Published on 20 Feb 2015
‘Tracker’ by Mark Knopfler available now.
July 26, 2015
July 25, 2015
Strategy Page on the (long overdue) inclusion of Gurkha troops in the British army’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) units:
It was recently revealed that the British SAS commandos have, since about 2010 recruited a dozen Gurkhas. The SAS, who were the original modern commandos and were first formed during World War II, are a very selective and elite organization. There are only about 200-300 SAS operators active and several years ago it was decided to recruit some Gurkhas. What was unusual about this was that the Gurkhas are not British and it is very rare for commando organizations to recruit foreigners. The Gurkhas are different in that they have served Britain loyally for a long time. While the Gurkhas are native to Nepal (a small country north of India) for two centuries Britain has recruited Gurkhas from the Gurkha tribes. This was mainly because Gurkhas have an outstanding reputation for military skills including discipline, bravery and all round kick-ass soldiering. Having served in the British Army, most can speak good English and all are familiar with British weapons, tactics and military customs.
There are currently 3,500 Gurkhas serving in the British army, and recruiting more is not a problem. Because of high unemployment in Nepal, a job in the British army is like winning the lottery. British military pay is more than 30 times what a good job in Nepal will get you. There are over sixty applicants for each of the few hundred openings each year. The men who don’t make it into the British army, can try getting into the Indian Army Gurkha units. There are about ten times as many Gurkhas in the Indian army, but the pay is only a few times what one could make in Nepal, and the fringe benefits are not nearly as good. Then again, you’re closer to home.
When the SAS quietly sought Gurkha recruits they found fifty willing to try out. A dozen of these passed the screening and survived the training. That’s a slightly higher pass rate than the usual SAS volunteers (British citizens serving in the army or Royal Marines). This was not surprising because Gurkhas have an outstanding military record. Such mercenary duty is now a tradition in the Gurkha tribes, where warriors, and things like loyalty and courage, have been held in high esteem for centuries. Nepal was never conquered by the British, although they did fight a war with the colonial British army in the early 19th century.
July 24, 2015
Katherine Timpf on the beleaguered organizers of the annual Glasgow Free Pride event:
The organizers of Free Pride Glasgow in Scotland have hit a snag in their mission to plan a totally inclusive event: Some activists think drag queens are offensive to transgender people, others think banning drag queens is offensive to transgender drag queens, and still others think allowing only transgender drag queens is offensive to cisgender drag queens.
Although drag performances had been part of Free Pride Glasgow for years, the event organizers announced in a statement on Saturday that they would not be allowing them this year because some transgender individuals found “some drag performance, particularly cis drag,” to be offensive because it “hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke.”
In the original statement, the organizers maintained that since they felt it would “not be appropriate to ask any prospective drag acts whether or not they identified as trans,” they would just cancel drag performances altogether. You know, just to make sure that no one would be uncomfortable. One problem: The attempt at appeasing transgender people who are offended by drag performers wound up offending transgender people who are drag performers. Whoops.
July 22, 2015
At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait sings the praises of “an infirm hand on the tiller” during the War of the Roses:
For my point is that this royal “hand on the tiller” that Wilson says the country so much needed can sometimes be rather too firm.
Wilson is right that medieval civil war, or medieval war of any kind, could be a disaster to the wider society in which it happened. A routine military method in those days was for a retreating army to wreck the countryside, burning crops and killing livestock, in order to deny these resources to an advancing enemy. That this was a death sentence to whoever lived in this devastated area may have troubled the people who inflicted such horrors, but not enough to stop them doing it whenever they were told to. Elsewhere in the book, Wilson mentions an episode of just this sort, in which the King of Scotland inflicted just this horrible fate upon great swathes of Scotland, when he was faced with an invading English army. Those medieval wars between England and Scotland were not quite the nationalist confrontations that Anglo-Scottish wars later became. They were battles between aristocratic dynasties, between “families”, in the Godfather movies sense. Civilian populations were more prizes to be contested, to be owned or failing that denied to an enemy, than the ideologically enthused participants in the contest, as they became later, for instance in the seventeenth century.
But, on the whole, England’s Wars of the Rose, as they later came to be called, were not like this. These “wars” tended to consist of relatively small armies having sometimes very bloody battles with one another, but not, on the whole, creating all that much havoc for nearby civilians, apart from the unlucky civilians whose crops or animals had been on the actual battlefield.
So, what of that mercantile class which, in Wilson’s word, “emerged” at the same time as all of this rather low level fighting? He makes it sound like an unrelated coincidence. But might there not be an element of cause and effect in operation here? Was not the very fact that all this commerce, all this development of the wool trade, was “beyond politics” perhaps one of the key things that enabled it to “emerge”?
