Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Joys of Old Books

At a second-hand book sale I found a 1944 Penguin edition of Conrad's 'Twixt land and Sea, a collection of three short stories, being 'A Smile of Fortune,' 'The Secret Sharer' and 'Freya of the Seven Isles.'

The book itself is absolutely gorgeous, one of those old orange penguins with the white band across the middle. The spine advises this is number 447 in the series. The book proudly declares it price to have been Ninepence. That's Ninepence, mind you, not nine pence or 9p or even the old fashioned 9d.

Even better, on the back, where nowadays you'd get a misleadingly enticing blurb, there is a charming advertisment for Greys (sic) Cigarettes, described as "Just honest to goodness tobacco." This is accompanied by a picture of a military type in one of those gigantic bearskin helments worn by the likes of the Coldstream guards. It is noticeable that he is not smoking tobacco, honest or otherwise.

Inside the front cover is an advert for "Service shoes by Lotus - specialists in regulation footwear." Inside the back cover is an advert for Mars Bars - "Nothing but the finest ingredients is good enough for Mars." We are warned, however, that "Zoning now restricts Mars to the Southern Counties. So here's hoping for a quick victory - and plenty of Mars for everyone - everywhere." Beat the Hun so the free world can enjoy Mars Bars once again ... And one of the leafs at the back carries a promotion for Cadbury's.

Given that this book cost me nothing, effectively ("Take this box, fill it with as many books as you like for $5.") the amount of pleasure I've gained simply from caressing its battered cover and smiling at its quaint adverts (a practice that needs to be revived) is positively indecent.

On Wilbur Smith

unless I do something really stupid, like read another book by Patricia Cornwell (1), then Wilbur Smith's The Seventh Scroll is going to be my worst read of the year (2). In fact, I can only think of two books I have disliked to the same degree - Melvyn Bragg's Credo and Iris Murdoch's The Bell. Wilbur Smith being compared to Iris Murdoch? Truly, we do it strange.

Where to start with The Seventh Scroll? First things: its length, size isn't everything, but when we are talking bout truly, reprehensibly bad writing, dull plotting and cardboard characters, then size suddenly becomes very important. The Seventh Scroll has a lot of size, a harrowing 486 pages. Bricks are smaller, and more readable.

You know when you read a book, and you bounce down the first page, all Bambi enthusiasm, waiting to get hooked in to the story, to become fascinated by the characters or the sweep of the story or the intracy of the plot or the way that the writer batters new stuff out of the English language? That is what I was like with this book. I thought I should read something by Wilbur Smith, as I've been snottily turning up my nose at his books for years. Natural justice compelled me to see if my high brow derision was merited - Hell's bells, I am the limpest-wristed of liberals and believe in all hose fine principles like innocent until proven guilty. I have a lemming like streak, which I mentioned before in relation to Patricia Cornwell, that makes me make intermittently misguided reading choices in an attempt to bond with the common folk. Never, ever again. Until I read The Da Vinci Code, at least.

But, anyway, about the bloody book. All right, so it is big. The plot and the characters are hopeless. Rider Haggard did this sort of thing 10,000 times better, long, long ago. Save yourself the ordeal and re-read King Solomon's Mines. It is shorter and better.

Briefly: Royan, half English, half Egyptian and very hot, survives a savage assault that leaves her elderly Arabic husband dead. they were working on an archaelogical project relating to the mysterious seventh scroll, which might locate the lost tomb of Pharaoh Momose. She seeks help from a dashing English adventurer type, and together they locate the tomb in the face of opposition from the nefarious types - the ringleader is of course German - Hell bent on their destruction.

None of this would be terribly bad if it wasn't so drabbly written. I think it was about page 6 or 7 that warning bells started ringing, when the elderly Duraid is murdered. It was just horribly flat, badly paced, lacking tension. I was suddenly struck by a longing to read an Haggardian adventure story writen by Ian MacEwan. Think how much fun that would be. But not, never, another word by Wilbur Smith.

Never the less, I ploughed on. Royan flees Egypt and enlists the help of the aforementioned adventurer. He is - get this - an authentic English aristocrat, complete with double barrelled name (Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper. Not Quentin, you understand, but Quenton) who delights in shoting game birds and rare antelope but still styles himself a 'conservationist' - though he only winces at the thought of cutting down ancient trees and doesn't allow his scruples to actually stop him, of course.) Sir Nick is a gentleman, which means he doesn't shag Royan, though she does allow him to get to to fool around a little bit more than is ladylike (must be her kinky Arab blood). Everyone else is at it, of course, especially the black characters, who are portrayed various as foolish, lazy, stupid, drunk or horny. And there is an evil Russian as well, who we know is evil because he debases his woman. And the aforementioned evil German mastermind, who is also, naturally, sexually deviant.

Crude, offensive stereotypes aside (Did I forget the sleazy, untrustworthy Arab?), the novel is very badly written. Characters talk - and think - in fully, uncontracted, non-colloquial language, no matter how grim the circumstances. Since Smith has already got plenty of words he should have been merciful and spared us a few by allowing his characters to say "Don't" instead of "Do not." I am sure Roayn and Nick were very well raised, but surley even they would have used the odd contraction especially when fleeing for their lives for the umpteenth time.

There is one almost-good joke in the book. Wilbur Smith puts himself in it as a character, referred to as a writer of books redolent with sex and violence. As a passing wink this might have worked, but he decides to hammer home the point by repeating it several times, perhaps feeling his readers are too thick to get it. More likely, they are simply comatose.

Beneath the smug author photograph inside the dust jacket, I am told that Smith dedicated his last 20 novels to his wife Danielle. If they are all of this quality, then she should be insulted.
1 - As described previously on lefthandpalm:
2 - The year in question was actually 2005. This review was posted on an MSN book review group, that is shortly to be deleted. It is reproduced here because I'm very fond of the sheer glreeful viciousness of it.

The Horror! The Horror!

I’ve always had a guilty fondness of horror stories – the tendency of these stories to be full of heaving bodices and ravishments and sexual license appealed to me in my teenage years, and any honest man will admit (and any woman confirm) no man stops being a teenager, ever.

I can’t even begin to list all the horror stories that I have read, from the respectable (Dracula, Frankenstein, Poe, Lovecraft et cetera), through the somewhat respectable (Stephen King) to the utterly unmentionable – where titles and writers blur into an endless montage of bared and rended flesh, cliché and nonsense. Ah! The joy of it all.

“Re-invention” is a dirty word to my mind. It usually entails some smart arse grabbing someone else’s laurels and trying to make off with them. Which brings us to The Secret Life Of Lazlo, Count Dracula, by Roderick Anscombe.

This is a re-invention of the Dracula story. It is, in a trivial way, emblematic of the problem with modern literature – which, as I see it, is that writers are too damn knowledgable to be able to write. Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with Freud or Neitchze, but that didn’t stop him writing a psychologically perfect illustration of the Oedipus complex (Hamlet) and brilliant examinations of power, its mis-uses and its consequences there-of (MacBeth, Richard III, Julius Ceasar). He just wrote it, damn it. In these postmodern times, however, people are too well versed in too much to do anything as simple as write it, damn it. They have to cram all sorts of stuff into the story, without thinking about what is already there. Dracula is perfect as it is. You could talk for days about the imagery and subtext, the fear of contamination, the allure of the other, Dracula as a supreme Oedipal figure who can only be killed by driving a phallus, sorry, stake through his heart. What we don’t need is a psychiatrist turned writer to do it for us.

In a nutshell: Drac isn’t a vampire, he’s an ordinary aristocrat with a fondness for rough sex, so rough that his dates don’t often survive. He dabbles in the infant science of psychiatry which allows him to ponder on his condition in a tedious manner. It isn’t the psychological brooding that annoys me, but the poor quality of the writing makes it very heavy going. Anscombe might be a qualified psychiatrist, but if this is anything to go by, his case studies make poor reading, and leave the reader feeling skeptical.

I’m not one to rush to judge too quickly. It wasn’t until page 178 that I became infuriated, when the good Count asks a friend ‘and that’s where we come in?’ – an odd phrase for a 19th century Hungarian aristocrat to utter. Of course, once I decided I was not ‘bored’ but ‘infuriated’ by the book, I showed it no mercy. I started folding pages over (after a conversation with my wife as to the practicality of using her lipstick as a highlighter) to mark things that annoyed me particularly – and I count a further 19 folded up corners. 20 blunders might not sound a lot, but remember this is from halfway through the book, and they are only the outstandingly bad examples. Add on top of that a poor quality of writing, staging (the characters seem to spend most of their time at breakfast) and plotting (not content with the violation and murder of four women, Anscombe throws in a plague, a treasonous conspiracy and a murder investigation).

