Monday, 30 August 2010

a corner of some foreign field

Here's a thing. My Olympics correspondent (regular readers Ferguson and Jones perk up noticeably) told me the other day that archery-mad Korea, preparing for the Beijing Olympiad, inspected the archery ground, went home and built a replica for training purposes. I am with child at the idea that they might currently be knocking up a stage-set version of Lord's.

ceci n'est pas un parody

Three things. [UPDATE: 4]

1. BBC 3: Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum. Season finale as nine young adults living at home face their last assignment hoping to win the trip of a lifetime - they are sent to work at a charity helping people redecorate.

I repeat, this is not a parody.

2. The Sunday Times not quite-a-joke health advisor is Ozzy Osbourne. If you're scared of flying or sleeping badly, ask Ozzy Osbourne. Seriously. I mean: not seriously.

3. Just heard BBC news presenter saying: 'The man was not seen for eight days before he was discovered. [Tone of incredultity.] Is this not unusual?!' The tone is important here. I don't think it's an unreasonable basic question - is this something unusual within the field of murders? - but presenter's tone seemed to ignore the underlying truth that murder of any kind is extremely unusual, and it is not what people assume has happened.

4. Last week's Archers. Hard to imagine how more drama/minutes of radio could conceivably have been wrung from Ed and Emma's thrilling quest to find some artichokes.

Friday, 27 August 2010

luxury player was a thing of rare beauty

Everyone loves poetry. This is a fact.*

I don't know what I think about the trend for adverts to be written as unbelievably smug short poems. Often these are relatively skilfully done, and not hateful poetically (the poems most people love have good solid rhythms and rhymes, and I love them too, and if you don't like Kipling, you've most likely never really read him or are a knee-jerk idiot who needs to get over yourself**). But they are smug. In. Credibly. Smug. And smugness is annoying.***

* It is not a fact.
** I do not deny that some sensible people who have concentrated on Kipling don't like him, but I've met very few of them.****
*** See this blog passim.
**** I'm not sure I have ever spoken with one, actually, but I am totally sure they exist and I've no problem with that. I am not a total moron.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

bodies in bags

Cat, blah.

But that's nothing. I have just heard this on the Radio 4 news:
Police are investigating a body found in a bag in a flat belonging to an MI6 worker who has been missing for some time.
Maybe R4 producers don't pay much attention to the plots of thrillers, but this could hardly more obviously be the opening chapter/scene from one. Any moment now, Jack Bauer or similar is going to have to get his shit together.

show me the money

In Soccernomics, Simon Cooper and Stefan Szymanski explain that between 1978 and 1997, transfer spending only explained 16% of total variation in league position. Salary spending explained 92%. From 1998-2997 this dropped, but wages still explained 89% of league position variation. This is the main reason I think Manchester City are likely to win the league in the next couple of years if things stay the same.

Manchester City, interestingly, was the club whose wages didn't buy them commensurate results. Not saying they should have been a top club in that period, but they underperformed a bit.

(Funny line from the chapter about the people who run football clubs, whose hiring policies are hilarious: 'The staff of football clubs tend not merely to be incompetent, they are also often novices')

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

don't read the sunday times*

* Under specific circumstances to be detailed below

In the last couple of weeks I've read two cracking books set in posh schools. Skippy Dies is the Booker-longlisted second novel from Paul Murray; Gentlemen and Players is by Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat. If you're me and your only experience of Chocolat is being made to watch it by your mum one Christmas, then you probably read the above sentence as one of diametrically opposite recommendations. I picked it up at the brilliant Firestation Book Swap because I saw the title, assumed it would be nothing to do with cricket (where the expression Gentlemen and Players comes from) and this could be the start of a scornful little riff for me about Joanne Harris, about whom I knew nothing.

On the back were a slew of incredibly positive quotes, and so, dear reader, I read the book. It was terrific. Skippy Dies was raved about by another bookswapper and I had been sent a copy and thought it looked interesting, and so I put it on my holiday reading slate.

Which was I more surprised to love? Obviously the Harris. I felt guilty for my stupid pre-judging.

Which was better? I don't have to tell you, because I am not being paid for my opinion. And I don't read reviews before reading books, just in case bits of plot are given away, because I love narrative and it's easy to ruin a book. On returning home, I read the Sunday Times review of Skippy Dies. It gave away the plot APPALLINGLY. It was as appalling as the bit of The Kilburn Social Club plot that the same reviewer gave away in the same paper. Absolutely do not read these reviews before reading Skippy Dies or TKSC.

