Friday 30 May 2008


Earlier this afternoon, in Holland Park, I was watching a peacock fanning his preposterous tail feathers and shaking his booty for the benefit of a wholly uninterested peahen. Thwarted, he then gave it a try with the pigeons, and finally with the knot of human spectators. This display is a glorious blend of beauty and absurdity, and watching it is always a chastening experience for us gentlemen. It is all to easy to deconstruct our own behaviour into something very like the peacock's fanning and shaking, but without the beauty...
Now, I know it's an old chestnut, but it is extraordinarily hard to see how evolution by natural selction managed to come up with such astonishing prodigality, something so completely de trop and beyond any reasonable notion of utility. The same goes for many such extravagances of nature, including of course the wings of the peacock butterfly. Why on earth should the 'eyes' on the wings of a common British butterfly so precisely mimic those on the tail feathers of an exotic Asian fowl? They are way beyond anything sported by other butterflies for defence against birds (the birds peck at the 'eyes', thereby missing the butterfly's body). It's doubtful birds even see such elaborately overspecified markings as eyes at all - they are like no actual eyes a bird is ever likely to see. It does sometimes seem that nature is a bit of an artist...

Not Good To Talk

So this fellow reckons we could/should be 'talking to Al Qaeda'. Er, about what? What are the negotiable demands of a group that basically wants us all dead, and that, to all appearances, practises terrorism for its own sake. We can be sure that Al Qaeda, had it the nuclear firepower, would obliterate the US, the UK and whomever else they especially dislike. So what do we do - negotiate them down from a 100percent kill to, say, 80percent, maybe trading submission of the survivors to their particular brand of Islam in return for this concession? Sometimes it really isn't good to talk.

Cold (Very) Calls

Dear lord - here's what our 'listening leader' is up to now. It smacks not only of desperation but of derangement (and note he's not even giving his own repsonse but something lashed together by his office). So, what do you do if you get a call from Broon? A referee's whistle is said to be effective with nuisance calls, but that's a bit harsh. Any other ideas? Pretend to be Tony Blair? Tell him you've got all the double glazing you want?

Stonehenge. Sorry...

Over at Thought Experiments (where I often drop in to borrow a cup of sugar), controversy rages over Stonehenge. Well, I once paid a serious visit to this monument, having rashly volunteered to write a piece about it for a newspaper. Things might have changed since then (I believe the 'visitor centre' has had a makeover - I certainly hope so), but I have to say that I found it among the least atmospheric sites I have ever visited. The dead hand of the Ministry of Works (or whatever department of state it was) had robbed it of all mystery and magic. The approach to the stones was appallingly badly designed, as if to minimise their impact, there were notices and fences everywhere, and of course there's that bloody road, with traffic whooshing past all the time. It's much like one of those similarly done-over and killed stone dead castles that the state looks after (i.e. tidies up, stabilises, turfs and mows, and covers with 'interpretative' notices and safe, H&S approved walkways). Just because Stonehenge is the biggest and best known doesn't make it the most interesting, still less the most atmospheric. For myself, the standing stones that survive in Derbyshire, often barely marked, offer far more magic. I'd recommend Arbor Low any day over Stonehenge - and I'm sure my more northerly readers (Malty?) will have plenty to suggest... Sorry Susan, sorry Frank.

Thursday 29 May 2008

The Condition of Muzak

Stepping into my local supermarket last night for a few necessities, I was startled to be greeted by an unmistakable Al Kooper organ riff and - wham - Like A Rolling Stone came pouring forth from the PA (or tannoy or whatever it is). Naturally I lingered in the aisles until it was over, enjoying a truly great song and ruminating on the passage of time. I can still remember the horripilating shock of hearing it (and the still more vitriolic Positively 4th Street) for the first time - and now here it was, pouring out as supermarket muzak, with nobody but me even noticing, let alone listening. Can any (pop/rock) music resist lapsing over the years into bland, background acceptability, achieving the condition of muzak? What will I hear when I next step into that supermarket?