The book is full of sloppy writing. We are told that one woman wants to ‘Show that she wears the pants.’ Again, an unusal ambition in 19th Cnetury Europe and an even more anachronistic styling. A few pages later, this woman and Mrs Drac have ‘Hit it off.’ Talking to the dogged Inspector Krause, probably the only convincing character in the book, Drac declares ‘if you look here and here you will see the small flaws which are the mark of manufacture – which however, superior, can never match the careful application of the craftsman to his art.’ Try saying it – people just don’t talk like that, particularly people who use phrases like ‘And that’s where we come in?’

I’m not going to list all of the top 19 Bad Things. I will, however, ask if you, knowing that your husband had killed two young women, would invite a third to stay at your home and watch indulgently while she flirts with the monster? Mrs Drac does just that. And, because I can’t resist it, the topper. As I have said, this is a book that has been written badly. Worse, it seems never to have been re-read either by the writer or by anyone else – perhaps I am the first person to have read it. If it had been read by an editor, and that editor had not been rendered unconscious by the overwhelming monotony of the prose, surely the phrase ‘Grief does not come naturally to her nature’ would have been struck out? 'Naturally to her nature'? There is so much of this sort of thing.

Vampires are so on-the-money, with spooky castles, dark capes, wolves, bats, oodles of sex, how is it possible for it to go so horribly wrong?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Respect is due: Mike Terry 1947 - 2008

From his obituary in the Independent:
In 1975 Terry joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement as Executive Secretary. The organisation had been formed in London in 1959, as a "boycott committee" to draw attention to the evils of apartheid. Julius Nyerere addressed the first meeting, along with Trevor Huddleston, later president of the AAM. As the years passed, the movement's main objective was to campaign for a democratic South Africa where every section of society had equal voting rights. It seemed at the time that the apartheid regime was impregnable since it had the support of Western governments, South Africa having played the card that it was a bastion of the free world in the fight against Soviet expansionism.

Maintaining close links with the African National Congress, the AAM evolved policies to isolate South Africa, advocating economic, diplomatic and sporting sanctions, and no military or nuclear collaboration with the country. It is difficult to imagine the initial and lingering hostility to these policies, especially in the present climate of international relations where the application of sanctions is the weapon of first resort in dealing with a "rogue" state. (1)
Doesn't that bit about the apartheid regime seeming impregnable because it was actively and passively supported by the west sound familiar? We don't learn from our mistakes and , at a national level, we yet to evolve any sort of meaningful conscience. Thankfully, people like Mike Terry have the courage, commitment and intelligence to act when we fail as a nation.

And having helped change the world, he went back to being a teacher. Good man.
1 "Mike Terry: Campaigner who led the Anti-Apartheid Movement for two decades," by Bob Jones, published in The Independent, 10th of December, 2008. (

Anthony Burgess

Burgess, eh? Used to love him. Now I'm not so sure. Can't say why. Something lacking, underneath the artifice and the word play. A sense of him taking it seriously, perhaps? Also, he wrote too damn much, too quickly. Most of his novels are just throwaways - a half, or quarter, decent idea flung down in 160 pages or or so, the essential weakness covered up by a lot of clever verbal antics, and rudeness. Neither of which would be a bad thing if there was a sense that Burgess wrote the novel for any reason other than maintaining his quota of books for the year.

It is hard not to be drawn towards Burgess the man. There is so much about him that is endearing and bizzare. Most famously there is story of how he came to be a full-time, professional writer - diagnoised with an in operable brain tumour, he cast about for different ways that he might provide for his wife and (as then unborn, and tragically never born) child. As he'd had a couple of books published by this time, he decided to try to write a book a month in the months remaining to him. He failed, but he did manage to crank out three or four, and - more importantly - he also failed to die. Infact, he kept on failing to die until 1993. This, and other legends, make it easy to like the man and forgive the problems with the books.

Only it has been suggested that most of the legends are just that - legends, invented by a man with an urge to create stories and myths about himself. His brain tumour and medical death sentence appear to be one of these little fibs Burgess told over the year (1). Which just leaves us with the boooks, which are a mixed bunch, always very clever and written with great brio, but usually seeming a little bit hastily put together, lacking in a developed plot and the sense that the author was really interested in them as anything more than an excuse to show off his vocabulary.

There are exceptions. The Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East) are vey good and there is a real sense that Burgess connects with his characters situations - probably because he is writing at least semi-autobiography. While I haven't read Man of Nazereth describing the life of Jesus, the sequel, Kingdom of the Wicked, is also very good. Here Burgess is addressing big stories and huge characters, and he seems to respond to the task.

While I have little time for Enderby the flatulent poet whom everyone else seems to regard as a masterful creation, the third (or was it fourth?) in the trilogy (or was it quartet?), Enderby's Dark Lady is worth reading, though it isn't strictly necessary to read the earlier books in the sequence as various irreversible things happen to Enderby in books one and two, and then are mysteriously reversed in book three (or was it four?). His book about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun is excellent, perhaps his best. Again, he is engaged, the intellect and the word play being used to describe one of the few people he seemed to admire almost as much as Anthony Burgess. A Dead Man in Debtford, describing the life of Marlowe, is also very, very good, for the same reason.

His great big not-quite-Booker-winning book, Earthly Powers, I am not sure about. The first time I read it I was sixteen and did so to annoy my mother - because the book's main character is homosexual and this had convinced her that Burgess must be "of that ilk" (I can still remember her saying that) and this might corrupt and taint me. At the time I thought it was brilliant. Re-reading it a few years ago, I'm no longe sure. Thee is a lot about it that is excellent, but a lot of it is just the typical Burgessian froth and frot, spread over several hundred pages instead of a hundred. It deals with big important themes like love and faith and art and blah blah blah blah but doesn't really have very much to say about them. The climactic revelation about the fate of the Toomey children shocked an sickened me the first time around. The second time, the scene seemed badly mishandled and written like a bad comedy.

So yeah, Anthony Burgess, I don't know if he's good or bad or not.
1 - From the wikipedia biography of Burgess, viewed on the 10th of December, 2008. It should be noted the claims are not verified, however. (

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Graham Greene

Greene, eh? Bit like Burgess. I used to like him, now I don't. Why not? Don't know. But when lovers fall out, it isn't usually pretty or reasonable or rational. And I used to love Greene. I even blamed (?) him for my loss of faith at one stage, though I was sixteen at the time and prone to saying silly things. Where did it go wrong?

Introduced to Brighton Rock in secondary school, I quickly read most of his other major works - my parents had a compendium of five or six of his novels, and several gorgeous orange backed penguins. I lived and breathed The Heart of the Matter, The Power and The Glory, The Quiet American, A Burnt Out Case, The Honorary Consul and the other 'major' novels. I can even remember feeling very upset when he died in 1991.

At university I even wrote my dissertation on his religious novels - "Bakhtinian Readings of Graham Greene' or some such piffle. By this time I'd read most of the famous ones and was polishing off the minor works - Travels With My Aunt, The Captain and the Enemy, Monsignor Quixote and so on. I didn't think much of them but I didn't let that worry me. I recognised them as what they were - minor fluff, not to be taken seriously and not compared to the great work that Greene had done before. Though it is interesting to note that it wasn't until my university years that I read The End of the Affair - and I disliked it intensely, for all that it is rated as one of his best. I loved the alienated brooding of Bendrix, but I choked on the absurd religious elemnt of it. Which is interesting, in light of what was to come.

Then we driffted apart for a while. Perhaps we should have left it at that, but I tried to rekindle the romance a frew years ago, picking up a copy of A Burnt Out Case from the local library. it had always been a favourite. But now it sucked. Abysmally. What had once seemed charged with pathos and beauty and terror was just ... dull. And very schematic. And really, obviously, trying too hard to make itself seem important.

Since then, Ive been too scared to re-read any more Greene. I'm afraid that the other greats will seem just as bad. Particularly the other favourites - The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor. What if they two are as dry and worthless, second (though it might be third or fourth) time round?

Recalling another of his novels that I admired, The Quiet American, published in 1955 and seeming to predict every American foreign policy misadventure between then and now, made me think - what if Greene had resisted the temptation to write all these banally sanctimonious Catholic novels, and written more in the line of the The Quiet American?

Greene was always characterised as being a writer torn between Catholicisim and socialism, though I think that is simplistic - the socialism never really seemed like anything more than ideology he paid lip service to to shock and annoy his fellow Catholics (and vice versa, I suspect). But what if he had thrown the mumbo-jumbo out and written more politically, more journalistically? It is an interesting thought, and I for one, as a disillusioned Greene-ite, wish that he had.

