of the 1970s. It was a time of The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and Godel, Escher, Bach - books which linked quantum engineering to eastern religion, to be discussed over a well-stoked bong with a side of Tangerine Dream playing in the background. The Illuminatus trilogy was big at that time, too, with its talk of cabals and 'immanentising the Eschaton' (maybe a young Dan Brown was taking notes). Literary criticism meantime was turning towards scientism. The Derrida school of deconstructionists drooled over Pynchon while semioticians sharpened their troping-shears.

"All of which makes him seem worthy rather than readable. Yet his books are romps and detective stories. In Lot 49, the heroine Oedipa Maas begins to feel like 'the private eye in any long-ago radio drama'. Pynchon has also credited the spy novels of Graham Greene and Le Carre and the thrillers of another Scot, John Buchan, as inspiration, alongside likelier suspects such as Jack Kerouac (and Pynchon does remain the most Beat of contemporary literary authors)."

The Guardian has the skinny on the new Beatles album: "Three years in the making, Love is made up of 26 Beatles tracks as they have never been heard, put together by the band's producer, Sir George Martin, and his son Giles. The album is released by EMI with more than half an eye on the Christmas market but is, in effect, a commission from the entertainment empire Cirque du Soleil, which is using it as the soundtrack to its Las Vegas show. EMI's chairman, Tony Wadsworth, said it was 'like listening to the Beatles for the very first time'."

Critics in Britain are throwing a lot of words at it, but they don't seem quite to know what they want to say. See the Guardian and the Times, both of which are negative, but defensively so. I think it's true that popular music critics aren't thought of as useful, as book and movie critics are. Kids seem to make up their minds on the basis of a kind of jungle drums word of mouth network, so critics are writing more to stay ahead of what kids are going to think, rather than to try to influence their thinking. There are exceptions, of course, like Sasha Frere-Jones over at the New Yorker, who is genuinely good at it (see, for example, this review of the Deftones new album).

Kinky Friedman is also in the music fraternity, best known for his second band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, and hits like They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for the Governorship of Texas in the election a couple of weeks ago, as you will know if you read Pondblog regularly (I think any man who can run on a promise that "as the first Jewish governor I will reduce the speed limit to 54.95 mph" ought to win, but then, fate is a fickle, unreasonable bitch. Haaretz has a long, amusing piece about him today: "it's not every day that the conservative, Christian Lone Star State gets a candidate for high office who is a Jewish cowboy, who has admitted to sniffing mountains of cocaine, declared that he wants the job because he needs more closet space, and created a talking doll of himself and special salsa sauce as part of his campaign.

"Friedman has published more than 20 books and a new one, The Christmas Pig, is just out. Kinky, dressed as Santa Claus, appears on the cover. About six years ago he started to write a column for the Texas Monthly. He has never married, and since returning to the ranch has never left it. Not far away is his Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, where he cares for dozens of stray and abused dogs that he has saved ("I do it because I like stray dogs a lot better than I like fat cats," he says)."

17 November 2006

The first author whose first editions I set about collecting was Ronald Firbank, an English author of the first part of the 20th Century who seemed to me to write prose as nicely thought out as poetry. He also seemed to have ordered life's priorities better than most. His writing was entirely too precious to be popular, but he did have an influence - Cyril Connolly listed one of his books, The Flower Beneath the Foot as one of the 100 most important of the Modern Movement. The Times Literary Supplement is currently carrying a review of a new (and apparently rather successful) biography of Firbank, whose reticence made him an exceedingly difficult subject.

"The twenty-one-year-old Firbank, generally too shy to say anything at all, was inarticulacy personified; almost all the records of his speech are of mere gasps or short blurted phrases, many of them emboldened only by alcohol. (He had too an instinctive and witty horror of solemnity, which unimaginative minds interpreted as mere triviality. Some years later, when Siegfried Sassoon pressed him for his views on literature and art, the only thing Firbank could find to say was, 'I adore italics, don't you?'...)

"In Vainglory Firbank also included a self-portrait, in the person of a writer called Claud Harvester. He is, like almost everyone in the book, a minor character, making one appearance, but referred to from time to time by other people. This is very characteristic of Firbank's social view in his early novels, in which one might say there was no plot but a profusion of appearing and disappearing subplots, the unnerving effect being that neither the reader nor the characters seem to know who or what is important or trivial, or how you would tell the difference.

"The Firbank artist figure is a marginal one, more talked about than known, a figure usually elsewhere, doing something that smart people might occasionally chatter about. It is said of Claud Harvester: He had gone about here and there, tinting his personality after the fashion of a Venetian glass . . . . Many, indeed, thought him interesting. He had groped so . . . . In the end he began to suspect that what he had been seeking for all along was the theatre . . . . In style - he was often called obscure, although, in reality, he was as charming as the top of an apple-tree above a wall. As a novelist he was almost successful. His books were watched for . . . but without impatience."

