Monday, 21 July 2014


Sorry, it's been a while. I know, because I have access to snooping tools barely less powerful than the NSA's, that there are not three million of you waiting avidly to hear whatever I come up with next, but I I have been providing an even worse service than usual, I realise.

I'm busy, is the obvious reason. I'm getting the first episode of a new radio thing ready for Tall Tales next week, which means a lot of writing, crossing fingers in the usual way that somehow, miraculously, this time I will have learned to plan something so that it doesn't need at least two radical rewrites, re-read, realise that the miracle hasn't happened, and so on. And also plan a musical I'm writing in the next couple of months, hopefully in such a careful way that I don't need at least two radical rewrites.

And also, at the same time, I am slowly working out the best way to rebuild slash redesign this blog, and maybe Listen & Often, which doesn't need it, exactly, because it was designed by someone who knows what they're doing, but I might try to put them on the same overall platform, along with my website (I worry that I might be boring you by now) and what might very possibly become a new podcast that I've been working on with Marie.

Also, therefore, I've been learning podcasting. I didn't have to learn podcasting for Listen & Often because Toby did all the work. It turns out that if I have to be relied on to do all the work, things take longer.

So, that's where I am. I have an annoying list of open tabs waiting to be turned into posts, so it's me who's suffering, really.

(If you want to audience at next week's Tall Tales, please email so we know you're coming.)

Monday, 7 July 2014

how the rich young live now

On Saturday night, I went to a restaurant on Saturday which had a large private room which was holding an evidently very posh eighteenth birthday party. Of the hundreds of eighteen year olds (the eighteenth birthday parties I went to were in people's gardens) a huge proportion spent a lot of the evening outside smoking.

When I was eighteen a lot of my friends smoked. Ten years ago, it seemed that many fewer people that age did. These things go in waves, blah, blah, blah. But what I wondered about, in addition, was this: is smoking for rich eighteen year olds a sign of conspicuous consumption? It's so much more expensive than it used to be that I can hardly imagine how even my comfortably off eighteen year old friends would easily have afforded it. Is this a thing like fat is a sign of wealth when there is no food?

(Interestingly, while eighteen year olds are conventionally supposed to look amazing by virtue of being eighteen, these eighteen year olds looked an absolute shower.)

(If I wanted to be able to afford to send an eighteen year old child of mine to a massive party like this, I would set up an chain of tattoo removing salons. Literally every fashion looks ridiculous twelve years on. I'm really looking forward to this one.)

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Clearing tabs

The least graceful thing in public life is rich, white, Christian, western men trying to pretend they are victims or underdogs. See also Amazon.

Fancy dress, fascism, gay men, Churchill. (Philip Hoare is brilliant.)

Why Britain can't do the wire. Excellent, especially on writers, but I would also say that it's easier-slash-more locative to go for niches in America because the niches contain so many more people. I do think UK telly culture is not as bold as it should be. But I would.

What is the really important thing about Bitcoin? It's the way it moves information. That's how it will change the world, says Virgin, which is a very odd-feeling source for one of the most interesting things I've read about Bitcoin.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

David Sedaris is the bombYou can tell where my territory ends and the rest of England begins. It’s like going from the rose arbor in Sissinghurst to Fukushima after the tsunami. The difference is staggering

Luis Suarez biting some guy who's spent an hour kicking him: biting a guy in football is definitely different to kicking him or elbowing him in the head, even though the latter are objectively more likely to cause lasting damage. Partly it's that there's no excuse and so it's incredibly easy to judge, and judging things, as Rebekah Brooks knows, is hard.

(By the way, do you know how many criminal defendants get privately paid barristers? A vanishingly small number. Proof is hard when you have lots of highly paid lawyers (not better lawyers, necessarily, but lawyers with all the time they need to make their case). It's what financial criminals depend on.)

Anyway, Suarez should get a ban, but I've seen worse things on sports fields not get punished just because the players could pretend they were part of the game. To be fair, sometimes it has been Suarez doing them. You should still read Brian Phillips on him. And this is good too, from Colin McGowan: Surely, we’re smart enough to enjoy Su├írez — to like him, in a way — and to also know he’s a spectacular jackass. 