W. Somerset Maugham

I enjoyed the film of The Painted Veil, though mostly for the amusement of watching Edward Norton and Naomi Watts pretend to be terribly proper English peoples. Plot clunked along from one fairly predicatable point to another. Perhaps the book would have felt been less by-the-numbers, and as they say, never judge a book by its film adaptation. Look what the bastards did with Joseph Conrad's Amy Foster. And that was only a short story.

I read Of Human Bondage earlier this year. The first two chapters are perhaps the most pathetic (in the true meaning of the word) I've ever read. Perhaps they are a touch sentimental by modern standards, but the writing is controlled but at the same time empathetic. Alas, the rest of the book slides quickly down into a morass of awfulness and never manages to drag itself out.

Those first two chapters deal with the orphaning of the main character, Philip. He is sent to live with his deeply priggish minister uncle, attends boarding school where he is bully and mocked because of his club foot, tries various professions and decides to become an artist in Paris for a while, returns to England, completes his medical training, falling in love with a trollopy tease of a waitress.

The whole thing is very banally pretentious. Various theories or philosophies for life are put forward, giving the affair a rather studied (and shallow) European air. But Sentimental Education this is not - though I suspect Flaubert's novel was very much on Maughan's mind when he wrote Of Human Bondage. There's nothing here that is interesting or remarkable. The philosophy is bland and superficial. The psychology of the characters dull and the action sluggish.

What dirt and nastiness Maughan permits is decorous and prim - precisely the sort of things Philip rails against. Obviously, one can rebel against bourgeois conventions and morality, but only so far. I can't recall anything very interesting about how it was written - after a hundred pages or so I switched off, though I kept turning them in the hope of finding something to reward my perseverance. It is fustrating, though, to think that while Maughan was moving his stuffy litle marionettes in their quiant little comedy, Joyce had already written Potrait of the Artist and was at work on Ulyssess.

Now, it is not fair to compare a book to Ulyssess and say, "It isn't Ulyssess, so it is no good." If all books were as experimental, dense and byzantine as Ulyssess, book sales would be even lower than they are and illiteracy would be a necessity for keeping a blanced mind. But Of Human Bondage is Of Human Bondage is too old fashioned, uninteresting and blandly written compared to other books published in 1915 (1) that aren't anywhere near as radical or unreadable as Ulyssess. I would take The Valley of Fear - or even Tarzan - over Of Human Bondage. And never mind that D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Kafka and Ford Maddox Ford all had considerable books published that year.
1 - '1915 in Literature,' wikipedia article, viewed 10th of December, 2008. (

Monday, 8 December 2008

From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell


Occasionally, I dip my toe in the pool of popular literature, and the strange thing is I persist in doing this, even if almost every time I do, it either gets scalded or bitten off by a pike.

My most recent exercise in toe dipping involved From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell. I worship Tom Waits, and he wrote a song called 'Potter's Field' and I though the novel might be related to it in some murky post-modernity way. And anything to do with Tom Waits must be brilliant, or so I thought. I should have borne in mind the Rod Stewart covers of his songs, that are just naff reprises of the original. I should have been more circumspect and thought - there is glory, and then there is reflected glory, and then there is stuff that is nothing to do with anything at all glorious. You have to approach these things with caution. The part of me that continues to have faith in human nature maintained that so many people revered Cornwell that she couldn't be bad. The more cynical side thought that popularity must equal bilge. Numerous evidences could be cited in support of the second proposition, and alas, precious few in support of the former.

From Potter's Field joins the multitude, I am afraid. Cornwell is not a bad writer as such - but Potter's shows she is a poor plotter and her characters don't act or speak in a belivable manner.

Her plotting technique seems to involve exaggerated withoholding of a key piece of information or action. The classic example of this is The Hound Of the Baskervilles, where Conan Doyle keeps Sherlock Holmes off stage for most of the novel, and once he turns up he reveals everything in 5 minutes. All crime stories rely on withholding - it wouldn't be much fun if the criminal admitted to the crime on page 5 - though then we might have space for a proper investigation into motive for and consequence of the crime, both of which rarely feature in crime literature, and particularly in From Potter's Field.

In Cornwell's case, it is the crucial plot element could have been realised at almost every point - characters talk about it early in the story, then seem to forget about it for a couple of hundred pages, until the bland and unlikable Kay Scarpetta remembers it and decides to put it into effect, at which point the plot resolves itself in a most helpful manner. this wouldn't be too awful, if the intervening 200 pages were more interesting than the are.


Sunday, 7 December 2008

James Kelman

Since Alastair Gray has put himself out of the running, James Kelman can now lay claim to the crown of 'Most Important Living Scottish Writer' - should he care for such a title, which I rather doubt.

I have read three of his novels, plus short stories. Since that trio includes THE WHOLE of the near unreadable Translated Accounts, it surely qualifies me as Kelman's most devoted reader, and world authority on his works. Come on! Who else has actually read the whole damn thing?

Other that Translated Accounts, I've read How Late It Was, How Late and A Dissaffection. Both are good, though it was a long time ago and I'm struggling to recall enough to make a spirited defence of them. I also have You Have To Be Careful ... on the book shelf, with a provisional start date in January 09.

How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize a few years ago, back when I was naive to imagine that this particular trophy actually meant something. At the time, it was TERRIBLY controversial, because Kelman's fondness of the word 'fuck' and all variations thereof proved too strong for some folk. One newspaper calculated that the word occurred more than four times a page. How did they work that out? What poor bugger had to sit there and count how frequently James Kelman swears? It has been a long time since I read it, but I remember it being being very intense and bleak. The other two are much clearer, so I'll focus on them.

I recall A Disaffection as reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, only coarser, longer and set in Glasgow. The main character, Patrick Doyle, is a pissed off 29 year old teacher and he is fustrated sexually and careerwise. Sometimes you want to scream at Patrickbut this is a testament to Kelman's ability to make his character seem real, because real people are like that. The final scenes of the book - basically an all day piss up with his brother and his brother's mates, when he should be teaching, interrupted by the arrival of his brother's wife, culminating in a long walk home in the rain - are brilliantly poignant. Kelman must be the only writer who could imagine a trudge home in the Glasgow rain, with a strong liklihood of a kicking from a couple of belligerent cops, seems at all redemptive.

Translated Accounts is a very strange book, composed of fragments of first person narratives, translated by a person or persons who have only a limited familiarity with English. Here are the final lines, which I think are stunningly good:
I cannot say about a beginning, or beginnings, if there is to be the cause of all, I do not see this. There are events, I speak of them, if I am to speak it is these, if I may speak. (1)
I remember reading some spurious comparison between Alastair Gray and Kelman, to the detriment of the latter on the grounds that Kelman is limited by his decision to write in dialect (ducks Kelman's haymaker - he dislikes the word intensely) and his concentration on dull realism. This is bullshit. Kelman's concern is for with the unrepresented, and those who are made to be silent.

He has also been accused of misogyny, a charge often levied at male who write about males subjects, though curiously often aimed at females who write about females. It is a libel that can easily be put to rest. Though most of his narrators are male, he is concious of an excluded 'female voice' (ducks anouther swing from Kelman) and highlights this in the closing pages of A Disaffection. The first speaker is Patrick, well pissed. The second is his sister-in-law, Nicola. Kelman doesn't like quotation marks and the paraphenalia of bourgeois grammar. Live with it:
Pat waited a few seconds before speaking. What I mean there about Elizabeth is she's got a sense of peace. John has it as well right enough but I think she has it more. It's a real sense of peace.

Pat. Women have to listen more than men, that's why they've got a sense of peace as you call it; they're used to listening - that's what they have to do all the time, listen to men talking. Yet to hear them you'd think it was us did it. And not only listen to them, women have to watch them all the time as well, they've got to study their moods, they've got to see its alright to speak if this is the bloody time you can ask the question or no, is it the wrong time and you'll have to wait because half the time men just areni willing to listen to something if they don't want to hear it, it gets you down. (2)
Back to Translated Accounts. It is, I think, the ultimate realsiation of what Kelman has been trying to do with his linguistic guerilla warfare. Reading it a few years ago, I tried to work out what his goal was. I came up with three options:

First of all, by writing a novel that tetters on the verge of incomprehensibility, he is trying to make the reader actively create the narrative from the fragments he has provided. The reader has to create the characters and action in his head. If so, he has failed dramatically, because the novel is too resistant to this sort of exercise. The reader will simply give up in fustration. That said, there was one sequence which I read as describing a building crowded with refugees, which gave me the heebie-jeebies. But, with reflection, I don't think that was what he was trying to do.