Milton Friedman is being hailed in newspapers around the world as the 'economist of the century' for his faith in what was called supply-side economics in the Reagan era. Daniel Henninger, the deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, takes a look at the revolution (Margaret Thatcher called Friedman an 'intellectual freedom fighter') he brought about.

"The accounting firm KPMG's annual corporate-tax survey, released this month, took special note of the history of corporate tax rates. The downward trend here was begun in 1985 with a corporate-rate cut in the UK by Reagan admirer Margaret Thatcher. 'In the past 14 years,' the report says, 'the average corporate tax rate of countries surveyed by KPMG declined nearly 29%, dropping from an average of 38% to 27.1%.'

"When Austria cuts its corporate rate to 25% from 34% and German companies started rolling across the border, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck accused the Austrians - I love this phrase - of 'fiscal dumping.'

"During Ronald Reagan's presidency, the top marginal rate on personal incomes dropped to 28% from 70%. In 1993 Bill Clinton raised the top tax rate to 39.6%. In 2001 George Bush pushed the top rate back down to 35% and cut the rate on capital gains and dividends to 15%.

Last week former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin exhorted the Democrats to raise taxes 'to solve the nation's fiscal problems'. The Rubin Solution may not be easy. Even a Democratic Congress might realize that raising taxes today is swimming against the global tides. In reversing the Clinton tax increases, passed in another age 13 years ago, and spreading tax cuts to the financial sector, George Bush has driven the roots of the Reagan tax philosophy deeper. If he resists a grand compromise on entitlements that raises taxes, it may prove to be his most enduring legacy."

Sacha Baron Cohen seems to want to stay in that Borat character of his all the time...something I thought added to the whole Cohen schtick. But Rolling Stone seems to have persuaded him to leave Borat at the door, for an interview in its current issue. Their website gives up only an excerpt, so it's difficult to say how good it is in its entirety. But Rolling Stone ain't what it used to be, and the excerpt - flat, obvious and glittery - reflects what it has become:

"'I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.'

"Baron Cohen doesn't make this grand statement with confidence. He makes it shyly, as if he's speaking out of turn. It's interesting to watch Baron Cohen get bashful, because it is the exact opposite of the characters he portrays. These sincere boors aren't afraid to bring a bag of their own excrement to the table at an antebellum dinner party or ask David Beckham if he can feed on his wife Victoria 'Posh Spice' Beckham's breasts.

"There is a certain sadism to Baron Cohen, who seems most comfortable when making others uncomfortable. To some degree, Borat and Ali G are safe refuges for him, masks he can hide behind. If everything that comes out of your mouth is parody, then you never have to be accountable for what you say - because you didn't really mean it anyway. You only said it to lead your interview subjects to the thin line between patience and intolerance in order for their true personality to reveal itself."

See what I mean?

16 November 2006

"I am not notably frivolous, but whenever I read R. S. Thomas's poetry, or his biography, I cannot help but reflect that, like the majority of mankind, I have spent most of my life chasing false gods." That's Theodore Dalrymple writing in City Journal about a just-published biography: The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers (available in the UK, but not yet in the US).

"Thomas had a similar effect on others: John Betjeman, in his introduction to Thomas's first collection of poems published by a major publisher (in 1955), said that Thomas would be remembered long after he, Betjeman, was forgotten. And Kingsley Amis, writing a year later, said of Thomas's work that it 'reduces most modern verse to footling whimsy.' These tributes bring to mind Joseph Haydn's words to Mozart's father, on receipt of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to him: 'I swear before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name.'

Dalrymple quotes a number of examples of Thomas's poetry, which is often as simple, as direct and as forceful as a slap in the face. This fragment is from a poem about moving his dying mother, whom he disliked, from his house, where he and his wife were caring for her, to a hospital:

The ambulance came
to rescue us from the issues
of her body; she was delivered
from the incompetence of
our conscience into the hospital's
cleaner care. Yet I took her hand
there and made a tight-rope
of our fingers for the misshapen
feelings to keep their balance upon.

An unusual trio of public figures has written a Washington Times article which seeks to explain the difficulties between Islam and the West in terms other than 'Clash of Civilisations'. Desmond Tutu, Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Ali Alatas, the former foreign minister of Indonesia and Andre Azoulay, adviser to Morocco's King Mohammed VI write that "...We firmly reject the claim that the roots of the widening rift between Muslim and Western societies lie in religion or culture. Rather, they are to be found in politics.

"In our view, there are two key factors feeding the current climate of suspicion and fear that mars relations across communities. In the first instance, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has become a key symbol of the rift between Western and Muslim societies and remains one of the biggest threats to international stability. We passionately believe the international community should turn its attention to this festering conflict with a renewed sense of urgency...