I'm very busy at the moment.

A book about monsters appearing on mediaeval maps? What's not to like?

Friday, 13 June 2014

nothing to see here

Great links from the Slate Political Gabfest last week. The first was to a New York Times story about Xiao Jianhua. He was the head of the Peking student union when the Tienanmen Square protest took place. He started off a bit pro protest. Then he decided things were getting too anti state and he took the other tack. Did it pay off? Well, that's for you to judge. To help you:

In the quarter-century since, he became the prototype of the politically connected financier. He has assiduously courted the party elite, including the family of its current president, Xi Jinping, becoming something of a banker for the ruling class and a billionaire in his own right.

Now 42 years old, Mr. Xiao controls a sprawling business empire with interests largely in state-dominated industries, including banking, insurance, coal, cement, property and even rare-earth minerals, and largely managed by his holding company, the Tomorrow Group.

The second was to Leonardo da Vinci's job application to the Duke of Milan, which says he'd be a good employee because he can (nine different points) make bridges quickly for troops, destroy walls, cast cannons, etc. Then (one point) he can do peacetime architecture. Then, just as a by the way: I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Everything is Broken, which was a link from [someone else] is about internet security and why there isn't any. (Clue: people in charge of it are just these guys, like you are. You know how you are just some guy who wants to get home to the kids or finish work in time to watch Game of Thrones and sometimes cocks up? So is everyone else! Even the Melvyn Braggs of this world are just doing their best to get by. This will be my theme when someone asks me to write a commencement speech.)

Friday, 6 June 2014

blonde angel

I had never heard of Luciano Re Cecconi till he was the answer to a quiz question the other day. His nickname was the blonde angel and this is a line from his Wikibiog:

Re Cecconi played for the Italian under-23 side, and was on the roster of the national squad at the 1974 World Cup. He was shot dead in 1977, after pretending to rob a friend's jewelry shop as a practical joke.

Andrew Gilligan at the Telegraph has been funny about the awful Lutfur Rahman's reelection as mayor of Tower Hamlets. The Panorama expose of Rahman was great, which I know even though I didn't watch it because a friend of mine paraphrased it for me in a way that only took a few hours longer than my watching it would have done. Rahman's team intimidated voters and misused funds on campaigning, and also:

Some polling stations were moved to new, unfamiliar, and harder-to-reach locations. One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island, at the bottom of a ramp, in the middle of a busy four-lane road!

If you are anything like me, you got to the end of this thinking, 'stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying beware of the leopard.'

In general, books aren't best read in synopsis. On the other hand, I cannot too highly recommend the synopsis of The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie. It was turned into a Marple a few years ago, but believe me, the synopsis provides no spoilers for the Marple version. Seriously, treat yourself.

But if you are too busy and just want some highlights:

Hiram Fish, a collector of first edition books … Unaware she did not write the letters, he wants to blackmail her. On a whim, she pays, and promises more money the next day … The Koh-i-Noor diamond had been stolen from the Tower of London (and replaced by a paste copy) some years earlier, by a French thief named King Victor … he gives the real memoirs (which have no embarrassing anecdotes) to Jimmy McGrath to deliver to the publishers, to earn his one thousand pounds …  presents himself as the missing Prince Nicholas, who had spread the rumours of his own death in the Congo and through coincidence was led into this adventure ...

In fact, the more I read these notes, the more I can't believe this wasn't written by Wodehouse. Everything about it seems like Wodehouse.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

a surprising fact

Question: how rich do you reckon Vladimir Putin is? Think about it for a moment. The answer at the end of this post.

Do you know who wrote the Russian national anthem? I assume you presume it was Roger Doucet, the beloved tenor who belted out Oh Canada before Montreal Canadiens ice hockey matches in the nineties. You're right. On the other hand, there was a long time when the song had no lyrics, because the lyrics were a bit Staliny.

Roger was going to sing the anthems at the ice hockey world cup in 1996 and he wasn't having that. He dug out the old words, got a Russian prof at the university to 'fix them up' and sang away. The diplomats were nervous. Nothing much happened. Next year, the lyrics, almost word for word, were readopted.

