An Idle Sunday With The Papers


Ah, Edinburgh! This Athens of the North, this home of the Enlightenment. What perfect Sundays you provide for its denizens. Snuggled beneath a warm blanket of idleness, a shroud of irresponsibility, I am free to sit in the re-vamped Cameo Cinema Bar and take advantage of their gratis wireless, and complimentary newspapers.

And for a blogger, a 21st Century gentleman-pamphleteer, what could be a more perfect afternoon than this? I scythe through The Observer, and the myriad possibilities for unsolicited opinion leap out at me. I am spoilt for choice. I could muse on Scottish Independence, perhaps? Or comment on the USA’s relentless march towards totalitarianism? It is, in a way, surprising that Blogistan becomes so quiet at weekends. Isn’t everyone else making electronic notations on the Sunday papers?

Jasper Gerard caught my eye, with a short piece on the Countryside Alliance:

And while I opposed banning hunting as I oppose banning anything without overwhelming reason, I also suspected those who enjoyed killing for its own sake were tossers. Like deposed dictators, perhaps foxes need to be killed, but huntsmen seem to snuff out life with all the tearful regret of the Iraqi prison service.

This precisely captures my feeling. I don’t care particularly for the fox, which is a pest. But killing things for fun seems an affront to nature, and if one is going to do it then you should have the decency to eat what you have killed. This is possible when you shoot game birds, deer, or when you go fishing. But since the hounds rip up the prey beyond what is edible, I do think “hunting with dogs” is a sensible distinction to make.

Should we have banned it though? Reconciling this “illiberal liberalism” (as Gerard has it) will no doubt occupy my thoughts for the rest of the afternoon (I suspect my answer would have something to do with our laws on animal cruelty and bear-baiting). With my back to the window and the outside world, I sink deeper into this leather armchair, and philosophize.

Saddam's Death: The Revolutionary's Cut

Saddam on the GallowsOf course, in the past few days, we have been presented with a more sinister example of how new technology is creating a ‘digital revolution’. The official film of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was undermined by alternative footage, videoed on a mobile phone.

The BBC report on how these cheap and portable cameras are being used as a key weapon in the propaganda war is not news to me – I had to watch several hours of insurgent-filmed shootings and bombings in order to find suitable footage for inclusion in the Black Watch video design. To watch unsuspecting marines wander haplessly into a sniper’s cross-hair is chilling. When they are hit, they fall quickly.

Despite the unpalatable subject matter, I think there is an interesting point to be made about how film and video is used here, which is the importance of the sound-track to moving images. In the case of Saddam’s hanging, notice how a particular audio track totally changes the tone of what we see, and the emotions evoked. Film makers and TV producers constantly manipulate us in this way.

An interesting aspect of the commentary that has surrounded the emergence of this bootleg video, is the ‘winner-takes-all’ conception of truth, and history. When the official video of Saddam’s demise was released, it was considered an accurate historical record. How can the camera lie? When the grainy bootleg emerged later, it replaced the official video as the definitive ‘truth’ of the event.

We would do well to consider the possibility that this video is unreliable too. The footage is grainy and shot from a distance. We do not hear the more muted of Saddam’s mutterings, nor the words of those standing right beside him at the moment before death. I have not watched the video all the way through to its grim finale, but I understand that there are cuts in the timeline. What was missed? It is essential that we remember that the footage has been released by someone who wishes to foist a particular historical narrative upon us, one obviously informed by a different agenda to the Iraqi Government. With this in mind, other questions arise.

  • Might not Saddam’s pious recitations at his moment of death – the invocations of Mohammed that we did not hear on the ‘official’ recording – actually enhance his image, rather than humiliate him?
  • We do not witness what happened immediately before the footage was shot. Perhaps Saddam or others provoked the abuse, and the now-famous taunts were more out of anguish than vindictiveness
  • Are we sure that the audio was not doctored or enhanced before its release? Were the names of other leaders chanted, in addition to Moqtadr Al-Sadr?