"The other factor is the oppression of nonviolent political actors in the Muslim world, which strengthens the hand of extremists. Denying peaceful opposition movements the freedom to express their views and jailing their supporters generate anger and resentment, encouraging some, especially among the young, to join violent groups. And when Western governments lend their support - tacitly or overtly - to authoritarian regimes, they become part of the problem, stoking the fire of extremism. These issues are compounded by resistance to reform and limitations placed on intellectual enquiry which deprive many Muslim countries of the impetus and energy needed to achieve social progress."

London's Times breaks the news that the European Union plans to make passengers on all flights in to or out of EU airports pay a tax of up to $50 to cover the environmental damage caused by their flights.

"Draft legislation to be published next month would require all flights arriving or departing from European Union airports to buy permits to cover their carbon dioxide emissions. The document, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times, says that airlines would join Europe's emissions trading scheme by 2011 and predicts that they would pass on the costs to their passengers...

"This will infuriate the United States and many other countries because it would affect all flights into and out of Europe, regardless of their origin or destination. US airlines would have to buy permits to cover their emissions on their European routes."

An angry piece in the Telegraph this morning from Daniel Hannan, who is a Conservative MEP for South East England and a columnist for the Telegraph and the German daily, Die Welt. It's the British Human Rights Act he's upset about, and his anger has that noble quality of defiance thrown into the face of sure defeat - "The Human Rights Act is becoming the first refuge of the scoundrel. It is snatched at by illegal immigrants wishing to avoid repatriation, and by prisoners who want to receive pornography in their cells (on grounds of 'freedom of expression'). It is invoked against stop-and-search powers, school uniform policies and 'wanted' posters. It has frustrated the attempts of four successive home secretaries to deport the Stansted Afghan hijackers - despite their crime, and despite the fact that Britain has gone to a good deal of trouble to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban regime from which they claimed to have been fleeing.

"It may even have killed Naomi Bryant. An investigation found that concerns about her killer's human rights had prompted his early release and deterred probation officers from monitoring him too closely."

The thing is that Britain, alone as far as I know among nations, has a long history of not writing down such things as a Constitution - in wise recognition, I've always thought, of the fact that life demands inconsistency and contradiction so as to hold itself above the working of mere machinery. But that kind of wisdom is dying away.

"Most people have clocked by now," Hannan writes, "that the Human Rights Act is good for crooks. What is less often remarked upon is that it is bad for human rights. The eight years since the passage of the legislation have, paradoxically, seen an assault on our civic freedoms without precedent in peacetime: the erosion of habeas corpus and of jury trials, bans on smoking, smacking and hunting, ID card schemes, religious hatred laws."

"Repealing the Human Rights Act would, on its own, achieve little. On Tuesday, a joint parliamentary committee, which had considered the cases of Naomi Bryant's murder, the Afghan hijackers and the undeported foreign convicts, concluded that it was not the Act itself but the European Convention that had been decisive. The committee saw this as an argument for keeping the Human Rights Act. It plainly did not occur to its members - with the honourable exceptions of two Tory dissidents, Douglas Carswell and Richard Shepherd - that we might instead abrogate the European Convention.

"Few politicians will even contemplate this step, partly because they are nervous about abandoning an accord which other countries regard as a badge of respectability, and partly because scrapping the European Convention might call into question Britain's membership of the EU. But is the prospect of withdrawal really so frightful? Britain, after all, has a happier record of parliamentary democracy than the other members.

"As Disraeli put it: 'To the liberalism they profess, I prefer the liberties we enjoy; to the Rights of Man, the rights of Englishmen.'"

15 November 2006

Russia's state news agency, RIA Novosty, sent one of its political commentators, Pyotr Romanov, to Cuba for a couple of weeks to see what was doing. He came back with a pretty interesting feature: "Having spent two weeks in Havana, I saw for myself what seemed quite obvious: after Fidel's departure, which is not far off, Cuba is in for serious change.

"The Cubans themselves are well aware of this. The official slogan about the monolithic unity of Cuban society is no more than a propaganda myth. Some Cubans are looking forward to change, and are already thinking of how to adapt better to the future reality, while others are sticking to their old positions and getting ready to resist change. Still others are somewhere in between. They are trying to be flexible, and combine the gains of the Castro era (which do exist whatever his enemies may say) with the efforts to develop a full-fledged democracy and an effective economy that would be oriented to social values.

"Only a few people I talked to voiced a different opinion. Giving credit to Castro's prestige, they argued that the loss of a leader of such caliber does not mean the end of an era. 'We are closely studying Vietnam's experience, where the party managed to fully preserve its positions after Ho Chi Minh's death,' said one of them."

Romanov foresees a change from a socialist government to one which is simply socially-based, as are left-leaning governments in South America, like Brazil's.