(I don't get to express an opinion on the reviewer's artistic judgement, obviously. In case this looks disingenuous, the review of TKSC was lukewarm; of Skippy Dies was extremely warm. That's what you really need to know from the reviewer.)

Monday, 23 August 2010

don't misunderstand me

This might be the start of a new series on books which have deeply influenced how I think about the world. It might not.

Before continuing: please be very aware that I do not think the USA is about to elect a fascist government under Sarah Palin. I am basically pro-america, and think the country is a great and historically self-adjusting force for good. All I am doing is explaining why the idea is not ipso facto ridiculous to me. This is much better as a way of understanding democratic fragility in Africa, the Middle East and Central Europe

Robert O Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism is an absolute crackerjack - it basically rescues the term from the sloppy usage that threatens to make it useless, and offers a way to compare fascist regimes rather than look at them as if each were sui generis. Its thesis, in a nutshell, is that fascism isn't about specific programmes - it is a particularly awful type of government which can emerge in a specific set of circumstances. Of course future fascist governments wouldn't look like the Nazis - we all know the Nazis were the bad guys - so how could we recognise the danger signs?

Well, for Paxton, fascism doesn't depend on once-in-a-lifetime leaders (which absolves those who supported it, and should be obvious to anyone who has ever studied the Nazis, who were a bunch of hopeless losers who got horrifically lucky), and it doesn't grow out of national characteristics (which lets other nations off the hook). It depends on a crisis, primarily an economic one, which breeds an atmosphere of hopelessness and fear.

As I wrote in a review of the book:
Paxton believes that fascism mobilises fears of community decline and exalts unifying categories such as race, nation, and (possibly) religion. In the context of a democratic crisis that seems beyond the reach of traditional solutions, this can create a popular movement that cuts through moribund party squabbles. For such a movement to gain power, established elites have to try to co-opt its electoral muscle to defend their own interests. The fascist leader must accommodate himself to these elites, especially economically, but he must also hold out for political power as a precondition of being co-opted.
Now, Paxton was careful not to bang the cheap drum of contemporary resonance, and this book was written long before the credit crunch, but the three things that I think worth bearing in mind, in the context of the thing I don't think will happen but don't find utterly beyond credibility, are:

1. Palin is incredibly popular and says she stands outside politics; moneyed interests definitely reckon they can co-opt her political muscle
2. The US political system has got ridiculously moribund, to the point where it is increasingly difficult to make any laws. This is repeated all the time, which is more important than the literal truth of it, which is that it IS unwieldy, but all the same, Obama has been a very impressive legislator
3. The US economy has not recovered. My main analyst says things are going to get massively worse soon, though bear in mind that he is a bear*

* For those of you not up to speed with financial jargon, a bear is an animal with big claws

Friday, 13 August 2010


A few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to the Bechdel Test, as discussed by Marie Phillips here.

It's named after Alison Bechdel, who wrote the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For It first appeared in said strip. In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:

1. It includes at least two women...
2. who have at least one conversation...
3. about something other than a man or men.

(It's good if they have names, too.)

When you watch the screen with this in mind, you can get pretty depressed. Telly does better than film. I just wanted to say that the first film I thought of that meets these, and meets it in spades, is Kirsten Dunst cheerleader movie Bring it On (a good film, I promise). The cheerleaders are focused on competing as cheerleaders. It's a sports movie about girls, basically.

The reason I am mentioning it today: I love US high school drama. I can't help it. I don't really understand what's going on in US high schools, but I love the movies. Last night, I watched Coach Carter for the first time. It was more mature about abortion than half the US news you watch. Among many other things.