Just in case you have forgotten, Flower of Scotland was written in 1967 by The Corries.

And I saw Inside Llewyn Davis the other day. It's set in 1961. It featured a song from my all-time top 5 favourite album, Singing the Fishing, a radio documentary with songs about the East Coast herring fleets. The song was written by Ewan MacColl, although it couldn't sound more trad. I assumed that it wasn't released until well after 1961, but it was actually first broadcast in 1960. Llewyn Davis probably heard it on iPlayer.

The Answer: I don't know. But people periodically say he's the richest man in the world, at anything form $40bn-$70bn. And other people say that there is no evidence he controls all that oil company stock that the main source, who is just some guy in Moscow, says he controls. Putin himself says he's the richest man in the world because, 'I collect emotions, I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia -- I believe that is my greatest wealth.'

He sounds like a nice guy. (He isn't one.)

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Dance, man mountain, dance

Gosh, time flies. My much anticipated Bond novel is finished and publishers around the world are dreaming it might land on their desks.

I have voted. I think I am allowed to post this hilarious benefits fraud story, which I am sure most of you saw anyway, without you thinking I voted for UKIP or any Daily Mail-style party. It's hard to know what to like most about the woman who claimed she was agoraphobic and then posted pictures online of her globetrotting. For no obvious reason, it might be that she got her comeuppance in Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court. Or that she's written 'three racy novels, including Last Tango in Buenos Ares.' At some point, when someone is this much of a comedy villain, you just have to say, 'You should be in jail, but hats off.'

Should America pay reparations for slavery? Don't answer until you have read Ta Nehisi Coates on the subject, is my advice, because loads of other people will have and you don't want to sound glib. Also, because it's amazing. (While you're at it, since it's about pricing the unpriceable: Tim Harford on Gary Becker - the economist who priced everything but not because he thought everything had a price.)

I don't want to read Last Tango in Buenos Ares. I do want to read Drachenfels. I didn't realise Kim Newman wrote a load of Warhammer books. Someone I respect (but I can't remember who it was) said this one was, surprisingly, excellent. The reviews on Amazon are raves. I'm going to find out for myself. (Kim Newman's website made me feel pretty lazy, I can tell you.)

That video at the top? It's the Fearsome Foursome: Rosey Grier, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones. They were probably the scariest defensive line ever to play American football. Merlin Olsen, the one with no rhythm, went on to star in Little House on the Prairie.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Walter R Walsh gunned down the Brady gang, among other gangsters, when he was working for the FBI. He trained marksmen in World War II, shot a Japanese sniper with a single pistol shot at 80 yards, captained American shooting teams in his eighties, still not wearing glasses, and died recently at the age of 107. His NYT obit (thank you Marie Phillips) is great, and ends like this: Three weeks after Mr. Walsh’s 100th birthday, a grandson, Sgt. Nicholas R. Walsh, a reconnaissance team leader with Charlie Company, First Platoon of the First Marine Division, was killed by sniper fire in Fallujah, Iraq.

My friend Ian Leslie's book Curious is launched today, I think. He's really good and I am one of a billion people who wish he'd stop looking after his daughter and start writing Marbury again. I loved this piece about the Mona Lisa.

Performance Enhancing Drugs are not stigmatised in Hollywood even though they provide the same competitive advantages for actors that they provide for sportsmen. Fairly obvious reasons - sports is about truth, drama is not - but it's fun and lets me link again, just in case you didn't read it, to this Grantland article on Luis Suarez. Non-football fans, believe me, the writing is good enough for you to enjoy the first bit, and the last quarter is brilliant.

What do bankers think of bankers? Barclays has ditched large chunks of its investment arm and its shares have immediately gone up 3.5% (I know it is much more complicated than this. Tangent: a great long article on the scandal of managed funds with huge numbers of lobbyists reducing the value of pension funds which should have been invested gently into trackers.)

The Irish Times reviewed The Dazzle last weekend. It's a lovely review and I am grateful, although the timing is definitely eccentric. I now imagine Claire Looby sitting with an unbelievably massive pile of books, gritting her teeth and going, 'I'm bloody well going to get through them all. I am.'