The Editor of the Washington Post has dropped a bit of a bombshell on editorial staff desks this morning. An Editor and Publisher piece says: "In a surprising memo to staffers today, Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor, announced several general and specific shakeups 'to maximize readership of the printed newspaper, build audience on the Web site and further reduce costs in the newsroom.'

This includes a plan to 'shrink' the newsroom, 'tightening up the paper's news hole', cracking down on story length and moving reporters and editors 'within and among staffs'. The Post is now suffering from regular circulation declines.

Downie called it nothing less than an 'opportunity to transform journalism for a new era'. He added that it is 'the most important change that I will lead as executive editor. It reminds me of my early days in the newsroom, when Ben Bradlee began boldly transforming the paper during the 1960s and 1970s.'"

Claudia Rosett takes a swipe at journalist James Traub's book, Best of Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power which she describes as sycophantic. Her review appears in the New York Sun this morning: "In (James) Traub's book, Kofi Annan appears as 'the most gracious of men', 'the least self-aggrandizing of men', 'open, honest and kind', 'sincere and selfless', 'the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful yellowing eyes'.

"There is the Kofi Annan 'who recoiled from ambition', the Kofi Annan 'with his usual superhuman display of modesty', the Kofi Annan of 'Christlike forbearance', and the Kofi Annan 'trailing clouds of glory'. There is also the Kofi Annan who, in his 'beautifully cut dark gray suits from Brioni', together with his Swedish wife, projects 'a kind of moral glamour'; Kofi Annan, whose 'roundhouse handshake' amounts to 'a kind of domesticated soul gesture'; Kofi Annan, 'a spokesman for mankind who looked wonderful in a tuxedo'.

"Small wonder that Mr. Traub is horrified to see this paragon hit by the 'catastrophe' of the Oil for Food scandal - though his sympathy for Mr. Annan on this score suggests a strange inversion of priorities. Oil for Food was a betrayal of the people of Iraq, from whom Saddam was stealing billions intended for relief, and using it to re-arm and fortify his totalitarian regime. It was a trainwreck for a trusting (and tax-paying) public, from whom Mr. Annan during the UN debates withheld his inside knowledge of Saddam's graft, sanctions-busting, and global influence-peddling under cover of the UN program. It was a fiasco for the nascent New World Order, in which the United Nations effectively signaled to diplomats, politicians, and thousands of companies worldwide its willingness to collaborate in corruption.

"So who's to blame? By this account, not Mr. Annan, although he was in fact responsible for administering the program, hiring the inspectors, handling the audits, and reporting periodically to the Security Council - which is why he was entrusted with a $1.4 billion budget to do so. But as Mr. Traub tells it, the real culprits were not those at the United Nations who ran Oil for Food, but the congressional watchdogs and 'conservative media' who exposed it. Making a nod to the corruption, he then dismisses it as secondary to Mr. Annan's personal discomfort: 'Oil-for-Food, for all the legitimate issues it raised, was Annan's punishment for having taken the wrong side' in the debate over the Iraq war. Describing criticism of Mr. Annan by congressional investigators, he says, 'Evidence had nothing to do with it; now the knives sharpened on the whetstone of Iraq began to glint.'

"Actually, evidence had everything to do with it. The overthrow of Saddam kicked open a hoard of secret documentation on Oil for Food. The United Nations's own investigation finally clocked in with allegations that the head of the program, Benon Sevan, had been on the take (Mr. Sevan, who has since retired on full UN pension, denies this); that there were signs of rampant corruption among some of the UN agencies; that Mr. Annan and some of his top aides had been derelict in their oversight, and that Mr. Annan's son, Kojo Annan, had used his UN contacts to try to influence procurement under the program. One of Mr. Annan's special advisers, Jean-Bernard Merimee, admitted to having profited from Iraqi oil deals. Another, Maurice Strong, was found to have accepted a $988,885 check bankrolled by the Iraqi regime. (He has denied any wrong-doing and said he didn't know the source of the funds.)"

Meantime, the Sun's Turtle Bay correspondent, Benny Avni, is breaking another UN money scandal in the same issue, this one involving vanished Greek money. "After sinking millions of dollars into a failed joint project with the United Nations, the government of Greece is asking where its money went.

"The country supplied $5 million for the UN Thessaloniki Center for Public Service Professionalism, which was established to promote the use of electronic publications in creating good government practices in the Balkans and former Soviet republics. But the outgoing UN undersecretary-general for management, Christopher Burnham, said in a letter to the Greek interior minister, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, that taxpayer funds Athens entrusted to the United Nations were misused and mismanaged.

"Now the Greek government is seeking to retrieve whatever funds are left from officials with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which managed the center...

