Archive for January, 2009

Good men die like dogs

29 January 2009


I’ve been tidying today, and came across a photocopy of something someone sent me just after I left the TV business. I can’t replicate the typography, but I think you’ll get the drift:

The TV business is a cruel and shallow monkey trench, a long plastic hallway, where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.

There’s also a negative side.

[Update: Later on I investigated the history of this quote.]


Swimming against the stream

25 January 2009
Terry Fontaine, Against The Flow

Terry Fontaine, Against The Flow

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I kept coming across scraps of paper with quotes I’d scribbled on them, and I thought it might be a good way to be able to find them more easily. I’ve just come across a few more:

“We must always swim against the current towards the source of the river, because even if you never reach the source, you will at least train your muscles.” (Zbigniew Herbert)

“The matter for the artist is not to describe what he sees but what he feels” (Baudelaire)

“It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee house for the voice of a kingdom” (Jonathan  Swift)

The painting at the top of thos post is by the representative abstract expressionist artist Terry Fontaine. More on his website.

From ‘pub’ to ‘pisshouse’

23 January 2009


One of the finest apologies ever seen, from the British Medical Journal, is spotted by the Guardian’s diary:

“During the editing of this Review of the Week by Richard Smith, the author’s term ‘pisshouse’ was changed to ‘pub’ in the sentence: ‘Then, in true British and male style, Hammond met Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, in the pub and did a deal.’ However, a pisshouse is apparently a gentleman’s toilet, and (in the author’s social circle at least) the phrase ‘pisshouse deal’ is well known. (It alludes to the tendency of men to make deals while standing side by side and urinating.) In the more genteel confines of the BMJ Editorial Office, however, this term was unknown and a mistake was made in translating it into more standard English. We apologise.”

Hard to believe that the editorial wing of the British Medical Association – which, let’s face it, is one of the bastions of the British establishment – is a stranger to the notion of deals being done in the gents, although I’m willing to believe that they wouldn’t use the word ‘pisshouse’ to describe it. Reminds me of a friend (I need to be a bit vague here) who was one of the first women to serve on an all-male governing body.  She would find  that the men would call an adjournment and then resolve their differences during the break, usually in the gents. She would have to make herself unpopular by asking them to repeat conversations which had been conducted “in private” in the break.

Patience is a virtue

21 January 2009
Osprey scoop, by Paul Hobson

Osprey scoop, by Paul Hobson

I visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, where this stunning photograph by Paul Hobson of an osprey catching a fish was ‘specially commended’ in the Bird Behaviour category. Reading his description of what he’s done to take it, one could only admire his patience.

‘I lived in a hide overlooking a lake in Pohtiolampi, Finland, for five days, waiting for ospreys to stop off to feed. For four days, the wind blew in the wrong direction, and the birds dived from behind the hide. Only on the last day did the wind change, allowing just this single shot of the osprey I had hoped for.’

So if the wind hadn’t changed… There are some fine shots of animals and birds taken closer to home on his website. My son was especially taken by his hedgehogs.

Only in America

20 January 2009


Maybe with a mind to today’s inauguration, and the fifty year journey it represents for civil rights, I’ve been listening to Change is Gonna Come, a compilation of 23 songs from black America between 1963 and 1973. The songs tell stories of aspiration, anger, and sometimes despair, in a decade marked by political confrontation, assassination, overt racism (the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace carried five states and won 13% of the Presidential vote in 1968), and police and judicial assault on black activists and organisations.

One of the most illuminating stories in the sleevenotes, written by a British fan and collector, Tony Rounce, is of the song “Only In America”, written in 1963 by the Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, and now best associated with the cleancut Jay and the Americans. But it was written originally for The Drifters, whose version is heard here.

Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President

The original lyric (now lost) was, apparently, darker and more ironic, and Leiber and Stoller, in their words. ‘whitened it’, but still intended that it should be performed by a black singer. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler – certainly no racist – told Stoller, “We’d be lynched if we released that”.

The record sometimes feels like listening to a newsreel of the 60s. There’s an astonishing song about George Wallace by Ray Scott, The Prayer, wishing upon him ever worsening events. I’m not going to spoilt the punchline. George Perkins’ Crying in the Streets captures the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, without ever mentioning him by name. And George Jackson, by J P Robinson, recalls the self-taught activist, radicalised in Soledad prison, and shot in the back by prison guards allegedly while trying to escape. His Soledad Brother is an essential text for anyone trying to understand the era.