Monday, 5 May 2014

Dazzle spoilers

Only the least crazy stuff in The Dazzle has no basis in fact. For instance, in Agent Dmitri by Emil Draitser, which is about a real Russian master spy, the spy goes to Danzig hoping to get hold of a passport from the Greek consul general, who's not a Greek at all. He's called Henry Habert and he's a member of an international gang of drug dealers who have wormed their way into the League of Nations.

Later, our spy needs to set up a business as a cover and picks Amsterdam as a convenient base.

To facilitate opening the new business, Dmitri struck up an acquaintance with an influential banker and businessman, Israel Pollack. He happened to be a patron of an underground bordello operating in the neighbourhood where Dmitri rented a spacious apartment...

GADA's [the business' name] official business was wholesale trade in wool cloth. But in reality the cloth was counterfeit. First, the firm collected high-quality wool clippings not only all over Holland but also in Belgium, England, Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries. Then, the raw materials were shipped to Lodz, where Dawidowicz arranged to mix them with a generous amount of cotton. The end result was 'high-quality' wool cloth. A Beligian artist (perhaps a member of the local Communist party; Dmitri calls him 'Comrade Gan van Looi') employed by one of the major British textile firms provided GADA with the next season's patterns. The counterfeited cloth produced in Lodz resembled the real thing. To make it look thoroughly authentic, the rolls of that cloth were transported to a shop in England where a machine stamped 'Made in England' along its borders. The cloth was then sold for a solid profit in remote areas, such as the African continent and South America.

There was also an Italian code-named ROSSI who sold the same secrets to loads of different governments, preferred to receive a million counterfeit dollars to 200,000 real francs and once almost got caught smuggling lace into the UK when he was supposed to be travelling covertly with Dmitri.

The wife of another agent, a Londoner the agent had ruined, speculated she'd have to go on the game at 52 to make ends meet. And lots more.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

sticks and stones

Newsflash: my external hard drive has stopped connecting to my computer for no obvious reason.

Newsflash 2: the place I wanted to be in to start a walk at the end of August is unreachable by public transport forcing me to change my plans in some way yet to be determined.

Newsflash 3: my advice on Osprey luggage and Contigo travel mugs still holds. I may have mentioned also that Dunlop Volleys are the most comfortable basic plimsolls money can buy, but they are not for people who need stabilising shoes. I am working towards advice on walking trousers, but I don't want to hurry it. What else do you need help with?

Newsflash 4: I had an idea for a television programme based on a title which is a pun. I'm not the first person in that boat. In fact, the boat is sinking, it's so full. No bad thing.

In American sports news: Donald Sterling is being forced to sell the Clippers because he was caught being racist on tape. Strong action indeed from the NBA. On the other hand, he has already been prosecuted for racist actions with respect to his work. You are legally allowed to be a dick, you are not legally allowed to discriminate in the workplace. The excellent Mike Pesca, who you've never heard of, writes: I would argue that refusing to rent to black and Hispanic families is a far worse societal ill than decrying the presence of Magic Johnson on the Instagram account of your goomah. The NBA apparently didn’t think so, having never raised any kind of public ruckus about Sterling’s shameful, well-established behavior. It’s telling that Clippers coach Doc Rivers claims he “didn’t know a lot about” Sterling’s racism before he accepted his current position.

However, it's a publicity-driven league so it's the publicity snafu not the crime that got him in trouble. For clarity, in case you don't follow the NBA, Sterling is a terrible, terrible dick.

Also, there is going to be a movie about Chinese guys playing American football badly. It was an aspirational sports choice based on movie watching and they self-consciously or not wrote their own season into the shape of a sports movie. The whole thing is well recursive.

In American non-sports news, the This American Life about tarring and feathering is completely gripping.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


Oops. Been a while. I'm sending a new book to my agent tomorrow. Apart from that, I have mainly been constructing impossible murders and wishing I had a different, slightly better knee.

This, which was sent to me by a hard core spy, tickled me.

A former baseball star was racially profiled in his own driveway. He didn't like it.

I love these or any pictures of cute girls hunting with eagles.