For many people, the mere possibility that the dynastic fights of the fifteenth century might degenerate, even if only in their immediate vicinity, into something more like the English — or worse, the German — civil wars of later times, was probably enough to make them believe, as Wilson believes, that a firm hand on the tiller would be preferable to rival hands flailing at each other. But in the meantime, it surely must have helped farmers — often farmers way off the beaten tracks of the contending English armies in places like East Anglia, and merchants, and speculators, and seafarers, that the aristocrats who might have taken command of their “emerging” arrangements, who, had they been all on the same side, might have brought them into politics, and if not ruined them then at least slowed them down quite severely, instead had other things on their minds. Basically, each other. What I am suggesting is that, from the commercial point of view, the Wars of the Roses might have been quite good wars, complicated enough to divert the attentions of aristocrats away from their usual anti-commercial meddlings, yet not too widespread in their destructive effect. That the Wars of the Rose were, for some, very bad wars, I do not contest.
July 20, 2015
In sp!ked, Patrick West discusses the wellspring of British humour:
The English have a reputation for being a funny people. This, I think, derives from the sloppiness of our language, the messiness of which leads to misunderstandings. Indeed, the word ‘funny’ itself has two meanings.
Consider the old joke. ‘My dog has no nose’, says one. ‘How does he smell?’, asks another. ‘Terrible!’ This works because the English verb ‘to smell’ means both to sniff and to emit an odour. This joke wouldn’t work in Italian, where there’s no room for confusion. ‘Il cane sente l’odore del cibo’ means ‘the dog smells the food’; ‘Il cane puzza terribile’ means ‘the dog smells terrible’.
Romance languages also use reflexive verbs much more than we do, which also removes ambiguity. In Catalan, ‘ofegar’ means to suffocate someone or something else, and ‘ofegar-se’ means for oneself to suffocate. In English, ‘to suffocate’ can mean to asphyxiate or to strangle, two very different things.
Italian has ‘sentire’ meaning ‘to feel (something)’ and ‘sentirsi’ meaning ‘to feel’ – the latter pertaining to your internal self. To feel cold is ‘sentire freddo’, while to feel like doing something is ‘sentirsi di fare’. English doesn’t have that distinction.
English is ripe for misunderstanding. Children are amused by the construction ‘I feel like an apple’, as they are yet to comprehend that ‘like’ is the equivalent of the preposition ‘similar to’, as well as a verb. That ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ sound the same gives us verbal jokes like the one I heard on BBC Radio 4 this week:
‘Two nuns are driving along when the devil suddenly appears on their car bonnet, surrounded by fire and brimstone. One nun says to the other: “Quick, show him your cross.” The other leans out the window and shouts, “Get off my fucking bonnet!”.’
Then there’s the dual role of the apostrophe. In speech, ‘Gerrards Cross’ can either be a village in Buckinghamshire, a cross that belongs to Gerrard, or the state of mind of a Liverpool footballer who hasn’t been picked for the England team.
July 19, 2015
Visit a British air show before September and it’s possible you’ll get the opportunity to witness the last Vulcan bomber in flight — and this is definitely the last year you’ll get the chance, this time.
Alongside the staple leather-clad wing-walking ladies, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, simulated Apache attack-chopper scenarios and Red Arrows displays, you may find XH558 — now owned and flown by charity Vulcan to the Sky Trust, funded by charitable donations and Lottery cash.
The Vulcan holds a very special place in the hearts of many, not just for that unmistakable shape but because it functioned as a basic but wholly British nuclear deterrent early on in the Cold War.
Such was its frontline status and iconic image, the Vulcan was used by James Bond scriptwriters and given generous screen time in Thunderball (1965) — in which the V-bomber is hijacked by SPECTRE resulting in the loss of two nukes, which Commander Bond must then retrieve.
In the real world the Vulcan’s only combat action came in 1982, as part of the Falklands War. The “Black Buck” raids in which Vulcans — supported by a large fleet of aerial tankers — travelled all the way from Ascension Island to attack the Falklands held the longest-distance combat bombing record for nine years until the USAF took the top spot with B-52 raids in the 1991 Gulf War.
Standing as I did at the Cosford Airshow — one of those last displays — just few hundred yards from XH558, with its engines running at full tilt, you knew it was something special. The ground shook and your stomach throbbed as this mighty aircraft passed overhead.
To understand the reasoning behind the creation of the Vulcan you need to know the backstory about the freezing of the nuclear relationship between the UK and the US after World War II. When the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the war entered its final phase. Unfortunately, so did the nuclear relationship between the UK and the US.