The picture at the top of this post – used on the back of the record’s booklet – makes another link between white musicians and black civil rights activists. In the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Mavis Staples (who sings here on The Staples Sisters’ When Will We Be Paid) recalls her astonishment on hearing Blowin’ in the Wind that a white singer should so articulate so powerfully the aspirations and frustrations of black people. Sam Cooke wrote A Change is Gonna Come, which became an anthem of the civil rights movement, as a response to the Dylan song. For contractual reasons Otis Redding’s version is used here; but perhaps it’s one of those covers that improves on the original.

The image, of protestors in Beale Street in Memphis, shows civil rights protestors walk past National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets From the Voices of Civil Rights website.

Those Bush years

17 January 2009


The Guardian has a little supplement today in which various writers reflect on the main characters and themes of the Bush years. The novelist Richard Ford gets the big one, and claims to have learnt three things from the 43rd President. (He also earns his billing with a fantastic quote from Wallace Stevens: “We gulp down evil, choke at good.”)

We must not elect a stubborn man again. Stubbornness is the eighth deadly sin (or it ought to be), since it so easily disguises itself as firm, even admirable, resolve…  Second, many Americans love to fantasise that it’s smart to elect a rich guy, since (the thinking goes) a rich guy won’t need to steal from us. But that’s just wrong. He just steals different things. … Third – and last – we have to quit electing these guys (and gals) who say they hate government, but then can’t wait to get into the government so they can “fix” it.

Donald Rumsfeld gets it, deservedly, for his role in manipulating 9/11 to use it to implement the PNAC ambition in the Middle East:

The highest indictment to be made against the Bush administration is that it used America’s greatest national tragedy as an excuse to accomplish a long-held neoconservative geopolitical aim. That was a venal lie, and Rummy was in the thick of it.

There’s a depressing  list of his other crimes and foolishness, but space precludes mention of Rumsfeld’s role in creating the culture of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and other unidentifed detention centre.

Condoleezza Rice comes across as someone whose “real ideology was succeeding.” (I hadn’t known before – maybe I wasn’t paying attention – that her father opposed the collective activism of Martin Luther King, believing in self-advancement through individual excellence.) But there’s a touch of sadness at the wasted talent:

For all her culpability, there’s an element of pathos to her story as well. Had she attached herself to a better person than Bush, her knowledge, drive and poise might have been put to good use. She might have bettered the world along with herself.

The most surprising thing in the piece about Cheney is that he’s been going on the radio telling people how nice he is (definitely a hard sell): ‘He told a radio interviewer: “I think all of that’s been pretty dramatically overdone. I’m actually a warm, lovable sort.”‘ More to the point though, he seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from his days in the Nixon Administration:

When in late 2005 the Bush administration’s wiretapping programme was revealed, the vice-president pointed immediately back to that dark time: “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.”

Finally, and this is a genuine surprise, the supplement ends with one huge positive achievement; the substantial impact of the President’s PEPFAR programme against AIDS in Africa, apparently partly a legacy of Colin Powell’s time in the State Department (“a shining moment in George Bush’s rule, but he rarely talks about it’).

Dr Francois Venter, head of the HIV Clinicians Society in South Africa, is one of a number of Aids doctors who is almost disbelieving in his praise of Bush. He said: “I look at all the blood this man has on his hands in Iraq and I can’t quite believe myself but I would say it’s a bold experiment from the last people in the world I would expect to do it, and it is saving a lot of lives. You give these tablets to people and they resurrect themselves. To intervene on such a scale and make such a difference is huge.”

The picture is in the public domain.

Remembering Lowell George

11 January 2009


I had a conversation with a friend over the weekend about the Little Feat singer and slide guitarist Lowell George, who died thirty years ago at the age of 34. Some (yes: me included)  think that Little Feat  were never as interesting or innovative afterwards.

The night he died I was working an night shift (as a young trainee) in the BBC Radio newsroom writing the overnight bulletins for Radio 1 and 2; the ‘copy taster‘ – also a fan of Little Feat – gave me the story and I went to the Night News Editor and told him I thought it was a story for R1/R2 bulletin. He looked at the wire copy and said, ‘who’s he, never heard of him’, which taught me something about never assuming that your audience is the same as you.

Later, in Sean O’Brien’s first poetry collection, The Indoor Park, I found this elegy. For a short while I had this off by heart. And since The Indoor Park is now out of print, I trust that he won’t mind my re-printing the poem here.

For Lowell George

What fills the heart is felt to make amends,

Until the flooded heart can no more choose

Release than never sing its staggered blues.

I wish you had not found such special friends.

At thirty-four, at three a.m., in bed,

Of overweight, helped on by dope and booze,

Before your talent bored you you were dead.