These new fangled technologies, generating their subversive, low-resolution footage, have become the thorn in the side of those wishing to control a political situation. There may never be another time where a government can control the media as it did during previous conflicts. But the new technologies are just as suceptible to abuse by the purveyors of propaganda as the old.

Primary sources can be illuminating, but they can also be decieving. This historical constant remains true.

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, calls the execution a ‘lynching‘. (via The Daily Dish)

Stalinist Santa?

Tis now the season to be jolly, so I have posted something festive over at The Sharpener: Would you let this man into your home?

It concerns the politics of Father Christmas, who by my analysis is a dangerous Stalinist. If you think he is of a different political hue, then please do visit The Sharpener and set me straight.


Now reproduced in full, below.

There’s a crude and simple way to distinguish, should you care to, your right from your left. Waistlines.

I’ve been reading Paul’s polemic, which states that Left-wingers are fatter than Right-wingers. It occurs to me that Father Christmas is a well-known fat bastard, famous for (among other things) scoffing mince-pies and slurping sherry that is not his own, at fire-places up and down this land. He would definitely be a ‘Lefty’ by Paul’s criteria.

This hypothesis is certainly backed up by other facts too. He wears red tunic, long time favourite colour of the revolutionary left. And of course he is interested in the systemised redistribution of presents, in apparent disregard of market forces.

Don’t let that beard and Norwegian charm fool you. This guy is no hippie. He is a dangerous authoritarian. If you do not conform to his insidious conception of ‘nice’ you risk being classified ‘naughty’ and denied basic presents. Everyone is kept under surveillance, parents are turned into informants on their own children and Santa catalogues the good deeds and the bad. What is more, he can only deliver his presents if he keeps a comprehensive computerised database of names and chimney locations. It is only a matter of time before this information is shared with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, and before you know it a cheeky request on a Christmas list from five years ago could see you lose all profits from your tooth harvest.

Its not as if the system fosters any kind of equality anyway. We all know that although Santa’s ‘presents for all populism might appear to treat each case on its merits, but when the service is applied on the ground we find evidence of blatant institutional racism. It is a well-known fact that Father Christmas is less likely to visit children from Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families. Yes yes, we’ve all heard the excuse about a lack of available chimneys, but I notice that Santa will gladly slip in through the French windows for middle-class atheist families. He is also happy to pocket the filthy shill from Coca-cola Company for corporate sponsorship, but do you see the elves getting a pay-rise? No, the fat bastard Father Christmas is a Lefty in name only.

Time was when young people would have cared about the questionable ethics of their largest benefactor. But not this generation. Oh no. The ‘me’ generation too busy talking about X-boxes and X-factor to even consider whether Santa’s seal-skin boots were bought Fair Trade or not. They see the presents dangled in front of their eyes, and once again they fall for his patter. They will let him into their bedrooms, and there is nothing the parents can do about it. Only when Santa has sledged off into the night sky will the parents be called to sort out the misery in his wake. Once again, the cumbersome, centralised, present giving system will not have supplied batteries for the presents, and decent, hard-working parents will be called in to pick-up the tab.

The Point of Vanishing Interest

I have said before that the operative word in ‘citizen journalist’ is not the latter, but the former. Fay Young’s short, personal report on the happenings of an Edinburgh City Council meeting seems to be a good example of ‘citizen journalism’ and the importance of new Internet technologies. The happenings at the meeting were probably not newsworthy enough for The Scotsman or even the Edinburgh Evening News, so a reporter might not be paid to file a report on it. Now, Fay is an established journalist, but it was in her role of ‘citizen’ that she was present and able to post her report (“Hot air stifles climate change debate”) on her blog. More information for the rest of us, which we hope leads to a more accountable, participatory democracy.

Fay was not impressed by the councillors’ collective time-management:

The meeting rattles through some fairly important stuff about poverty … Then the meeting spends 25 minutes debating whether to replace or restore the old Davenport desks and chairs. Finally one Labour councillor protests at this waste of time when there is still a motion on climate change to debate, not to mention the capital city’s alcohol problem. Still they drone on, and it is another five minutes before they vote [27 to 29] to replace the old heavy mahogany with something that can be easily shifted and stacked when it is not in use.