Last night on TV, I caught a very watchable, and surprisingly sympathetic docu-comedy-drama about Mary Whitehouse (a Times piece about it here). What struck me most about it was Hugh Bonneville's portrayal of Sir Hugh Carleton Greene - - in liberal mythology, the urbane guardian of free expression against the legion of small-minded Mrs Grundys - as a smug, foul-mouthed, raging, supremely arrogant monster. . In fact, this drama exposed the adamantine smugness of the BBC mindset - which basically hasn't changed since Greene's time (I've worked in the belly of that beast) - like nothing else I've seen, least of all on the BBC. Did they realise?

Back When We Were Serious

Mindful as ever of the mental health of my readers, I shall not provide a link to the Daily Mirror's interview with our Home Secretary, 'Jacqui' Smith, mistress of the glottal stop. In it she informs readers that she fancies half the Cabinet, not least Gordon 'Phwoar' Brown. However, she could never, she asserts, fancy a Tory. Do we laugh or cry? Do we imagine a Tory Home Sec informing readers of the Telegraph that he doesn't half fancy that Theresa May, but he could never go for socialist totty? This seems unlikely - double standards prevail here, as elsewhere. Maybe we should just sigh and think back to when we were serious, and serious men (and latterly women) held the high offices of state. In tomorrow's Daily Mirror - Chuter Ede exclusive! I wouldn't mind giving that Barbara Castle one...

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Wonder Drug - More Please

This story might seem familiar - perhaps because it's the same story as this from 2005 (and, no doubt, 2006 and 2007). Why do NICE and the medical profession love statins so much, despite strong evidence that they are already being overprescribed and have alarming side-effects? I suspect it's another case of GPs falling for the latest 'wonder drug' that will solve a major problem for them with minimal efffort - so they dole it out like sweeties, until a few years down the line the chickens come home to roost, and things turn out not to have been so simple after all. It's a familiar pattern. As for NICE, the appeal of statins is obvious - you can get the appearance of big benefits from blanket prescription, and when you're prescribing preventively, standards of proof are pretty relaxed (how do you establish what might have been if you hadn't been doling out the statins?). Statins, then, are aptly named - the statistician's dream drug, and the pharmaceutical weapon of choice of statist medicine.

The Blue Tits Make Their Move

As if smokers didn't have enough to contend with, they are now under attack from militant non-smoking blue tits, no doubt emboldened by Springwatch's Bill Oddie.. It'll be the squirrels next, mark my words - you go to stub out your fag and a whiskery little face pops up out of the ashtray and give you a withering look. (No, not Oddie, a squirrel.)

The Man on the Street Says It All

The growth of knife crime and other extreme violence among the nation's youth (despite, we are told, a headlong fall in crimes of violence, and by the way God didn't make the little green apples and it don't rain in Indianapolis...) has been much discussed, along all too predictable lines, and anyway it is not the kind of subject Nigeness intends to dwell long on. But this comment in a vox pop on the BBC London News yesterday struck me as worth recording. Asked what was the cause of all this out-of-control violent behaviour among the youth, a genial middle-aged man of Caribbean origin declared: 'It's those liberal-minded people who stopped us kicking them up the bottom. And now they wonder what's gone wrong.'
There's really nothing to add.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Chardonnay - This Isn't Love

I little thought that, so soon after my earth-shattering post on Carmenère, I should be addressing varietal matters again. Oz Clarke, it seems, has spoken out on Chardonnay . No doubt he's right about the Bridget Jones effect, but I fancy industrially produced Australian varietals - Jacobs Creek, etc - must have had a lot to do with it. These big, aggressive, over-oaked louts of the wine world disgrace the fair name of Chardonnay - well, fair except as a Christian name (see Footballers' Wives) - which is, as Oz acknowledges, one of the world's great grapes. Sir Les Patterson, always a man ahead of the times, was on to this years ago, with his rousing anthem Chardonnay (of which, alas, I am unable to trace the lyrics). But sadly he never achieved quite the cultural clout of Bridget Jones...