I'm reading The Sports Gene by David Epstein. There's a chapter about high jumpers, including midgety Swede Stefan Holm, who was my favourite of those even before I read this: Holm's son Melwin has begun to tag along. (Melwin is not a Swedish name. Holm and his wife liked 'Melvin' and Holm wanted 'win' somewhere in the boy's name.

Also, apparently, he's got some post-high-jump fame as a quizzer. I like that too.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Someone on Twitter (Sorry, I can't remember who) said that this was the best opening paragraph on Wikipedia:

Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 – 5 June 1963) was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He served in the Boer War, First World War and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a POW camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. Describing his experiences in World War I, he wrote, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war."

It's certainly a good one but it's a long entry and the pace doesn't really let up. For instance, after tunnelling out of the camp, Carton de Wiart evaded capture for eight days disguised as an Italian peasant (which is surprising considering that he was in northern Italy, couldn't speak Italian, and was 61 years old, with an eye patch, one empty sleeve and multiple injuries and scars). Later, he agrees to carry a message to England so long as the Italians don't dress him up like a gigolo. In fact, there is so much in his life that it's sort of incredible that there are two long periods where he retires to the country (in Poland between the wars and in Ireland after them) to hunt and fish.

What fact have I learned recently that really shocked me? It is that while Henry VIII was paying Holbein £30 a year, his Abraham tapestries (which are amazing) cost £2,000 each.

This is good and angry about politics in the 'neutral' City of London.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

the world's best juggler

Only jugglers know who the best juggler is. Six balls looks not much harder than five but it's ten times harder. Grantland currently features one of my favourite things for ages, by Jason Fagone, about a juggler called Anthony Gatto, who is setting up a new business under his real name. As the piece puts it:

We are committed to offering a cost effective solution to tearing out and replacing old, damaged and deteriorating concrete,” reads the “About” page. “From stained micro-toppings to metallic floor finishes, counter tops and garage floor epoxy coatings, we have the solution for you.” A small head shot shows what looks like a smiling Gatto. Next to the head shot is a name. The name is not the one that has amazed audiences for the last 30 years. “Owned and operated,” the page says, “by Anthony Commarota.”

How did the greatest juggler in the world end up working in concrete?

This American Life is often great, but the episode Except For That One Thing was particularly strong. It has a short story about a date, a finale about a guy who went to prison for a crime he did commit and in the middle was Jon Mooallem talking about the Meat Problem of America's early twentieth century. The USA had run out of frontier, exterminated the passenger pigeon, killed most of the cod and almost all the bison, and it was frightened. What was the answer? Hippos. Breed hippos in Florida.

I was having a drink with two friends the other night. I am 40. They are 36 or so. Neither of them had seen The Commitments. This shocked me. I reckon almost no one who was a student when I was a student missed that film. These two, who were students just afterwards (not even after, because I was a graduate student when they were undergraduates), didn't see it and didn't see that as peculiar. The only way I could make them understand was by asking how surprised they would be if someone five years younger than them hadn't seen The Full Monty.

Friday, 14 March 2014

double penetrator!

Ok, I'm sorry. But I've held off for nearly 36 hours and I couldn't hold off any longer.

 I found it in a second hand bookshop. Two for the price of one. I looked up The Penetrator series, something which leads you to some pretty dark places pretty quickly if you're not careful, and I found a subculture of trash reviewers, like this guy, and this guy. Interestingly, in general, it seems that they are quite good at what they are, which is crazy. (As a result of the second guy's blog, I really want to read the lost sic fi classic, in his opinion, Spawn of the Death Machine.)

There were 53 Penetrators written by two guys (Mark K. Roberts did odd and Chet Cunningham did even, or vice versa) over the course of eleven busy years.

This guy's viewUnlike the Executioner and the Destroyer and the Death Merchant and the Butcher (whew!), I did not read the Penetrator when they first came out in the early 70's. It wasn't until I started this site that I took to reading them and was very pleasantly surprised. Hardin is a very likeable man* and his adventures are very likeable reads. As spy books they are lacking but as the adventures they are meant to be, they are good

Here's a spoof movie trailer done last year. It's funny. The main thing all this made me think of is The Reprisalizer.

* I might read this book just to find out whether I agree that Hardin is 'a very likeable man'.