Second, he might be attempting - by making the setting, characters and conflict anonymous - to describe some universal experience of displaced or opressed persons. The anonymous characters who flit through the ... (words fail. Novel? Story? Collection?) ... the accounts might be Palestinians and Israelis, or Sandinistas and Contras, Jews and Nazis, blacks slaves and their owners, or Glaswegians fighting against English tyranny. If this was his purpose, however, he failed again as the book is so incoherent that it is impossible to draw any sort of narrative or structure out of it. It isn't anyone's experience.

Which brings us to option number three, which is, I think the correct one. I think Kelman has been trying to respond to the critics who bemoan his obscenity and his refusal to write in anything approaching Standard English (pah!). Translated Accounts a story taken out of its natural reister and translated into a hideous non-language by computer mediation - a bit like running Shakespeare through Babelfish. It is, to all intents, unreadable and incomprehensible - which is the point. I think Kelman is trying to show us that a story or a character must be described in its natural voice. To do otherwise is to bastardize it and to make it - from an intellectually and artistically honest point of view - as deadly and meaningless as the mangled accounts that he has produced. So the Accounts themselves are almost a shaggy dog story - it isn't the accounts that are important, but the fact that they have been translated. They've been taken out of their natural register, an immediately cease to be relevant, interesting or important.

If that was what he intended to do, he's suceeded magnificently. But it is a Phyrric vistory, because the book isn't any more readable just because it is meant to be unreadable.Though I would be interested in reading an alternate version, Untranslated Accounts, to see what was actually going on.
1 - From Translated Accounts, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 2001.
2 - From A Disaffection, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 1989.

The Fanatic, by James Robertson

An old book review, which I'm reporoducing here before MSN communities are switchedoff in February. This dates from 2001:

I've just finished reading The Fanatic by James Robertson. It is an interesting novel, with two different plots running through it. One of them is set in Edinburgh in 1997, and tells the story of Andrew Carlin, who works as a spook on an Edinburgh ghost walk. The second narrative deals with James Mitchell, a 17th century religious fanatic who attempts to murder the archbishop of St Andrews, and is imprisoned, tortured and finally hung as a result.

What attracted me to this book is that it deals with a period of Scottish history that I know very little about, much to my shame. The only time I can remember meeting the Covenanters in literature before is in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality, which I read in my sixth year at school. Robertson slyly drops his name into The Fanatic a couple of times, which is a nice touch. Though a sceptic, when it comes to entertainment I don't mind unexplained forces and supernatural powers. I ahve a peculiar fondness for books with a supernatural element like this, where curious, never fully explained forces influence people centuries later - Peter Ackroyd has made an entire career out of books like this. Robertson isn't half the writer that Ackroyd is, but he does bother to include a plot, which helps.

The main weakness of the book is that the 17th century narrative is so much more interesting that the modern day sections. Carlin is an interesting character, and his profound oddness is well portrayed, but it can't match the bloodthirsty narrative that it is paired with. The 17th century has slaughter, torture, bestiality, incest, witchcraft... The 20th century parts have a lonely loon talking to his mirror. I almost felt Robertson would have been happier writing a straight historical novel, but included the 20th century parts for his own inscrutable reasons - to avoid being consigned to the "Historical Fiction" ghetto, perhaps? Or is it the old Mrztist maxim that history is bound to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? Or demonstrating that that we're all just quivering neurotic wrecks, regardless of what century we live in?

There is also an annoying parochialism about it, something I've noticed in Scottish literature. I remember it annoying me when Iain Rankin went on about Irn Bru in his Rebus novels, or waffled on about the character of malt whiskies. We dinnae need to explain everything, and if we try it disrupts the story. For example:

"He raised his glass, souked an inch or more out of it. 'Slainte.' It was only recently that he'd learnt that this was gaelic for 'Health'. For years he'd said 'Slange' thinking it was an obscure Scots term signifying 'Slam your drink down your throat and let's get another in'. It was watching Machair, the gaelic soap opera, that had enlightened him."
The idea of modern urbanite Scots gaining their cultural knowledge from soap opera is amusing, but do we really need to know exactly which soap? It is the sort of precision that dates very quickly. (For all those who don't know, Machair was a real soap, set on a wee island. It was a bit like Eldorado, only colder. It went the same way as Eldorado did).

Sometimes, alas, Robertson slips up - would a country lad in 17th century Scotland really have referred to himslef or his ilk as a "Proletarian"? Dinnae think so. In the 17th century sections he struggles to convey the atmosphere of the time - really make you feel it, the way Ackroyd does. He decides to stage the big trial scene at the end as if it was on Boston Legal - I don't imagine 17th Scots law had quite the same feel to it.

These are the the things I don't like about the book. What dio I like? It is still a good story, despite the reservations. It might have been a better story if he hadn't tried to find a 20th century corrolation. Despite the old slip up, he's not at all a bad writer. He could do with using a few more unusual adjectives and similies, but he's far from alone in this. It does generate a fair degree of excitement - it only take a couple of days to read. And am I being too cynical when I wonder why it is that Robertson climaxes the 17th century strand with the trial of Mitchell, where the Scottish legal system is shown to be a tool of the ruling class, and the 20th century strand with the triumph of New Labour in 1997? I dinnae ken, but the thought made me smile.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

They shoot horses, don't they?

According to the Independent, thousands of Mustangs are to be culled because the US government can't afford to feed and care for them in pens.

You might ask what these wild horses are doing in pens in the first place. Good question. The answer, of course, involves money and the American farming industry.

The land the Mustangs should roam on has been converted into cattle ranches and since ranchers have beeter lobbyists in Washington than horses, the Mustangs are probably doomed.

Wild mustangs, those quintessential symbols of the American West for hundreds of years, are facing their most deadly predator yet: the pen-pushing civil servants of the US Bureau of Land Management.

Growing pressure on the horses' traditional habitat has left officials contemplating a programme of mass slaughter to reduce the number of mustangs held captive in government-run pens. More than 33,000 of the animals, almost as many as the number still in the wild, have been rounded up and taken off increasingly barren public land in recent years, to reduce pressure on grazing required by the cattle-ranching industry. (1)
Full disclosure: I am vegetarian. I think it is frickin' obscene that wild animals are to be exterminated and the land they used to roam gobbled up to feed our beef habit. And I think most meat eaters would agree this is a WRONG THING if only they were informed about it.

Surely there is a better way of dealing with this than by killing wild horses and feeding them to Frenchies? Perhaps a levy could be put on MacDonalds et al so that the people ultimately causing this slaughter - the beef chomping consumers of Big Macs and Whoppers - compensate for the damage their self-indulgence is causing. Surely a better solution than leaving it up to an under-funded government agency at the mercy of an adminstration which has been obsessively trying to cut taxes - while waging war - for most of a decade?

All is not lost, however, for we learn that a plutocrat is going to intervene, rather in the style of a wealthy sinner buying indulgences from the Medieval church, and give all the doomed Mustangs a home:
The only hope for many horses may lie with Madeleine Pickens, wife of the Texan oil billionaire T Boone Pickens, who recently announced that she was trying to establish a million-acre refuge where all captive mustangs can be released. Her plan will see private land turned into a rural theme park where Americans can interact with the mustangs. Its announcement persuaded the BLM to grant captive horses a stay of execution until the New Year.

"We will take all the excess horses," Mrs Pickens explained, "and put them somewhere where families can see them and live among them, and camp out in teepees and have bonfires and look up at the stars and get to know this incredible aspect of our heritage." (2)
Which is very nice of her, but it is rather missing two fundamental points - first of all, the government should have the money required to carry out its duties and the benevolent Mr & Mrs Pickens should be paying more taxes to allow this to happen. Also, this is capitalism saving us from capitalism - the problem has been created by US agricultural capitalism, and is being 'resolved' by someone else who has made their money through oil. But who is going to resolve the problems created by Mr Pickens and his ilk in their quest for wealth? The beef farmers?

I've no head for business but I suspect that the amount of money that capitalists are willing to spend on resolving the problems they, as a class, have created, is not going to be anywhere near the amount they gain whilst creating these problems. Nor will the money they give back be enough to genuinely resolve them. Because that isn't wouldn't be profitable.