I wonder if Fay Young has read C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymous Parkinson’s Law? This is a fantastic compendium of satirical essays, first published in the Economist, and collected in book form in 1958 (I have a fourth edition from that year, which carries some delightful illustrations by Osbert Lancaster). In his essay, “High Finance; or, The Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson describes a committee that bears a remarkable similarity to that which Fay witnessed last week. Finance committees are, he says, made up of people who know nothing of millions, but well accustomed to thinking in thousands:

The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

So, Fay’s experience seems all too familiar! Parkinson also presents an amusing essay on the ‘Coefficient of Inefficiency’, definied as the size at which a committee ceases to be of any effective use whatsoever. This he puts at somewhere between 19 and 23 members. It is interesting to note that the number of councillors voting at Fay’s meeting was more than double that estimate…

Whatever the accuracy of his theories, Parkinson’s Law is a great read, and a highly recommended stocking filler for the economist or policy wonk in your life.


This week, brevity is all the rage. Labour MP Tom Watson finds that plenty of sites are issuing six word story challenges.

Meanwhile, over at The Sharpener, Bondwoman has posted her take on John Reid’s immigration policies in equation form.

One of the more famous short short-stories is by Augusto Monterroso:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)

I always chuckle at that. What sordid goings on occurred the night before?

Government ministers are shit at the interweb

I’m annoyed. Junior Minister Tom Watson has resigned, and I have been forced to learn this from the BBC News website, like some blogless plebeian. This is despite the fact that Mr Watson has his very own blog. But at 1:50pm today, I find no response from the site at all.

Meanwhile, David Milliband has had his own efforts to embrace the new technologies foiled (via DK). His ‘Envrionmental Contract’ was supposed to be edited as a ‘Wiki’ by members of the public. Unfortunately, the ‘Wiki’ was comprehensively defaced, and DEFRA had to abandon the project.

The ‘cyber-vandalism’ was, as Milliband says, rather juvenile. I have very little sympathy, however. The use of a wiki for this purpose was ill-conceived. New internet technologies provide many different ways for people to engage in dialogues and collaboration. But that does not necessarily mean that a wiki open to millions of people, to create a government policy that will affect millions of people, is necessarily the best use of the technology! Such tools will, I believe, be much more effective when used at the lower echelons of democracy – Between civil servants around the country sharing ‘best practice’; or between the members of rural or island councils, say, who may have long distances to travel. Central government will have very little success when it tries to use the ‘Smallweb’.

This jumping on the Wiki/Blog band-wagon in this manner reminds me of the dot-com boom-and-bust we witnessed a few years ago. The people getting burned (or, in this case, custard-pied) are those who assume the new technologies can somehow overcome all laws of economics and politics. I very much doubt Milliband would make policy by standing at Speakers’ Corner with a flip-pad, writing down all the suggestions from passers-by. Sooner or later someone will begin heckling. So why try it online?

Two Zizou round-ups

Jarndyce links to a number of posts discussing that headbutt, and analyses the the political victimology of Zizou:

The presumption that Zizou was justified in “retaliation” can only be explained by assuming Materazzi fits the northern European stereotype of the Italian as a racist wop. To those that charge Materazzi with racially abusing Zidane, on the basis of so little evidence, I call right back at you.

The speed at which this particular narrative (is it ‘The Rise and Fall..’, ‘The Fall and Rise…’, ‘Hero to Zero’?) has cycled through its steps is astonishing. On Sunday, Zidane was the villain who lost France the World Cup. Monday and Tuesday was the lip-reading intrigue over what was said. On Wednesday he apologised and by now he is the toast of all France for standing up to racism! It is as if a peice of history has been manufactured at high-speed.

Now it is Friday, and we are into post-modern parodies for laughs. Anil Dash has compiled a movie of the Internet’s best Zidane animations, in the inaugural Zidane World Cup Headbutt Animation Festival. Full circle.