The Twitcher and His Minder

That curious British institution Springwatch - sex and violence for the respectable viewing classes, or a cheering reminder that Nature's still carrying on doing its thing - kicked off (if that's not too vigorous a term) last night. The ineffable Bill Oddie and his long-suffering minder Kate Humble are now based in Norfolk - yes Bryan, while you were away they came and and turned your spread into the Springwatch production village, sorry about that.
It's a rum do, is Springwatch, and getting rummer with the passing years... Oddie seemed to be spending his time practising his facial tics - yes, okay, he's a twitcher, but this is ridiculous - watching the monitor and grumbling at length about the cold, while poor old Kate humoured him and kept the show afloat. As ever, the sights to be seen on the various feeds vary from the amazing to the no-show - but what is striking is the disparity between all the state-of-the-art high-tech electronic wizardry being put to use in the filming side of things, and the utterly ramshackle presentation.. No doubt it's part of Springwatch's strange charm, but a similar mismatch between presentation and what we're seeing on screen pervades nearly all wildlifee programming. While the camerawork is dazzling, state--of-the-art stuff, the commentary is more like out-of-the-ark - a succession of off-the-shelf clichés, lashed together and served up against a background of portentous, equally off-the-shelf music. What we see is astonishing, what we hear is, as often as as not, dross.

Weather News Shock

Bit of a work crisis at NigeCorp just now. Normal service will be resumed later. I leave you with this, from last night's BBC News ('The Ten' as they pompously call it). 'Experts agree' that the recent weather split between rain-lashed South and sun-soaked North has 'absolutely nothing to do with climate change'. Yes, I stretched my eyes in disbelief, but that was definitely what the man said. Is the BBC beginning to soften its stance on this matter? Has there been, hem hem, a change in the weather?

Monday 26 May 2008

English Madness

Good to know that this kind of English madness still goes on, in an age of 'Health and Safety'. In fact, it's barely believable it hasn't been banned. One question: who's the guy in the suit?

Anne Tyler: Line and Length

I've just finished reading an Anne Tyler - The Amateur Marriage. It was the first I'd read in a few years, having slightly overdosed on her, and I am very glad I picked it up. Nick Hornby has called Tyler 'the best line-and-length novelist in the world' (this, I should explain for American readers, is a cricketing term which applies to bowlers who reliably land the ball close to the batsman and in line with the stumps) - and she does indeed have the solid, reliable virtues that so many of today's novelists woefully lack. All those virtues are evident in The Amateur Marriage. Her characters come alive in a way few writers manage - yes, they are drawn from a repertory company that gets replayed with variations, but each of them is someone you would know if you met them on the street. In the old phrase, they 'walk off the page'. Her psychological insights are often startlingly acute. She creates, with minimal fuss, an entirely credible world around her characters and deftly manages a narrative that is essentially driven by who they are. The Amateur Marriage works by particularly clever and subtle manipulation of point of view, across a series of vignettes that cover six decades.
Tyler is, as John Updike once said, 'not just good, but wickedly good'. Her masterpiece, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, is surely up there with the greats, but she is probably underrated because her subject matter is too close to 'ordinary' people's experience, her books are too popular, and she works in a disciplined way on a narrow canvas (but so did Jane Austen). Oh and she does write rather too much - but The Amateur Marriage is not one to be missed. I'm glad I came back to her.

Fun, You Say...

Well, for those redirected from the ur blog, Thought Experiments, in search of 'fun' - what can I say? Fun is a tricky one on a wet bank holiday Monday morning, when a chap of my constitution should be out striding over the downs on the lookout for butterflies and birds and curious wildflowers. But here I am stuck at home, sitting at the laptop, while outside all is cloud and wind and sheeting rain. What's worse, I awoke to discover that, according to the muesli-knitters who create Radio 4's 'news agenda', the most important thing that had happened in the whole wide world was this, the revival of an idea so deranged and so obviously flawed that even the Guardian and even the government saw through it. But sure enough, there is was - lead item on the News, and lead item post-News, with eco-warrior George Monbiot hailing this breakthrough in the battle against carbon. What a way to start the day.
Still, only the day before yesterday, I was admiring these and these in the garden. They'll be back when the sun comes out. And fun will no doubt return.