Thursday, 12 August 2010


is by John Lanchester, who is, as I've mentioned, is my favourite writer on the financial crisis. I can't find where I mentioned it, oddly. He wrote a New Yorker review of Lords of Finance so incredibly good I would not have been unhappy to have written it. My favourite line, repeated in Whoops!, related to Alan Greenspan and the 'failure of self-interest to provide self-regulation', which was, said Greenspan:
“a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” It’s worth dwelling on that phrase: “the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That’s a hell of a big thing to find a flaw in.
Anyway, I'll probably quote a lot of Lanchester in the coming period, maybe automatically since I will be at a bankers' convention in Mallorca. To start off with, something on the way models supposed to model risk only work in unrisky situations. The Black Monday crash of 1987 was a ten-sigma event, meaning it is ten standard deviations from the modelled norm. This means, as Roger Lowenstein wrote, that
on the basis of the market's historical volatility, had the markets been open every day since the creation of the universe, the odds we still have been against its falling that much in a single day. In fact, had the lift of the Universe been repeated one billion times, such a crash would still have been theoretically 'unlikely'.
The 1998 Russian bond default (I don't remember it either) was a seven-sigma event. As Lanchester writes:
it wasn't the only one. The last decades have seen numerous five-, six- and seven-sigma events. Those are supposed to happy, respectively, one day in every 13,932 years, one day in every 4,039,906 years, and one day in every 3,105,395,906 years. And yet no one concluded from this that the statistical models in use were wrong.

what part of this mornings radio 5 interview with jack straw did you enjoy most?

For me it was either his manful struggle to carry on talking after some muesli went down the wrong way ('I'll be writing to the manufacturers') or when he refused to renounce the Blair/Brown years, saying it would be odd if, having run on a platform a few months ago, labour politicians started 'dissing' it.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


I was at a very good wedding yesterday. Here, for the first time in what might be years, is some of the Provincial Lady. She's on a book tour in America:
Conversation with Aunt Eleanor ensues. She does not, herself, write books, she says, but those who do have always had a strange fascination for her. She has often thought of writing a book - many of her friends have implored her to do so, in fact - but no, she finds it impossible to begin. And yet, there are many things in her life about which whole, entire novels might well be written. Everybody devotes a moment of rather awed silence to conjecturing the nature of Aunt Eleanor's singular experiences, and anti-climax is felt to have ensued when small lady in rather frilly frock suddenly announces in a pipy voice that she has a boy cousin, living in Oklahoma, who once wrote something for the New Yorker, but they didn't ever publish it.
The party breaks up and Mrs Walker drives our heroine home, explains that Aunt E's first husband died and the second left her, and says she hadn't expected her and heroine to get along:
Am quite surprised and hurt by this, and realise that, though I am quite prepared to dislike Aunt Eleanor, I find it both unjust and astonishing that she should be equally repelled by me. Rather interesting sidelight on human nature thrown here...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

hereward the idiot

Tied to the Normans programme on BBC2, there's a BBC magazine feature about Norman influence on our language. Because you can't stop fools commenting on websites, the following appears in the list of amateur contributions:
The year 1066 is well remembered because it represented a catastrophe for our Anglo-Saxon civilisation
'Our'. Bless.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

wild swimming

There's a BBC piece about it. It thrillingly evokes the release felt by one toiling '32-year-old office worker' when he swims in the ponds at Hampstead:
After a hard day working as a windfarm developer, this is the moment he looks forward to...

born on monday

Where does the name Solomon Grundy come from? I didn't know and had never thought about it, but it literally has to come from the late nineteenth century operetta-writing team Solomon and Grundy. This is Sydney Grundy. They wrote Popsy Wopsy (a musical absurdity), The Vicar of Bray and Pocahontas. Grundy then teamed up with Arthur Sullivan for the more famous Haddon Hall. Solo works included Mammon, Mamma (did people get those two confused?) and The Glass of Fashion. (Mamma was an adaptation of Les Surprises du Divorce).

Did you know that Solomon Grundy, as well as featuring in the poem, was a DC Comics villain who fought Superman and the Green Lantern? He looked like this. He was sort of a zombie, but it was more complicated than that (most narratives from serial popular culture, when written out, are pretty crackers. I've got a couple of posts up my sleeve on this subject. Anyway, this is Solomon Grundy, born Cyrus Gold, and a wealthy merchant until he got incorporated with bits of swamp.

Monday, 2 August 2010

irritating bing

I know adverts are annoying, but this one particularly, well...

It's for bing, 'the decision engine' ('the find engine' didn't work for Jeeves, either). Someone on the tube asks for Euston tube station and, to symbolise the useless answers you get from 'some' search engines (Google is so useless! You've probably never realised), the person she asks starts whittering about 'eustacian tubes'. Now this is not going to happen at Google (or bing) since, you know, typing.

I've spent more time on this than it merits, and I haven't spent much time on it.

how much is that pelican in the window?

1. In the last Tall Tales I spoke about a bird-wrangler. Earlier today I heard that the day-rate for a trained pelican in Hollywood is $4,500.

2. Here is an online magazine piece about The Kilburn Social Club. It is thrilling.