"When asked what, if anything, UNTC has produced in its seven years of existence, a source who has followed it from its inception formed a circle with his hand. 'Zero, zilch,' he said, adding that Italian UN officials used up the project's resources as part of Italy's struggle with Greece over influence in the Balkans. The source, who requested anonymity, specifically cited the UN-based Italian official who oversaw the project, a DESA director named Guido Bertucci."

The LA Times is calling for the American Government to step up efforts to get rid of its home-grown terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles: "It is time to bring Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles to justice. Dithering on the part of the US is leaving the nation open to charges of hypocrisy in the war on terror - specifically, to the charge that some forms of terrorism are more acceptable than others.

"The 78-year-old Posada is lionized by hard-line anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami. He stands accused of conspiring to blow up a Cuban airliner in 1976, causing 73 deaths. He denies involvement, but newly declassified documents place him at planning sessions for the attack.

"Posada has boasted of bombing hotels in Havana that resulted in one death and 11 injuries. In 2000, a Panamanian jury convicted Posada and three other terrorists of plotting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro, and they were jailed. Outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, however, pardoned the four - some believe as a favor to the White House."

Interesting that the Times story fails to mention Posada was actually employed by the CIA during much of his career.

Interesting, too, that a man known to have been bankrolling Posada, a prominent member of Miami's Cuban exile community, was yesterday sentenced in Florida to four years in jail for "conspiring to possess" arms including machine guns and a grenade launcher intended, apparently, for use in a plot to overthrow Fidel Castro. Caribbean Net News says Santiago Alvarez, "who made a fortune in real estate and spent some of it backing suspected bomber, Luis Posada Carriles, had pleaded guilty to the charge in September...Alvarez is widely known among Cuban-Americans for his friendship with Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent, wanted in Cuba and Venezuela for the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people."

CIA housecleaning?

14 November 2006

You can't call them the chattering classes this week, the frenzy of commentaries on the meaning of the tilt toward the democrats earns them a promotion to the positively twittering classes. Two that I think are worth reading are, first, this Weekly Standard piece by Irwin Steltzer, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute. I normally avoid his stuff because he's a serial pontificater, but on this subject he stands out. "...The political atmosphere is poisonous. Add to the bitter differences over Iraq lingering Democratic anger over the impeachment of Bill Clinton - and over the 'stolen election' of 2000 - and you don't have a prescription for harmonious rule.

"Democratic control of all congressional committees means an endless round of investigations by subpoena-wielding Democratic chairman into everything from reconstruction contracts in Iraq through the planning for and execution of the war itself. Pelosi has promised to rein in the nastiest of the attack dogs, but it is not certain that she will be able to do so. I am told that Pelosi will indeed make every effort to produce a record of legislative achievement, as she is eager to avoid the charge that the first-ever woman speaker of the House presided so incompetently over the Democratic majority that her party went down to defeat in 2008 and had to take her curtains back to the less spacious office of minority leader...

"As for Iraq, the heated debate obscures the fact that both parties want to restore a semblance of order before claiming victory and withdrawing before the 2008 elections. The Republicans don't want to face the voters with Americans still dying in Baghdad, and the Democrats don't want to be charged with forcing a premature retreat.

"After all, 2008 is the big prize. Which is why the real winners last week were Arizona Senator John McCain and, paradoxically, his leading opponent for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. McCain's above-the-partisan-fray stance makes him an attractive presidential candidate in a country likely to have a good deal of partisan bickering in its near-term future. Romney, who will attack McCain from the right, no longer has to worry about a rival challenge from George Allen, who somehow managed to lose his bid for reelection in Virginia - no easy chore, given his early lead."

Second, and on much the same note, Michael Barone writes in the Washington Times that "Democrats, having won a small majority in the House and a paper-thin one in the Senate, now visibly share the responsibility for governance, and we can expect for a time less of the scathing rhetoric they routinely deployed. Mr. Bush clearly hopes to yoke the Democrats in support of a common, changed approach to Iraq.

"On domestic policy, there will be constant negotiations between congressional leaders and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, complete with veto threats - much like those between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. One can foresee areas of agreement. Mr. Bush will concede a fig-leaved minimum wage. On immigration, House Democrats and a solid Senate majority favor the Bush approach blocked by House Republicans. Advancing alternative fuels is another possibility. Some Democrats want tax-free savings vehicles for lower-paid workers - which sounds a lot like the individual investment accounts Mr. Bush proposed for Social Security. On some issues, there will be no agreement - tax reform, probably. But big issues have been addressed in the past by divided governments.

"In the process, Mr. Bush is decoupling himself from the Republican Party. House Republicans, with little chance to affect outcomes, will be mostly ignored, as House Democrats were under Mr. Clinton. Senate Republicans, with the leverage of filibuster threats, will be brought into the loop. But congressional Republicans will be on their own in setting a course for 2008."