Sean O’Brien

The illustration above comes from yu-shio’s rock and roll illustration site, Everyday Rock,  in Japan (and in Japanese). Thanks to thumbrella for the pointer. The illustration below is of a ticket for Lowell George’s last concert.


Pigs – in there

6 January 2009


A shocking article today on the conditions in which pigs are reared in most of Western Europe, where most of our bacon comes from, reminded me of Robert Wyatt’s song Pigs – in there. (If you haven’t heard it there’s an MP3 at Leaky Sparrow’s blog, scroll down to the bottom of the post).

The article was by Jon Henley, who seems to have been transformed from jaunty/jokey Diarist into campaigning reporter. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but in summary, Britain has introduced decent welfare standards for pigs, which are more complied with than not, but most of Europe hasn’t, and we don’t ensure that people exporting pork to the UK comply with our standards. The result is every bit as bad as battery farming for hens, with pigs – who are clean, intelligent and playful animals – kept in the dark inside in conditions which reduce them to boredom and fighting with each other.

A Dutch pig farmer he interviews blames market conditions:

“We’re supplying what the market wants,” he insists. “And where are we, the farmers, in the chain? The retailers tell the slaughterhouses what they’ll pay, the slaughterhouses set their prices for us. Everyone takes their margin, and right at the bottom it’s the farmer. People, consumers, just aren’t being realistic; they want cheap meat, then they’re worried about welfare. Buy organic, then! Pay twice the price. But no one will do that.”

Another Dutch couple are more reflective – it will take laws and more effort in the food chain:

The Kerstens are a charming, and plainly thoughtful, couple in their 50s. … “It’s all a compromise,” says Lowie. “Everyone would like to see better conditions for pigs, but change demands time, good laws, an effort from everyone in the chain and responsibility, from the producer, the retailer, the consumer and the politician. The cold fact is that better welfare means more expensive meat. We’d love to produce it; are people ready to buy it?”

Meanwhile, a British farmer – who was losing £26 per animal when feed prices rocketed last summer, says the problem is the supermarkets’ assumptions about what consumers want:

“The retailers always say the customer likes the cheapest,” she says. “We say we think the customer would actually like the choice. But the bottom line is, if people don’t want to pay for higher welfare, farmers will stop doing it.”

I would like the choice, certainly. Henley also quotes Churchill’s memorable line about pigs:

“I like pigs. Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you; pigs treat you as equal.”

Update, 9th January: A letter from Professor JT Winkler of London Metropolitan University’s Nutrition Policy Unit points the fingers firmly at the supermarkets, and at the margins they gouge on organics and fairly traded food:

The real problem does not lie with the farmers. The devils in this saga are the supermarkets and national meat inspection services. The organic farm you studied produces its pigs at double the cost of conventional animals. But Sainsbury’s sells that farm’s bacon at six-and-half times the price of its basic range. This is an extreme example of the extra margin (the “health premium”) that retailers commonly load on to better products. If humanely produced pig meat costs more in the shops, most of the difference comes from supermarkets’ exploiting their customers’ principles.

The picture is of a Croatian pig farm, from Animal Friends Croatia.

Sentimentality and realism

5 January 2009

A fabulous quote from the writer Brigid Brophy, used in an article on the global food system by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton:

Whenever people say “we mustn’t be sentimental,” you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, “we must be realistic,” they mean they are going to make money out of it.”

(Brigid Brophy)

Aberystwyth noir

4 January 2009


The notion of Raymond Chandler’s mean Los Angeles streets being translated to Aberystwyth seems far-fetched, but Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth is not the small seaside town that some of us know.

Instead, it is more like a part of a Wales from an alternative history, where the druids are a mafia-like organisation, where religion – extreme chapel – still holds sway, where women still wear stovepipe hats, and where Wales lost control of Patagonia in a disastrous colonial war in the mid-1960s. The plots tick over relentlessly, and the private eye, Louie Knight – like other PIs, from Philip Marlowe  to Harry Moseby – is usually several steps behind the action. The body count is high and the writing often hilarious.

Instead of magical realism, this is more like magical noir. The clue may lie in the author’s biography, which may be true: Pryce, brought up in Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, has lived and worked abroad since the early 1990s, and currently lives in Bangkok. His Wales is the parts distilled through a haze of memory.

The fourth in the series, Don’t Cry For Me Aberystwyth, connects Adolf Eichmann to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, without leaving the town – or at least the immediate area. The first, Aberystwyth Mon Amour, is probably the most ‘Welsh’ of the books, and culminates in a parody of the dambusters’ raid over a Welsh reservoir. And I promise that knowing this about the plot will not be a spoiler.