Sunny at Pickled Politics has curated a similar festival. Apologise to the visitors from there who visited here looking for the above linked YouTube video – I accidentally deleted the embed code from the post. Now reinstated…


Plenty of discussion on the blogs and in the media about the london bombings, this time last year, notably from survivors such as the irrepressible Rachel and the idosyncratic Dave Taurus.

The bombings were a terrible punctuation to a bizarre week. The previous Saturday, I had worn white and joined the Make Poverty History march, along with thousands of others. It was a hot day, and we stopped half-way round to have a pint on George IV Bridge. We chatted to a couple who had taken a bus from Bristol to join in the event. The G8 summit was about to start, and there was a feeling of optimisim in the air. It was genuine.

Watching the ‘Live 8’ highlights on TV that evening, and later that week when another concert was staged at Murrayfield, it seemed to me that those events had a certain falseness. Jonathan Ross and his interviewees kept talking about what an historic concert Live 8 would be, before it had even begun. The whole event was a paean to the original Live Aid concert, a consolation prize for those who had missed it first time around. I remember saying that you cannot package and market those moments that will define a decade, and that history has a certain spontenaity – it does not take place at a pre-arranged meeting point.

Of course, the following day four guys went straight ahead and made some real history, at their own pre-arranged meeting point. Not only did they destroy lives and property, but they destroyed the sense of optimism, a rising tide of political activity and awareness, that had been swelling over the previous week. And do you know what? One year on, I don’t think we have regained that momentum. Instead we flounder in scandal and misdirection.

A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.

This was my shortlisted entry into the Ben Pimlott Essay Prize. The winning entry, by Rowland Manthorpe, was published by The Guardian last week.

Read close, o my best beloved, and picture the scene. It is a cold and idle weekday in February. The dance-floor at L— Nightclub is barely a third full. The clientele are young, but in this light it is difficult to be sure that they are over eighteen. Many wear those jumpers with hoods you will have seen in photographs. Thin girls in white denim dresses have braids in their hair. Three youths in turbans lurk in the corner, by the dirty pillar that blocks the view from the bar.

Chunky hip-hop performer ‘Sway’ saunters on stage with the arrogance of a MOBO winner (for that is what he is). Behind him bounces his accompanist for this evening, DJ Turkish. They are both wearing Union Jack tea towels over their faces, like patriotic bank robbers. “These rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles,” shouts Sway, before telling us a story about the mysterious Land of Harveynicks. The entertainment has begun.

We are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital – yes, you know it well, my friend! – in the shadow of the famous castle, where legions of tourists flock each summer to watch the tartan fuelled military tattoo. It is a place where English residents of the city complain that, these days, it is being over-run by Australians. It is a place where a man with a Ghanaian name is reciting American-inspired slam poetry, to a beat hammered out by a Turk from North London. And what of this young audience? Believe me when I tell you, if you were to conquer the countries of their parents, then truly the sun would never set upon your Empire.

Let us be clear, so we make no mistake. Your task in 2009 will be to unite all these people: The tartan tattoo day-trippers, the snobbish English students, the sullen Sikhs… and Sway, who waves the Union Jack proudly, just as you asked. You must convince them that they are one people, and that they all belong to the same privileged club. You must describe the values and the traditions that they must learn to love.

Continue reading “A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.”

Ben Pimlott Essay Prize

I was delighted to be shortlisted for this year’s Ben Pimlott Essay Prize, run by the Guardian and the Fabian Society. The theme this year was “on whether history can help us define British identity”.

It was great to pull together some of the ideas on Britishness I have been reading and writing about online. Tragically, I fear my essay was too much like an extended blog post with not quite enough depth… and my particular offering was pipped at the post.

Rowland Manthorpe is still a student (and a good looking one at that, dammit). His winning essay is published in today’s Guardian. Excerpts from mine will be posted to Guardian Unlimited at some point, I believe. I’ll wait for the dust to settle before discreetly posting the entire thing to this blog…

Over at The Sharpener, Paul has posted his entry, while at Ministry of Truth Unity finds a true Brit: A Pakistani immigrant, British Citizen, hoping to become the first Asian MSP by standing on a platform of Scottish Independence.