The Shaanxi dialect was once widely spoken in China, and was the dialect in which the poetry of the Han and Tang dynasties was written. People's Daily says that a group has been formed to try to encourage people to start speaking it again. "We plan not only to teach people how to speak the Shaanxi dialect, but also how to recite poetry that was written during the Han (206 BC - AD 220) and Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties in this once common dialect. These most prosperous of China's dynasties both made Xi'an their capital," said the group's sponsor.

"The Shaanxi dialect, noted for its passionate and high-pitched pronunciation, has long been considered a vivid reflection of the unconstrained and simple nature of Shaanxi natives...

"According to Bai Qitong, Shaanxi dialect has been spoken throughout China since as far back as the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), the first Chinese feudal dynasty, which was based in Shaanxi.

"Because 13 dynasties made their capitals in Xi'an, many emperors, empresses, officials, ordinary people, and foreign envoys once spoke Shaanxi dialect. In addition, many ancient historical documents and records, poetry, dramas and novels were also written in the dialect."

With Tony Blair, you always have to keep your eye on the fact that whatever else he may be, he is probably the best politican on the planet. This Guardian piece describes him flapping his wings mightily in an attempt (one that might just succeed) to shake free of the political ashes in which he finds himself: "Tony Blair made an open plea yesterday to George Bush to recognise that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the core of any hopes for wider peace in the Middle East, including Iraq...

"Mr Blair, famously cautious about pressing the Republican administration in public, is trying to seize the rare indecision in Washington in response to the Democrat victories to persuade the White House to acknowledge the central importance of the Palestinian peace process."

A couple of book notes in the pre-Christmas season: I thought I had posted something before about a Russian writer, Leonid Tsypkin, but I can find nothing. Perhaps I meant to, but was overtaken by one of the Bermuda Telephone Company's many outages. The Telegraph's excellent reviewer, AN Wilson, wrote about Tsypkin a day or so ago. "Leonid Tsypkin was born in 1926, and he died in Moscow in 1982. A qualified doctor, he worked as a research medic at the Institute for Poliomyelitis and Viral Encephalitis in Moscow. He would come home each evening to his wife and child and write from 6pm to 10pm - poems, stories and reflections.

"When, in 1977, his son Mikhail and wife, Elena, applied for exit visas to go to America, Leonid was immediately demoted to the rank of junior researcher and his salary cut by 75 per cent. Applications for himself, his wife and his mother to receive exit visas from the Soviet Union were repeatedly refused. Amazingly, he kept on writing, serenely confident in what he was doing."

Tsypkin's book, Summer in Baden Baden, says Wilson, "is a picture where the frame is as interesting as the canvas. Tsypkin's own encounter with Dostoyevsky is gripping - the 20th-century Russian Jew, whose life has been made so much more difficult by the anti-semitism of Stalin, confronts the seemingly unthinking anti-semitism of his hero. It is neither explained nor excused, but if I were a headmaster I'd read this passage to the children every term. It is a masterpiece of outrage and sympathy mingled...

"I am so grateful to the friend who sent me this book. He could not know that when it arrived, I was about to take to my bed for three or four days of mild, luxurious flu, reading only for pleasure, and that, having finished Summer in Baden-Baden, I should immediately have started to read it again."

Coming as it does from a man whose business is books, it is hard to think of a recommendation quite as lavish as that one.

It would be cruel to compare Tsypkin and Ben Schott, whose little book, Schott's Original Miscellany, stuffed many a British Christmas stocking four years ago. But Schott's books do have a quality all of their own, in that they (the ones I've read, anyway) are collections of more or less irrelevant facts really rather worth knowing, done up in a package which seems more a product of the early 20th Century than the early 21st. This New York Times piece about him says his first book "was followed in 2004 by Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany (which included all the words to the Chiquita banana song) and, a year later, by Schott's Sporting, Gaming & Idling Miscellany (entries on both navel-gazing and Pac-Man)...

"The New Statesman named the first almanac Book of the Year in 2005, and in a review this September in Library Journal, Michael Dashkin wrote that Mr. Schott was 'working toward creating a new type of almanac, one that recognizes each year past as people are likely to actually remember it: as a mix of both trivial and significant events,' the serious and the footnote, 'simultaneously and in succession'.

"The Schott volumes are all elegantly designed and slightly old-fashioned-looking, like Mr. Schott himself, who wears wire-rim spectacles and has a center-parted, Hugh Grantish sort of haircut. Mr. Schott does all the typesetting himself and tries to make every paragraph end flush right. Off the page, he talks much the same way - very fast, in perfectly turned paragraphs that cover a great deal of ground before landing on an emphatic point."