The US, wanting to keep all the nuclear toys for itself, passed the McMahon Act — officially the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 — forbidding the transfer of nuclear knowledge or technology to any country, even those former allies (Britain and Canada) that helped develop the bombs which had been dropped on Japan.
July 15, 2015
Let me interject that I hold no brief for the police in America, at least in the cities. They inspire me with a frisson of fear every time I see one, though I break no law. Their manner is more that of masters of the public than of servants of the same; many of them seem to be the kind of people who wanted to be soldiers but couldn’t make the grade because they were not fit enough. They look menacing and seem to shoot to kill on relatively slight pretexts (or perhaps they are just bad shots). I have little doubt that if I were black my less than warm feelings toward them would be a good deal cooler still. Their increasing militarization, on the flimsiest of pretexts, is another reason to mistrust them. Alas, the British police are increasingly modeling themselves on the American, as if they were permanently on riot duty.
Theodore Dalrymple, “Indulging in Destruction”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-08-24.
July 14, 2015
In The Guardian, Jay Rayner provides the kind of review that you rarely see in your local newspaper (because it guarantees that the restaurant will never buy advertising from you again):
Cooking a steak well is tricky, because you cannot see inside the meat. It takes experience and knowledge. Cooking chips is easy: use the right potatoes, give them a couple of runs through the hot oil, make sure they’re the right colour, perhaps even taste a couple. The job is done. At Smith & Wollensky, the new London outpost of a well-known small American steakhouse chain, we sent back the chips because they were tepid and under-cooked. They returned to us hot and undercooked. And in that one example of carelessness and lack of attention to detail, you know all you need to.
But I had to sit through the whole damn meal so I don’t see why you shouldn’t, too. This US business has swaggered into London like it thinks it’s the bollocks. The description is almost right, if you remove the definite article before the reference to testicles. It is about as shoddy an operation in separating people from inexcusable amounts of their cash as I have seen in a very long time.
The menu also mentions a list of blackboard specials – T-bones and so on – all of which have run out by 8.20pm. We order the bone-in ribeye. The char is feeble and the overwhelming taste is of salt. Worse is the texture. It’s floppy. Part of this, I think, is a cultural difference; Americans like to celebrate steaks based on tenderness, as if being able to cut a piece of dead animal with a butter knife is an aspiration. I think that if you’re going to eat beef, you want to know it has come from an animal that has moved. This steak slips down like something that has spent its life chained to a radiator in the basement.
The sauces are dire. A béarnaise is an insult to the name, lacking any acidity or the anise burst of tarragon. An au poivre sauce is just a shot of hot demi-glace. A side salad is crisp and well dressed. We take comfort in it. Many other sides are priced for two which is a quick route to higher profit margins and greater food waste. The £9 battered onion rings are good; the £10 truffled mac and cheese is dry and tastes not at all of truffle. Those terrible chips come in the kind of mini-chip-fat-fryer-basket used at chain pubs.
Service is omnipresent. Twice we ask to keep our bread and side plates when they attempt to remove them. When a third waiter lunges in I finally admit defeat. Take them if you’re so bloody desperate. How hard is it to communicate a table’s wishes to the half dozen people working a corner of the floor, especially when a meal is going to cost more than £100 a head?
H/T to John McCluskey for the link.
Update: An earlier review from the same series is extra-flavourful…
You could easily respond to this week’s restaurant with furious, spittle- flecked rage. You could rant about the posing-pouch stupidity of the meat – hanging cabinet that greets you as the lift doors open, and the frothing tanks of monstrous live Norwegian king crabs next to it, each 4ft across. You could bang on about the bizarre pricing structure, and the vertiginous nature of those prices; about the rough-hewn communal tables that are so wide you can’t sit opposite your dining companion because you wouldn’t be able to hear each other, and the long benches which make wearing a skirt a dodgy idea unless you’re desperate to flash the rest of the heavily male clientele. You could shake your fists and roll your eyes and still not be done.
I think this would be a mistake. Instead you should accept Beast as the most unintentionally funny restaurant to open in London in a very long time. It’s hilariously silly. The most appropriate response is to point and laugh. I don’t even think I’d advise you not to go. As long as you go with someone else’s money, because God knows you’ll need a lot of it. Got any friends who are, say, international drug barons? Excellent. They may be able to afford dinner. It’s worth going to see what the unmitigated male ego looks like, when expressed as a restaurant.
The corn-fed, dry-aged Nebraskan rib-eye, with a carbon footprint big enough to make a climate-change denier horny, is bloody marvellous: rich, deep, earthy, with that dense tang that comes with proper hanging. And at £100 a kilo it bloody well should be. At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.