1 - "Washington plans mass slaughter of America's mustangs," by Guy Adams, published in the Independent, 30th of November, 2008. (
2 - ibid.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Senior Tory M.P. arrested

I actually think this (1) is a great thing, and there should be more of it. And once the police have arrested all the venal bastards who, like Green (2), supported the Iraq War and the excesses of The War on Terror, and who failed to question the vicious hypocritical practices of the British and U.S. governments, the 'detainees' should be rendered to Gauntanamo and subjected to a bit of waterboarding and sensory deprivation and other 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'
1 - 'Cameron condemns Tory leak arrest,' unattributed BBC article, 28th of
November, 2008. (
2 - Profile of Damien Green compiled by, views on 28th of November, 2008. (

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Rememberance Day

Dave Brown's Rememberance Day cartoon from the Independent (1):

We will also remember those who would have put New Zealander troops into Iraq. Especially since they now have the power to do so.
1 - 'Rememberance Day' by Nick Brown, published in The Independent, 10th of November, 2008. (

Monday, 10 November 2008

Trotter struts, frets - part two

Congratulations to Chris Trotter, who managed to make it all the way through his first post-election column without saying "I told you so," or using the word "infelicitous," at all (1).

Trotter ascribes the failure of the left to the reactionary tendency of New Zealand voters:
So, what was it in the end? What led a majority of the New Zealand electorate to reject a government that has not only done it no great harm (as National-led governments are historically prone to do), but might even be said to have done it some good? Why did voters reject a prime minister with nine years of hard-won experience in government, for a chap who's barely spent six years in parliament?

Last night's result was manufactured out of the besetting sin of the last 150 years of western history - the crisis of masculinity. What, exactly, is a man in a world of corporate and public bureaucracies? A world of tin-pot bosses, impossible schedules, and unrealistic expectations? A world where to show your feelings is to reveal your weakness? A world where girls can do anything, but boys make a virtue out of boorish stupidity? A world where cynicism trumps heroism, and where simple human decency is dismissed as political correctness?

It was these: the men who just couldn't cope with the idea of being led by an intelligent, idealistic, free-spirited woman; the gutless, witless, passionless creatures of the barbecue-pit and the sports bar (and the feckless females who put up with them); who voted Helen Clark out of office. (2)

First of all - I have to say it - how he can describe Helen Clark as 'idealistic,' is beyond me. For the last time, she signed a free trade agreement with the Communist despots of the P.R.C. There was nothing iidealistic in that, just pragmatic economically motivated hypocrisy. Which exposes Trotter's column as the ideological ideal-illogical exercise it is.

(For record, the voting system isn't there to "save us from ourselves" as Trotter puts it (3) - it is there to reflect the will of the people. MMP is not perfect, as the bump in the wasted vote this year showed - but it is better than many. If Trotter wants a system where the good and the wise get to decide what is good for everyone else, I suggest he visit Helen's friends in Beijing.)

He can't be honest and attribute Labour's defeat to its true source - a rudderless party who on;ly purpose had become to maintan its position in power, on the benighted principle that' "We might be slightly better at mismanaging things than the other team." There was nothing fundamentally distinctive about Labour in 2008. The fact John Key was able to "Mee, too!" almost every policy of Labour's showed that. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why they lost - because there was no reason for them to win. No compelling reason why people would vote for them. No Big Idea to excite people.

Admitting that, however, would mean Trotter and Labour have to admit that they failed, and they don't have the courage for that - the same lack of courage that cost them the election. SO it is easier to blame the electorate, in a singular display of graceless disgruntlement.
1 - "The night MMP couldn't save us from ourselves," by Chris Trotter, published in the Sunday Star Times, 9th of November, 2008. Reproduced on (
2 - ibid.
3 - ibid.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Don't blame Bradford for ACT

It has been suggested (1) that one reason for ACT's good performance last night was down to a backlash against the repeal of Section 59, particularly among Pacific Islanders in South Auckland. They oted for ACT, supposedly, because that was the party that refused to support he bill.

(The implication that PI families are prone to violence agaisnt children is noted)

This doesn't stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. Comparing the party vote for ACT across the three South Auckland electorates of Mangere, Manakau East and Manurewa, ACT's share of the party vote has barely changed - a boost in one electorate balanced by falls in another.
Mangere 05 - 141
Mangere 08 - 252

Manakau East 05 -629
Manakau East 08 - 395

Manurewa 05 - 232
Manurewa 08 - 575

And anyway, we're talking about such piddling numbers here that the net increase in Manurewa (since when did it become a hotbed of Freidmanite lunacy?) wouldn't even get Roger Douglas's toe nail clippings into parliament.

It would be interesting - but tiresome - to see where ACT was getting it was behind ACT's surge, it wasn't the wrath of brownskinned child thumpers in South Auckland.

In fact, Labour's support in Mangere dropped by about 7,000 vortes, but so did the total number of party votes cast (28,967 down to 21,688). The vote simply seems to have stayed at home. In Manakau South we see the same thing - 33,193 party votes cast in 2005, down to 23,312 in 2008. And Labour's majority down by about 4,500 (interestingly, National's support fell by 5,000 as well, acocunting for the difference). And in Manurewa, the difference between 2005's party votes and 2008's was about 8,000 votes, once again matching the fall in Labour's majority.

It might be arguable that the collapse in Labour support in these electorates reflects disgust at Labour's support of Bradford's bill, but there is nothing to support the claim that they were transfering to ACT in any significant numbrs. And with out that evidence, it is hard to attribute the decline to the Bradford Bill at all. It might be, but there isn't any good evidence to support the contention.

National, after all, did rather well last night inspite of supporting the bill.

The figures for 2005 can be verified here and the figures for 2008 can be checked here (2).

1 - Comment posted on The Standard by a poster called Falafula Fisi: "Labour should blame themselves for bringing in the EFA and the backing of Sue Bradford’s bill. I have lots of relatives in South Auckland who had been Labour supporters since they set foot on this country, until came the Sue Bradford’s bill, and they me told this afternoon, that they all voted for ACT the only party that opposed that bill." (
2 - The online summary of the 2005 and 2008 election results, broken down by electorates, viewed as of the 9th on November, 2008. ( and

Come on, Scotland!

Forget the election, the real battle is Scotland vs. All Blacks, being played at Murrayfield right now. Lets see if my compatriots can add to New Zealand's woes.

UPDATE - Even here, I seem doomed to confoundation. All Blacks 32 - Scotland 6. And in my post-election befudled state, I misread the TV schdules (not once but twice) and thought the match was being shown on Prime at 3.30 a.m., not 3.30 p.m. ... So was very tired and grumpy by the time I realised my mistake (worse - I watched the infomercials until 4 a.m. expecting to cut to Murrayfield at any moment ...)

And then National Radio went and gvae awy the result while I was listening to the post-election analysis this mornng.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Election 08 comments

Initial forecast with 2.3% of the vote in:

National on 48% versus Labour's 32%. Which looks shocking for Labour, but I remember last time round Labour started 10% behind and pulled it back 1% per 10% of the vote coming in, to sneak ahead in the final few results.

This time, they are too far behind, but if that formula holds true the final result for the two big parties might look like National 43% and Labour 37% - pretty close to my earlier guesstimate. The Greens look okay at 6.2%, and should add a bit to that.

Freakily, it looks like NZ First might be in with a shout of reaching 5%. How can this be?

UPDATE - National up to 49%, Labour down to 31%, Greens slipping, NZ First creeping up ... this is not what should be happening. Still, right now it is all rural types who vote National and - unlike us leftie uban types - can't make it to a polling station on the day itself. So my formula should be vindicated as the evening progresses.

8.58 - Finally a slight shrinkage in the National lead, down to 47% of votes in. This trend should continue, leaving them as the largest party in parliament, but bperhaps not by a decisive margin. Where will Winston be seems to be the crucial question now.

9.06 - Labour move up to 32%. Creeping up, National creeping down, who big will the gap between them be?

9.40 - Labour up to 33%. National + ACT perhaps less than 50% of total vote. Starting to get confusing and messy. Bit unjust, perhaps, that NZ First is polling more than ACT but looks like it is completely gone, where as ACT might have a decisive influence. Oh well, that’s the system.

9.58 - National still trending down, but slowly. Labour trending up, but slowly - 45% to 33%. Gap is 12%. Nats + ACT + UF looking possible, but still some big numbers coming in. A propos of nothing, New Zealand elections lack any sort of epic quality. It's all over in a couple of hours. At least in Britain, you might have to wait until 3a.m. which gives you time to get properly excited / upset / drunk.

10.04 - National are now well over 200,000 votes clear of Labour. You can repeat "Silver and Bronze beats Gold, it's all about plurality," but you can't deny that it feels wrong to contemplate defying such a gap. To do so might, in the longer term mean the end of M.M.P. Perhaps Winston could weasel his way back into the Beehive on an anti-M.M.P. ticket ...

10.12 - I reckon there’s 3% of shift left in the remaining vote, at most - Labour up to 34% or 35% at the outside, and National down to 44%. Which might leave National just short of a Nat-ACT-UF totality, but Labour unable to do anything, even with the Greens and the Maoris.

