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.