Sunday 25 May 2008

Madder Music

News reaches me that the Cistercian Monks of Stift Hieligenkreuz are now at number 9 in the pop album chart, as well as number one in the classical chart. Surely this can only be a good thing.

Sensation! Man Praises Brown

Gordon Brown still has his admirers, it seems. I hope the poor fellow was listening to Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning, where I, half asleep, half heard this fellow Jim Wallis, singing the Great Helmsman's praises with gusto. In the past, it seems, he has likened him (along with Bono hem hem) to the prophet Micah; today he seemed to be saying Broon is a 19th-century evangelical misplaced in the wrong century. He praised his unparalleled insight into world poverty and injustice, its causes and cures. But has Brown really got any ideas beyond flinging taxpayers' money - sorry, 'resources' - at everything and expecting results? The world, he has said to Wallis, 'has the resources to end poverty but not the moral and political will'. That, apparently, is the job of the churches. Is this insight? It sounds more like buck passing - and it is, of course, firmly based on the exploded notion that We (i.e. the donor nations) have the solution to the world's woes, and that our aid money, if there's enough of it, will eventually eliminate poverty. If only. Isn't the 'moral and political will' more conspicuously lacking in the recipient countries, with their corrupt, kleptocratic regimes? The Broonite way of thinking ultimately reduces them to mere passive recipients, rather than moral agents.

Everybody Loves Russia...

Or so it would seem from Russia's runaway victory in last night's Eurovision Song Contest (as it is still whimsically called). The winning song was a tedious blast of bad power pop (and you'd have thought power was something the Russians would know about), enlivened by an ice skater circling pointlessly around the singer.
I recently heard a new explanation for why the eastern bloc countries get all the votes - it's the ethnic minorities who find themselves living in the 'wrong' nation states and assert their identity annually by voting en masse for their mother/fatherland. Eurovision as a protest against the nation state? Well, maybe.
It was a poor result anyway, after the two previous winners, who had both been completely insane choices (monster rockers Lordi, and Serbia's mystifying answer to k d lang). And it wasn't as if there weren't madness galore on offer. At Nige Towers, much hilarity was occasioned by Bosnia's entry, an impenetrable drama involving a doll-like woman pegging out washing while a man with a painted-on moustache pranced around and tricoteuses in wedding dresses knitted away. Croatia's act, involving an old man in a hat, was almost as mystifying, and Latvia's deranged pirate song was inspired, perfect Eurovision fare. France too managed a classic - an impassioned song which, according to the subtitles, was all about 'Chivers', with which the singer seemed to have an agonised relationship (English marmalade perhaps? You know what the French are like...). The subtitles throughout were fascinating, not only in yielding no meaning at all 90 per cent of the time, but in establishing that most of these acts were in fact singing in English, though so heavily accented that you'd never have known. English, the international language of bad pop music, oh dear...
The great Terry Wogan did his head-shaking stuff superbly, as ever, but rather let himself down at the end by seeming to take the outcome seriously (I think he couldn't get hold of a drink, so he was probably crotchety). We should, he suggests, either pull out, or cut eastern Europe adrift and let western Europe have its own, supposedly non-political, merit-based contest. But where would the fun be in that? The whole point of Eurovision is its madness, its total divorce from any notions of musical quality (even at this base level). It proves to us year after year, in the most diverting way, that, when it comes to pop/rock music, those unfortunates on the far side of the Channel simply haven't a clue. Here at least we of the English-speaking world have got those continentals licked. So let's keep it coming, and the madder the better.