10.20 - Bloody Hell, does that mean Phil Goff in charge of Labour? How depressing, Just when they need a proper leader for 2011 when National get serious about wrecking the place.

10.29 - Thing is, I pledged (1) to do a streak if Roger Douglas got into parliament. Fortunately, I didn’t specify it had to be a public streak. Though it is a cold night. ACT haven't just undone my modesty, they've undone the whole election - everything else turned out more or less as predicted, but their robust performance meant that no coalition formulation Labour could come up with could overcome the rightwing bloc. Which is sad, because it means we could be in for a grisly six years or so, unless Keyism comes hideously undone, quickly. ANd Labour are smart enough to find someone who isn't Phil Goff to lead them.

10.34 - Shit. Pompous Chris (2) will be twiddling his moustache and spluttering "I told you to dump Helen!" over this. And Hide's success will establish the idea that you have to be a publicity seeking tit to suceed as the leader of a minor party. The bads just keep piling up!

11.09 - I pour myself my first alcoholic drink in about four years, to toast Key's success and fortify myself for the squeals of rightwing joy. Interestingly, posting comments on The Standard, the 'capcha' anti-spam thingy requested that I type in the words 'society' and 'suffers.' Could this be an omen?

11.30 - Clark announces her resignation. That's probably the biggest shock of the night, really. I thought she'd hang on a bit longer.
1 - 'Forget the Obama Drama - New Zeland (sic) Election Night!' discussion thread started by la la (that's me) on the MSN News forum, 8th of November, 2008. (
2 - The Policy Blog, cyberspatial home of Chris Trotter ( Trotter made a lot of noise about how Labour should ditch Clark before the election, described pervious on lefthandpalm:


  • National take the lions share of the vote - 45%
  • Labour perform better than pollsters predict - 38%
  • Greens weigh in with a handy total - 8%
  • The remainder of the non Maori electorate vote is dribbled away between the other parties. Progressives, ACT and United Future returned through electorate seats with minimal extra M.P.s
The Maori Party are left to decide who gets to be governing party, eventually going with Labour because of the pro-Labour tendency of their support base. Prehaps it is intimated to them that Helen Clrak will step down in favour of Shane Jones before the next election.

Long term conseuence is that National exploit anti-MMP sentiment to restore FPTP and abolish the Maori seats, effectively ending the Maori Party as a political force.

Spoiler Warning

Today, in an act of democratic defiance, I'll trot off to the polling station and spoil my ballot.

I can not justify voting for either Labour or National. National was never a realistic option. Labour have failed to offer any big idea to inspire me to vote for them, and my repugnance at their Free Trade Agreement with the P.R.C. is too strong. Appartatchiks might wail about choosing the 'least worst' or focusing what is 'best for New Aealand.' But stuff them, their simply trying to cozen a few more votes for their corrupt, useless party who have snuggled up with the most hateful and evil regime on the planet.

Greens out, because they would simply support Labour, and I can't justify a proxy vote for Labour. Ditto most of the other left leaning parties. Even the token parties are out, because if some freak of electoral absurdity were to put a representative of the Workers' Party in the Beehive, they would inevitably coallese with Labour. Anyway, there's something disheartening about a bunch of student Trots calling themselves workers, with straight faces. Especially when they are constantly shrilling for surplus value to be appropriated to pay for their personal improvement.

ACT, NZ First or United Future? Don't be silly.

So in a few hours time, I'll scribble all over my ballot paper, because I think it is important enough to show that you care, by turning up. But I also think it is important enough to not waste your vote on a party you despise, that you disagree with and that you think needst o return to its principles and work out why it wants to be in power in the first place, other than to provide a bunch of porkers with sinecures.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Interesting times in the PRC

According to the Telegraph:
China's economy recorded its slowest growth in five years at 9.0 per cent in the third quarter of 2008.

The situation has looked increasingly dire in recent days with export-dependent factories closing and laying off thousands of workers, with warnings from industry heads of much worse to come. (1)
The economic miracle of the pRC has been based on some very simple and unmiraculous realities - totalitarian brutality, combined with western capital, technology, and our demmand for cheap consumer goods with human rights optional..

Now the western capital is drying up (or, more exactly, never existed in the first place) and consumers in the west suddnely wondering if they can afford another DVD player, the PRC s is faced with a problem - the prospect hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed people and not 'organic' infrastructure to absorb them.

The social consequence of this could be immense - for the PRC, it could be the start of social collapse, with the newly unemployed resorting to banditry. Or they could be recruited by organised crime syndicates (I mean the illegal ones, not the criminal gang that runs the country), which would internationalize the problem.

The absurdity is that it had been suggested the PRC's economic growth would drag the rest of the world out of recession. Don't bet on it. THeir economy is as reliant on the smoke and mirrors as ours.
1 - "China to invest $445bn in rail system," by unidentified correspondents in Beijing, published in THe Daily Telegraph, 25th of October, 2008. (,22049,24551437-5001028,00.html)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

My belated thoughts on the leaders' debate

First, I didn't see all of it. Perhaps the rest of it was really, very very good and would have inspired me to rennounce my broad-spectrum disgust with both major parties and their acolytes. Perhaps, but I doubt it.

My sole contribution to the debate around the debate. I thought both lost. Neither managed to appear anything other than a self-promoting politician canvassing for votes and try to weasel their way into our affections.

Even in the short time I watched, I became intensely annoyed by the populist pretentions of the twain [Ease up, lad, you sound as mock-erudite as Chris Trotter there]. Every time I heard Key refer to "Mum and Dad" I wanted to throw things at him. Equally, when Clark said "Kiwis" I wanted to yell at her to stop trying to do the 'common touch' bollocks.

Both of them seemed disingenuous. Key tried to weasel his way away from the vexing Sprinbok tour issue. Clark did not profit from it, however, because her little speech about opposing wicked regimes only highlighted how far she has come from her moral stance of 1981 - this is the woman whose government negotiated a free trade deal with the bastards of Beijing. She can't argue any sort of ethical superiority over the Springbok tour, without accounting for her current moral bankruptcy.

Finally, an improvement in the Blogosphere

Trying to view Kiwiblog (1) today, I got a screenful of this:

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Which is quite the most thoughtful, profound and erudite commentary ever posted on any rightwingblog, anywhere.

If only the The Standard (2) could aspire to a similar standard.

1 -
2 -

Saturday, 11 October 2008

English tapes - don't get silly, don't get nasty ... too late

The latest English Tapes (1) are a bit of a damp squid, to be frank. It's obviously a jovial conversation between English and someone else, not an admission of scurrilous deceit. In fact, the scantiness of the tape prompts you to wonder if the collocutor was the mole, and what they had said to prompt Mr English's response.

It smacks of entrapment, and a cynical attempt to make a flippant comment sound sinister. Given how weak i is, it may backfire on Labour and their tame propogandists, and serve them right.

The eagerness with which some left blogs have fallen on this story, and the phoney shock and horror envinced on (for example) the Standard that Key and English had obviously talked about how to handle the issue is a bit ... phoney. Both men using the word 'pathetic' to describe the tape is enough to prompt specualtion that the response is co-ordinated by Crosby/Textor - rather a far-fetched conclusion, and evidence that there are plenty on the left who are willing to do whatever it takes to win - precisely what they are accusing National of.

It's a shame to see a professional journalist like Duncan Garner joining in, asking English what he meant (3). From the context of even the fragment we're given, it is obvious he isn't talking about how the National Party are willing to lie and cheat their way into power before turning on us and devouring our children alive before us. It's clearly about a willingness to fight dirty if Labour fight dirty - "despite the highly principled statements" - which is hardly a secret agendum.

Why defend an unlikeable rightwing primitivist (4) like Mr English? Because I dislike lies, misrepresentation and character assasination as much as rightwing primitivism. It's the sort of tactics that are natural to the right - it's disappointing to see the left engaging in them.

Clearly, there are plenty on the left who'll do anything - "despite the highly principled statements" - to win. Which is why I'm sick of them. It isn't about principle any more, just about making sure your team wins.