13 November 2006

The cat's in among the pigeons in the Israeli Defence Force, with the release of a report by a committee headed by an officer of the reserves, Major General Doron Almog, which looked into the workings of the IDF during the period leading up to the kidnapping of two soldiers on July 12. Haaretz says Almog's committee was "sharply critical of IDF activity at all levels during this period, from the soldiers in the field to the General Staff." One officer, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, in whose division the captured soldiers served, has already resigned. But IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz (who commissioned the report) has rejected all of the criticisms aimed at officers above the level of divisional commander and demanded that Almog reexamine his findings on these issues.

He won't, of course, and two other general officers over the weekend sharply criticised Halutz for his remarks, suggesting that he, too, should resign. One of them said "Halutz does not behave like a commander. He acts like a chairman of the board of directors. He doesn't have the fire in his belly, in his chest. He doesn't have the quality of a senior military leader, he doesn't have the leadership, he doesn't have the professionalism."

After that, Halutz is toast.

Benny Avni of the New York Sun says the Secretary General-designate of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, and US representative John Bolton, acting independently of one another, have foiled an attempt by Kofi Annan to appoint a friend of Hezbollah to be the UN's representative in Lebanon. Geir Pedersen, Avni says, is a Norwegian diplomat whose term in Beirut was marked by little success.

"Mr. Pedersen has become too cozy with Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese capital. Like some Europeans and many in Mr. Annan's inner circle, Mr. Pedersen believes Hezbollah's assurances that once Israel is stripped of this or that asset - assets that Jerusalem sees as necessary for defending the Jewish state's northern border - the terrorist organization would then give up its menacing army and turn into a purely political party, playing nice with other Lebanese politicos.

"Thus, Israel currently must end its flights over Lebanon, which violate Security Council resolutions, before the disarming of Hezbollah, through a 'political dialogue', could be achieved. Mr. Pedersen's reflects this thinking in public pronouncements that detail every Israeli cross-border flight but decline to weigh in on the illegal flow of arms into Lebanon across the Syrian border.

"That flow of arms was detailed recently in a Security Council briefing carried by Mr. Pedersen's fellow Norwegian, Terje Roed Larsen, who currently serves as another of Mr. Annan's envoys to the region. An old Middle East hand, Mr. Roed Larsen has grown increasingly open-eyed about the region's realities. He has consistently highlighted the dangers in allowing an army answerable to Iran and Syria to grow unchecked inside Lebanon.

"Mr. Larsen's subtle but honest reporting to the council about arms violations by Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian masters has naturally ruffled some feathers in Beirut. Even more so, it caused some upset among the Damascus Baathists, who have briefly declared him a persona non grata.

"Mr. Annan's diplomatic style shuns anyone who rocks the boat too much. Although publicly supporting him, Mr. Annan's team soon eased Mr. Roed Larsen out of the inner circle of decision makers. His fellow Norwegian, the Hezbollah-friendly Mr. Pedersen, became the top go-to man. Finally, last week's attempt to promote Mr. Pedersen was seen mostly as means to isolate Mr. Roed Larsen and push him out altogether."

The Scots poet William Topaz McGonagall, says the Telegraph, may soon be honoured alongside literary giants such as Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, despite being in rather a different league, as writers go. "The Writers' Museum in Edinburgh is considering adding his name to the memorial paving slabs in the city's Makars' Court in recognition of the continuing fascination with his appalling poetry.

"Elaine Greig, the museum's curator, said: 'Love him or hate him, William McGonagall is a great character in Scottish writing whose appeal has stood the test of time. There has been strong support for the idea of McGonagall getting a place.'

"But Gerard Carruthers, a lecturer on Scottish literature at Glasgow University, said his work was 'puerile Scottish kitsch'."

Uncle Einstein once said that while God had a sense of humour, He was not malicious. If Mr Carruthers falls and breaks his silly neck in the next few days, we'll know Uncle was wrong.

British Muslim leaders are seeing off an attempt by politically-correct British nitwits who want to take Christianity out of Christmas for fear of offending someone.

The Telegraph reports that "Muslim leaders joined their Christian counterparts yesterday to launch a powerful attack on politicians and town halls that play down Christmas. They warned that attempts to remove religion from the festival were fuelling right-wing extremism.

"A number of town halls have tried to excise references to Christianity from Christmas, in one case by renaming their municipal celebrations 'Winterval'. They have often justified their actions by saying Britain is now a multi-faith society and they are anxious to avoid offending minority groups.

"But the Muslim leaders said they honoured Christmas and that local authorities were playing into the hands of extremists who were able to blame Muslim communities for undermining Britain's Christian culture."

12 November 2006

If you wonder where I've been for the last three days, the answer is that I have been cast into exile by my nemesis, the dreaded Bermuda Telephone Company. On Wednesday evening, a little pissant of a storm knocked my phones out - probably a failure in the ancient line which carries a signal from my house to the nearest telephone pole.