July 13, 2015
The senior ambassadors developed an extraordinarily elevated sense of their own importance, especially if we measure it against the professional ethos of today’s ambassadors. Paul Cambon is a characteristic example: hr remarked in a letter of 1901 that the whole of French diplomatic history amounted to little more than a long list of attempts by agents abroad to achieve something in the face of resistance from Paris. When he disagreed with his official instructions from the capital, he not infrequently burned them. During a tense conversation with Justin de Selves, minister of foreign affairs from June 1911 until January 1912, Cambon somewhat tactlessly informed de Selves that he considered himself the minister’s equal. This claim looks less bizarre if we bear in mind that between 1898, when he became ambassador to London, and the summer of 1914, Cambon saw nine ministers enter and leave office — two of them did so twice. Cambon did not regard himself as a subordinate employee of the government, but as a servant of France whose expertise entitled him to a major role in the policy-making process.
Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief — shared by many of the senior ambassadors — that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as “yes”. He firmly believed — like many members of the French elite — that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.
July 10, 2015
Published on 2 May 2015
Classic Album Year of the Cat Concert Tour. With Tim Renwick & Dave Nachmanoff. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
Setlist of the full concert:
1. Midnight Sea (Dave Nachmanoff)
2. Descartes in Amsterdam (Dave Nachmanoff)
3. Conservation Law (Dave Nachmanoff)
4. House of Clocks
5. Palace of Versailles
6. Time Passages
7. Warren Harding
8. Old Admirals
9. That´s Alright Mama
Second Set: Year of the Cat
11. Lord Grenville
12. On the Border
13. Midas Shadow
14. Sand in your Shoes
15. If it Doesn´t Come Naturally, Leave It
16. Flying Sorcery
17. Broadway Hotel
18. One Stage Before
19. Year of the Cat
20. Sheila Won´t Be Coming Home
21. End of the Day
July 6, 2015
July 5, 2015
While I don’t think I ever saw an episode of the British sitcom The Good Life, I’ve read a fair bit about it in passing, as it is one of the mass media touchstones used by Dominic Sandbrook in his series of hefty tomes about British life from the 60s onwards. In short, a middle-aged couple bail on their middle-class lives and try to set up a self-sufficient lifestyle on their (fully paid-off) house in the suburbs. The interaction between the couple and their still-living-the-middle-class-life next-door neighbours provides much of the humour for the show. Based on that, I must heartily agree with David Thompson’s explanation of the show:
… Tom and Barbara’s experiment in “self-sufficiency” wasn’t particularly self-sufficient. They don’t prevail in the end, not on their own terms or in accord with their stated principles, and their inability to do so is the primary source of story lines. Practically every week the couple’s survival is dependent on the neighbours’ car, the neighbours’ chequebook, the neighbours’ unpaid labour, a convoluted favour of some kind. And of course they’re dependent on the “petty” bourgeois social infrastructure maintained by all those people who haven’t adopted a similarly perilous ‘ecological’ lifestyle. The Goods’ “non-greedy alternative” to bourgeois life is only remotely possible because of their own previous bourgeois habits — a paid-off mortgage, a comfortable low-crime neighbourhood with lots of nearby greenery, and well-heeled neighbours who are forever on tap when crises loom, i.e., weekly.
To seize on The Good Life as an affirmation of eco-noodling and a “non-greedy alternative” to modern life is therefore unconvincing, to say the least. The Goods only survive, and then just barely, because of their genuinely self-supporting neighbours — the use of Jerry’s car and chequebook being a running gag throughout. And insofar as the series has a feel-good tone, it has little to do with championing ‘green’ lifestyles or “self-sufficiency.” It’s much more about the fact that, despite Tom and Barbara’s dramas, bad choices and continual mooching, and despite Margo’s imperious snobbery, on which so much of the comedy hinges, the neighbours remain friends. If anything, the terribly bourgeois Margo and Jerry are the more plausible moral heroes, given all that they have to put up with and how often they, not Tom’s principles, save the day.