1 - "More controversial comments caught on tape," reported by Duncan Garner on 3 News, 9th of October, 2008. View it on
2 - "In Case You Missed It," posted by all_your_base on The Standard, 10th of October, 2008. (
3 - Garner, op. cit.
4 - "Bill English: Political views," Wikipedia profile of Bill English, a viewed on 11th October, 2008. (

Friday, 10 October 2008

I was, of course, completely wrong - latest polls

Well, I managed to make a right tit of myself in the polling pundit stakes. Not one but two polls (here and here (1)) indicating a drop in support for National and Labour's support holding up nicely, with the Greens looking spritely as well. So much for my previous prediction (2). Even bloody Winston is defying my prophetic prowess.
1 - Polls conducted by Roy Morgan, released 10th of October, 2008 (
and 'Helen Clark back in the running, poll shows' unattributed TV3 story, 10th of October, 2008. (
2 - As described previously on lefthandpalm:

Sunday, 5 October 2008


A decent column by Monbiot on the bailout (1). It would have mor eimpressive if he'd trotted out the "socialism for the rich, private profit, public risk" routine in an article dated the 30th of August, not the 30th of September, but it is still interesting to see the figures he quotes from the Cato Institute. Remmember, they are clear-eyed, honest, neo-conservative truth-speakers, not shifty, lying leftist subversives, so when they say that the USA governemnt is a machine designed to move the American tax payer's money into the pockets of big business, it must be true.
1 - "Congress Confronts its Contradictions," by George Monbiot. Posted on, 30th of September, 2008. (

Friday, 3 October 2008

More bilge from the Mail

I shouldn't be surprised by the Mail's vehement prosecution of its war on truth, because its a nasty little conservative rag just a couple of steps shy of BNP territory. Still, I have to confess to beingimpressed by the effontry with which they try to twist and manipulate information to create some weird little illusion that suits their jaundiced Little Englander world view.

Take this, for example:
Bring back the cane in schools, say one in five teachers
By Sarah Harris
Last updated at 1:50 AM on 03rd October 2008

One in five teachers would like to see the cane brought back in schools to help discipline unruly children, a survey has revealed.

They would back the return of corporal punishment because they have had enough of deteriorating pupil behaviour.

The research comes amid rising concern about poorly behaved children who routinely flout authority both in school and out.

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) survey of 6,162 teachers found that overall, 20.3 per cent backed 'the right to use corporal punishment in extreme cases'. (1)
So, one in five teachers support the return of caning? Which means four in five don't. 80% of those surveyed were absolutely opposed to the idea of beating children. But the Mail tries to emphasise the minority who yearn for the good old days of state sanctioned child abuse.

Bear in mind that teaching is a profession where people don't naturally progress upwards - you can start as a classroom teacher when you are twenty five, and still be a classroom teacher in forty years when you retire. This ensues conservatism is ingrained in the profession, contrary to the popular (i.e. Daily Mail) image of trendy teachers trying to teach five year olds to be gay (2).

It's more than likely that that 20% who support violence against children are - how can I say this - old, reactionary farts. It is noticeable that the Mail interviews one teacher and signally fails to give her age, even though it is almost unheard of in tabloid journalism to omit a woman's age. That's pretty telling.
1 - "Bring back the cane in schools, say one in five teachers," by Sarah Harris, published in the Daily Mail, 3rd of October,
2008. (
2 - "Teach 'the pleasure of gay sex' to children as young as five, say researchers," by Steve Doughty, published in the Daily Mail, 16th of September, 2008. (

Empire of illusions

Perhaps it is my Eupropean roots, but Zinn's column, outlining an alternative means of confronting the credit crisis, doesn't strike as wildly radical (1). Perhaps it sounds like some sinister new madness in the U.S.A., but in Europe, we GET government intervention. We appreciate that no intervention is, in fact, a form of intervention.

So Zinn's suggestion that the government use the $700 billion to relieve families frightened of losing their homes (because people aren't going to spend money if they think their house is at risk) and create jobs doesn't strike me as something fiendishly Leninist. Quite the opposite - it is Rooseveldian or even Eisenhowerian 'dynamic government' - something that used to be very American, even very Republican, until about thirty years ago.

It's the sort of thing John McCain would be talking about if he was one tenth of the maverick he pretends to be. But even given this excellent and patriotic pedigree, I'm not optimistic.

Gore Vidal was tactless enough to announce the end of the American Empire, in The Nation, as long ago as 1986. He was even able to fix an exact date for it:

On September 16 1985, when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation, the American Empire was as dead, theoretically, as its predecessor, the British. Our empire was seventy-one years old and had been in ill financial health since 1968. Like most modern empires, ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic primacy. (2)
Time has passed since then, of course. The USA has remained the largest and most powerful economy in the world in the interim, though this is perhaps more due to the comparative weakness of the emerging economies than any robustness or revival in the US economy. China has been growing, but slowly - ironically the factor feeding its growth into a nascent superpower has been the USA's desperate attempts to squeeze every last cent of profit from light industry, gifting the Maoists what they traditionally lacked - expertise, capital and slick administration. In return, the multinationals got cheap labour, the willing assistance of an authoritarian regime and avoided all the pesky legislation that made making STUFF in the civilised world just too damn expensive for the consumers in the civilised world to afford. Meanwhile, Japan's emergence was hampered by one unalterable issue - lack of landmass. Vidal, in the same essay in The Nation, speculated that China and Japan might ally in pursuit of their common interest:
China is now reassembling itself, and Confucius, greatest of all political thinkers, is again at the center of the Middle Kingdom. Japan has the world money power but needs a landmass; China now seems ready to go into business with its ancient enemy. (2)
This seems unlikely at this time, as the two coming powers are too strongly nationalistic to share primacy. The spate of the Japanese attempts to downplay the massacres of Nanking is a symptom of this continuing disunity - it will delay China's supremacy, not not (since the USA is blindly giving China everything it needs) prevent it.

The illusion economic primacy has been maintained for a few years more, as credit was used to disguise the fact that the USA didn't actually do anything any more. Blue collar jobs were being out sourced to China and Mexico, white collar work was following the money overseas. The 'information economy' was sustained only so long because people were able to buy lots of shiny STUFF from overseas - made my child slaves in China, but who cares about exploited children in far away places when there's a nice, shiny new THING to be bought at Wal-Mart? Ironically, this desperate effort to maintain the appearance of continual growth and prosperity has sped the rise of China and the consequent decline of the U.S.A.

Because lots of people didn't have jobs, and people that did have jobs didn't have job security, the only way the quality of life was maintained at a level that allowed people to think they were still enjoying the good times was by continuing to reduce production costs - so that meant more cheap overseas labour, keeping retail prices down at a level where people could carry on buying their STUFF, and reducing lending controls so people could continue to live the American dream- not realising that the 'dream' was meant literally now, not metaphorically.

Well, now its all gone sour for them, and I wish them luck, because what happens int he USA will affect everyone else. Since the media is generally controlled by the capitalists, it will selll the bailout to the public, who don't want it, but will get told, over and over again, that it is essential they get the system up and running again, so that everyone can enjoy wealth and security once more. Only, the system has been shown to be incapable of supplying that to most people - a few people get very rich, and thus the idea that "average" americans are generally getting wealthier is maintained - the implication to anyone who dares to wonder why, since they seem to be an "average" American, they aren't getting richer, is that they should work harder at it, and they obviously aren't as decently "average" as they thought.

And so the illusionary empire will be kept going a little bit longer. The opportunity to change things, as outlined by Zinn, will be missed, whichever of the pawns gets to parade about the Whitehouse after the four yearly illusion of democracy has been completed. But the reality is that whereas before American capital was supreme even if the American people weren't, that is no longer true, an unpleasing truth that many would still rather not face.

1 - "From empire to democracy," by Howard Zinn, published in The Guardian, 2nd of October, 2008. (
2 - "The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas," by Gore Vidal, published in The Nation, 1986. Reproduced on
3 - ibid.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Scientists are suggesting (1) thatthe Earth may be "trapped in an abnormal bubble of space-time that is particularly devoid of matter." They even have a picture of it, to convince those who think a picture is worth a thousand words (i.e. lazy people):

They are, of course, taking the piss and waiting to see when someone finally accuses them of being bullshitters. The picture is obviously a photograph of a jellyfish and this is just the latest in a long line of scientific attempts to gauge the gullibility of the public. Up until now, they have been amazed by our willingness to swallow any old nonsense, if said authoratively and with sufficient jargon.

It all started with Newton, suggesting there was some invisible force called gravity that made apples fall, but everyone - afraid of being seen to be too stooopid to understand what he was on about - nodded and said, "Yes, of course."

Darwin said we were all descended from bits of snot washed up on the shore, and once again everyone - afraid of appearing reactionary - nodded and said, "Quite so."

Then they pretended to split the atom, having previously claimed atoms were the smallestest things there could be, and quite undividable. Again, the public bought it, even though the bullshitters went so far as to say a New Zealander did it, even though everyone knows New Zealanders are only good at climbing mountains and consuming methamphetamine.