I borrowed my son's cellphone and reported it...once on Thursday, once on Friday. I don't believe a word has yet been coined for the attitude I encountered, but perhaps after I've calmed down, in a month or two, I'll invent one myself. It is an attitude of unfailing politeness beyond which one glimpses a well of uncaring so deep that one could drop a bomb into it and never hear it land. It isn't enough to be polite, dammit. The 21st Century, (and most of the 20th, but we'll let that pass) demands that people who answer distress calls like mine care about my problem and demonstrate to me that they are trying to do something about it. I don't care to be wished a happy holiday by a BTC operator anxious to be rid of me, goddamit.

I was once given some names to call by a BTC executive in the event of a failure, but I find pulling strings unpleasant. My working theory on string-pulling is that I am a simple citizen, and wish to share the fate of my fellow citizens. I suspect that in the new Bermuda I am alone. There are no more simple citizens - everybody is busy pulling every string in creation.

Anyway, my phones are still bust, I expect them to remain bust for some days yet, so damn BTC and all who work there. I hope the fates cast them into a slough of despond from which there is no communication of any kind...and no strings to pull. Meantime, I have left Bermuda and am blogging from a country which passed out of the telephonic stone age half a century ago (I was going anyway, so it isn't as dramatic a move as all that).

The one failed candidate for office in last week's election who should have won a consolation prize of some kind, on the grounds of his really admirable political platform and all-round chutzpah, was Kinky Friedman, who had a band in the Seventies called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. The New Yorker seems to agree: "Kinky, who had no political experience and who likes to say that he's never had a real job, hoped to sail to victory on the waves of a generalized frustration with two-party, big-money politics and a platform that included the legalization of casinos, the decriminalization of marijuana, and the 'dewussification' of Texas.

"With five contestants in the race, some polls had shown Kinky in second place, but, as Tuesday neared, he dropped to fourth. The media had begun trotting out the offensive bits from his politically incorrect act, honed over three decades in song and in novels, and he was painted as a racist. He was also asked to respond to the accusation that he was a spoiler, helping to kill the chances of the Democratic candidate, the former congressman Chris Bell. But Kinky wasn't having any of it. 'As of now,' he said, after the lone debate among the candidates, 'I'm still voting for myself.'"

There are two things in this San Francisco Chronicle story abouut Lawrence Ferlinghetti that might be new to many people. First, he is a WW II veteran. Second, he visited Nagaqsaki six weeks after the bomb had been dropped,

"'I saw a giant field of scorched mulch. It sprawled out to the horizon, 3 square miles looking like someone had worked it over with a huge blowtorch. A few sticks from buildings jutted up like black arms,' Ferlinghetti says. 'I found a teacup that seemed like it had human flesh fused into it, just melted into the porcelain.

"'In that instant,' says Ferlinghetti, 'I became a total pacifist.'"

I think those images sort of found their way into Ferlinghetti's collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind (important to 20th Century poetry, but overshadowed by Howl). I'm away from home, so I can't check, but I believe there was a long poem which contained the line "after the strange rain stopped falling". Anyone got a copy handy?

Here's an important story - though one not written terribly clearly. It suggests that the the first slaves to set foot on American shores were part of a group on a ship called the Treasurer. Some of the group, according to this research, were landed, presumably soon after, in Bermuda. The remainder were landed back in Virginia "several months later." The Dallas Morning News reports that the Treasurer was an English pirate ship, one of two to rob a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista of about 350 slaves off the coast of Mexico in 1619. It's a bit of a tangled tale:

"They were known as the '20 and odd,' the first African slaves to set foot in North America at the English colony settled in 1607. For nearly 400 years, historians believed they were brought to Virginia from the West Indies on a Dutch warship. Little else was known of the Africans, who left no traces.

"Now, new scholarship and transatlantic detective work have solved the puzzle of who they were and where their forced journey across the Atlantic Ocean began...Virginia's first Africans spoke Bantu languages called Kimbundu and Kikongo. Their homelands were the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, regions of modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo. Both were conquered by the Portuguese in the 1500s.

"And they most likely had been baptized as Christians, because the Kingdom of Ngondo converted to Christianity in 1490.

"Many were literate. This background may be one reason some of Virginia's first Africans won their freedom after years as indentured servants, the historians said."

Jack Palance became a favourite of mine the moment I clapped eyes on him back in the early 50s - can't remember the film, but it was well before Shane. The Observer explains the look of menace: "He was 6ft 4in and had a magnificent physique that derived from his years as a coalminer in Pennsylvania - he'd followed his Ukrainian-American father down the pit - and as a professional boxer. His greatest performance is reckoned to be as the washed-up prizefighter in the 1956 TV film Requiem for a Heavyweight. Palance's gaunt appearance, with the strong jaw, wide forehead, high cheekbones, deeply sunken eyes, concave nose and taut skin was partly natural, and partly due to plastic surgery after he was severely burnt while training as a bomber pilot in the Second World War."


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

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