July 2, 2015
While other literary novelists tended to steer clear of such contentious territory, the writers of cheap thrillers had no such inhibitions. In Pamela Kettle’s hilariously bad The Day of the Women (1969), a feminist political party, IMPULSE, wins the 1975 general election and inaugurates a reign of terror. “A female Prime Minister … human stud farms run by women … mass rallies at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the day of the dominating woman”: all were signs of “high-heeled fascism, a dictatorship of unbridled power lust”, according to the paperback blurb. The master of this kind of thing, though, was the pulp science-fiction writer Edmund Cooper, whose views on women’s liberation were full-bodies, to say the least. In an interview with Science Fiction Monthly in 1975, he commented that men were right to be suspicious of high-flying career women, because “most women are going to get themselves impregnated and piss off shortly after they’ve mastered the job and got themselves a decent salary”. He was in favour of “equal competition”, though, because then “they’ll see that they can’t make it. We have had free education in this country for a great many years, but where are the good female mathematicians? Where are the good female scientists? Where are the female Beethovens? They’ve gone back home to wash the dishes and produce children.”
These views shone through in his books: in Five to Twelve (1968), for example, twenty-first-century Britain is run entirely by women, with men reduced to “chattels”, not only few in number but physically dwarfed by their Amazonian mistresses. This terrible situation, we discover, is all down to the Pill, which liberated women from their own biology and made them “both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense, impregnable”. One man, a “troubador” with the bizarre name of Dion Quern, tries to resist, but, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, he meets a tragic conclusion. In Who Needs Men?, meanwhile, twenty-fifth-century Britain is again dominated by women, lesbian orgies are all the rage and Nelson’s Column has been renamed Germaine’s Needle. The plot follows the adventures of Rura Alexandra, “Madam Exterminator”, who is leading the effort to wipe out the last men hiding in the Scottish Highlands. But even she is vulnerable to the most dangerous weapon of all — love — as she falls for her opponent, Diarmid MacDiarmid, “the last remaining rebel chieftain”.
Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency — The way we were: Britain 1970-1974, 2010.
July 1, 2015
Mark Steyn on the (not-technically) original Avengers star:
But for a while Americans liked The Avengers, and it lingered in the memory so warmly that, three decades later, Hollywood opted to do a big-screen, big-budget remake. Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed, sportingly agreed to do the usual cameo — in this case, as a ministry bureaucrat rendered invisible in some research mishap and now consigned to a cramped office in a Whitehall basement. As I say, he was invisible, so we heard Macnee’s affable drawl (he had a smile in his voice, even when beating up the bad guys), but the audience never saw him, which was probably just as well — because, if they did, they’d remember the sheer affability of Macnee’s Steed. He was never a conventionally handsome leading man — he had a bit of a dumplingy face — but he brought a bonhomous ease to the role of the unflappable secret agent: the bowler, the brollies, the buttonholes and the Bollinger seemed like natural extensions of his charm; you can understand why groovy birds like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson would dig such an ostensibly squaresville cat.
He wasn’t supposed to be the star. The Avengers began in 1961 with Ian Hendry as a mystery-solving doctor David Keel. Macnee returned to England from an indifferent theatrical career in Canada to play the role of Dr Keel’s assistant “John Steed”. But then the star departed, and Steed found himself carrying the show with a succession of glamorous gal sidekicks — Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King. They were very literal sidekicks in that they kicked to the side, being masters — or mistresses — of martial arts, doing most of the heavy lifting while Steed occasionally boinked someone over the head with his bowler. Many years ago, Dame Diana told me “Emma Peel” came from “M Appeal”, as in “Man Appeal”. But Steed always called her “Mrs Peel”, just as he called her predecessor “Mrs Gale”, because he was a gentleman. And the ladies always called him “Steed” because they were one of the boys, as in that English public-school thing whereby grown-up chaps who know each other well address each other by their surnames (“I say, Holmes!” “Yes, Watson…”).
The Avengers was created by Sydney Newman, the greatest of all Canadian TV producers (he also inaugurated Dr Who), but hit its high-water mark under Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. In the early days, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they spent it wisely. The difference between the two principals was defined in what they wore and what they drove: Steed favored a vintage Rolls or Bentley, the ladies the latest convertible sports car. After seeing Mrs Peel drive one, my dad bought a Lotus Elan — a beautiful ride with a fiberglass body that crumpled to dust when a truck brushed us ever so lightly on the Route National 7 in France. The ladies wore fab gear from Carnaby Street, while Macnee, ditching the trenchcoats he’d worn in the first series, opted for a slightly heightened version of an English gent’s get-up that he designed with help from Pierre Cardin. Laurie Johnson wrote one of the best telly-spy theme-tunes and the opening titles are pure style: Mrs Peel shooting the cork off the champagne bottle, Steed’s unsheathed sword-stick swiping a carnation and sending it flying through the air for Mrs Peel to put in his buttonhole.
June 30, 2015
Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:
- Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
- Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
- Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.
The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.
Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula “The Worst Hundred Books,” and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.
Oscar Wilde, “To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette“, 1886-02-08.