Then the scentific pranksters realised that they could say pretty much anything they liked and came up with relativity, quantumn mechanics, string theory, dark matter, DNA, pretty much any old nonsense they could think of, and people still bought it.

This latest jape is going too far, however. I'm saying all scientists are bullshitters and I claim my prize. (2)

1 - "Scientists: Earth May Exist in Giant Cosmic Bubble," by Clara Moskowitz, published on, 1st of October, 2008. (,2933,430943,00.html?sPage=fnc/scitech/space)
2 - If you are wondering why this is tagged as 'Climate Change,' you need to think about it a little bit more.


So, as you may have noticed, I'm totally pissed off with New Zeland politics at the moment. As I mentioned last night, there's only so far you can go with "I'm disgusted by the fundamental crapness of both parties and their poxy allies." So I'm not going to blog about New Zealand politics for a while, until either I have something positive to say or until I get properly angry. But whinging, day after day, about how I don't think neither party is worthy of being in power is a waste of time.

Final word (for now) to both parties - stuff you, neither of you is worth my vote, nor are your venal support parties. You are not political parties, but power parties - sleek machines designed to win power as an end in itself. You've forgotten why you needed the power in the first place.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Unhappy anniversary

This month - the 22nd of October, to be exact - will mark a year since River's last post on Baghdad Burning (1). That final message indicated she was in Syria, with her family. They didn't sound like they were in any grave or immediate peril, merely enduring the everyday misery of refugees caught up in the War on Terror - the sort of thing we pretend to give a fuck about but don't really, since we happily return the politicians who perpetuate the vicious, lying, ineffectual war - but since then, we've heard nothing.

I hope River has simply given up trying to communicate with a world that doesn't give anything more than lip service to its promises and ideals. That would be sad, but would be the best possible cause of her silence.
1 - "Bloggers Without Borders...," posted by River on Baghdad Burning, 22nd of October, 2007. (

If only I could get this angry

This is pure gold, a savage, near-deranged, vitriolic demolition on Sarah Palin and - more cogently, but just as cruelly - the constiuency she apeals to, the knee-jerk, populist, unthinking goonishness faction of American politics. It's strong stuff, but necessarily so:

Right-wingers of the Bush-Rove ilk have had a tough time finding a human face to put on their failed, inhuman, mean-as-hell policies. But it was hard not to recognize the genius of wedding that faltering brand of institutionalized greed to the image of the suburban American supermom. It's the perfect cover, for there is almost nothing in the world meaner than this species of provincial tyrant. Palin herself burned this political symbiosis into the pages of history with her seminal crack about the "difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick," blurring once and for all the lines between meanness on the grand political scale as understood by the Roves and Bushes of the world, and meanness of the small-town variety as understood by pretty much anyone who has ever sat around in his ranch-house den dreaming of a fourth plasma-screen TV or an extra set of KC HiLites for his truck, while some ghetto family a few miles away shares a husk of government cheese.

In her speech, Palin presented herself as a raging baby-making furnace of middle-class ambition next to whom the yuppies of the Obama set -who never want anything all that badly except maybe a few afternoons with someone else's wife, or a few kind words in The New York Times Book Review -- seem like weak, self-doubting celibates, the kind of people who certainly cannot be trusted to believe in the right God or to defend a nation. We're used to seeing such blatant cultural caricaturing in our politicians. But Sarah Palin is something new. She's all caricature. As the candidate of a party whose positions on individual issues are poll losers almost across the board, her shtick is not even designed to sell a line of policies. It's just designed to sell her. The thing was as much as admitted in the on-air gaffe by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who was inadvertently caught saying on MSNBC that Palin wasn't the most qualified candidate, that the party "went for this, excuse me, political bullshit about narratives."

The great insight of the Palin VP choice is that huge chunks of American voters no longer even demand that their candidates actually have policy positions; they simply consume them as media entertainment, rooting for or against them according to the reflexive prejudices of their demographic, as they would for reality-show contestants or sitcom characters. Hicks root for hicks, moms for moms, born-agains for born-agains. Sure, there was politics in the Palin speech, but it was all either silly lies or merely incidental fluffery buttressing the theatrical performance.


So, sure, Barack Obama might be every bit as much a slick piece of imageering as Sarah Palin. The difference is in what the image represents. The Obama image represents tolerance, intelligence, education, patience with the notion of compromise and negotiation, and a willingness to stare ugly facts right in the face, all qualities we're actually going to need in government if we're going to get out of this huge mess we're in.

Here's what Sarah Palin represents: being a fat fucking pig who pins "Country First" buttons on his man titties and chants "U-S-A! U-S-A!" at the top of his lungs while his kids live off credit cards and Saudis buy up all the mortgages in Kansas. (1)

Try as I might, I find it impossible to get so worked up about the New Zealand election. Perhaps, as an immigrant, this is because I lack the visceral connection to the country that makes strong men weep when they see All Blacks lined up, clutching each other in a heterosexually approved way during the national anthem. Or perhaps it all feels a bit small and unimportant, dwarfed by the American election, the credit crunch, the ongoing Hell of the War on Terror. Or perhaps I can't find enough in the current contest to get angry about - its hard to feel appropriate ire when your confronted with choices as banally rubbish as Clark's Labour and Key's National.

(Before anyone gets enraged what a mere immigrant is saying about New Zealand and New Zealanders, two things. First, stuff you. I'm gonig to say it anyway. Second, everything I say could also be said of Britain, where Brown's Labour Party and Cameron's Conservatives are cut from the same bland, gray cloth.)

In a way, this dismal situation tells us as much about New Zealand (or Britain, for those still grappling with import of the last paragraph), as the Palin candidacy does about the U.S.A. New Zealand has lost its ideological edges, and with it the individual's sense of how he or she fits into the bigger scheme. Call it society, community, class, whatever. It's gone.

Like the Americans ruthlessly caricatured as dim goons cheering on 'their' candidate, New Zealand is a country where the electorate are befuddled - though here the result seems to be a blurring of party and ideological boundaries, as both major parties contend that they are really pretty much the same, only better than the other team. No-one here really gets excited enough to cheer about politicians. At most they might do it in the hope of getting on the News, and subjected to a bit of gentle mockery for taking it all so seriously.

Our Palin-loathing friend sums up why he feels such rage her lurid bid for power, driven upwards by the tribal recognition of narcisstic boors who want to see a dim, reactionary puppet as Vice-President (as if eight years of having a dim, reactionary puppet in the top job wasn't enough), all so they can feel represented and empowered in some pathetic way:

... the most disgusting thing about her is what she says about us: that you can ram us in the ass for eight solid years, and we'll not only thank you for your trouble, we'll sign you up for eight more years, if only you promise to stroke us in the right spot for a few hours around election time. (2)
And what does our own dismally gray election slate tell us? That we, as a nation, don't care. As a nation, we no longer have a clue about history or politics or how our choices matter, and as a result, our political parties have evolved to suit our tastes.

It's a weird relationship where the paplable disinterest of voters prompts politicians to be less interesting and to offer fewer reasons to vote for them. It isn't just the electorate who are befuddled and sheeplike. The parties have also forgotten - or simply, cynically jettisoned - the principles that informed them at their inception. They no longer seek votes, they passivel try not to frighten them away by being too interesting, hoping that the electorate will blunder their way this time, or take a visceral dislike to something about the other candidate, or be attracted, for a few minutes, by a nice, shiny new leader or some empty soundbite about 'trust,' or 'Change.'

There is no Barack Obama here, nor can there be - he's too interesting. As described above, he might be a superficial, edia construct without substance, but the empty shell is one that people who WANT something different and exciting are responding to. If something like Obama evolved here, the party caucus would run screaming for fear of spooking the voters, who are nicely lined up (though perhaps, every time, a few less than before), lowing dully, to be herded into the voting booths to make their mark and choose a government that has all the individuality and charisma of an police photofit image.

All of this should make me angry, of course, but it doesn't. If the Labour Party can sign a free trade deal with the most reprehensible regime on the planet, and the National party's only response is to mutter quietly, "Damn, wish we'd managed to do that," the whole show is screwed. Which means there is precious little to get excited about within the political mainstream. And while a bitter contempt for both parties might be a reasonable response, it isn't one that can be expanded, profitably, for much longer than I have done so here.

So enjoy the rage of until I find a reason to say something other than, "Screw the lot of you," to our indistingushably crap political pygmies.
1 - "The scariest thing about Sarah Palin isn't how unqualified she is - it's what her candidacy says about America," posted by Matt Taibbi on, 27th of September, 2008. (

Mutterings about Musk

Going to try to get into the blogging thing again (ha!) what with anew PM, an election coming up and all that. So today I thought I'd st...