Monday, August 31, 2009

James Kelman Being Snotty About Genre Fiction

James Kelman, one of my favourite writers, and one of the greatest living British writers, is a chippy fellow. And sometimes with reason, given the reception to his work at the Booker Prize ceremonies of 1989 (when he was nominated for A Disaffection) and 1994 (when he won for How Late It Was, How Late). His 1994 win horrified some of the snootier elements of the London literati, with one of the judges Julia Neuberger famously threatening to resign, claiming it was 'crap'. Kelman's work and themes are resolutely Glaswegian working-class and they resonate with the smokey, beery smells and grimy detail of pool halls, betting shops, pub backrooms, two-up-two-downs and football terraces. And more often than not his work has been dismissed by a metropolitan literary élite more on the lowly subject matter than on his own considerable merits. But Jimmy can let his anger cloud his judgment at times too: as Theo Tait remarked last year, 'he makes modern Glasgow sound as if it's under occupation. In his essays, he makes English literature sound as if was written entirely by
John Buchan and Jilly Cooper.'

Kelman upset the literary apple cart in Scotland last week by taking on some of his country's bestselling authors at the Edinburgh international book festival saying that if the country were in charge of awarding the Nobel prize instead of Sweden, it would go to "a writer of fucking detective fiction" or a book about "some upper middle-class young magician". Now one doesn't need to be possessed of a terribly literary bent to figure out who he's got in the crosshairs there, and that is largely Kelman's point. Kelman claims 'contemporary literature has been derided and sneered by the Scottish literary establishment' which he also accuses of Anglocentrism. I'm not terribly bothered that this wee spat, which really is little more than an old-fashioned Weegie v Auld Reekie snipe, attacks Ian Rankin, a crime writer who has enjoyed an enormous commercial success (though it took a long time to come) and whose work I admire greatly (I have no opinion, negative or otherwise, on J.K. Rowling and her wee speccie sorcerer). Rankin is no pretentious writer and he can hardly be blamed for the Rebus tours that draw tourists to Edinburgh these days. A blog piece by Alan Bissett at the Guardian places Kelman's outburst in the context of a 'gentrification' of Scottish literature while a lively point-counterpoint at the Glasgow Sunday Herald ponders the 'bastardisation' of a literary tradition; it's a measure of the curious creativity of the Scottish working-class that art and literature could be bemoaned as being co-opted by the bourgeoisie, in much the same way as football or dog racing. It's also bizarre and amusing to see genre writers, who for decades strove for respectability among the largely bourgeois literary élite, now being repudiated as trash by writers from grubbier backgrounds.

All this reminds me I haven't read much by Kelman in the past few years and a copy of Translated Accounts sitting on my shelf is crying out to be read. I'll get on to that promptly. And there are one or two by Rankin there too.

The whole affair also, naturally, reminds me a bit of this old beauty:

James Kelman launches broadside against Scotland's literary culture | Books |


Crisis or no crisis, it doesn't seem to be affecting Dublin's cinemas. After the resurrection of the Lighthouse last year, now Omniplex (those behind the Savoy, the Screen and the big one out in Santry among others) are bringing the movies back to Rathmines, in the Swan Centre, no less. It'll hardly match up to the filthy grandeur of the Stella and its anything-goes late night weekend screenings of yore but a new cinema seeing the light of day is never a bad thing.

Swan Cinemas - Rathmines Rd, Dublin

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Football In a Cold, Harsh Light

I finished reading Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski a few weeks ago and meant to post on it before now but I let it drag. It's an interesting meeting of one of the best sportswriters in the English language and a sports economist who has already published widely on the economics of sport and football in particular. The model is quite consciously Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics (and its US title is Soccernomics) and just as that book dealt with social phenomena, it plumbs the faultlines of football to explain some of the quirkier phenomena and also disprove some of the sports' more received wisdom. But the book's more immediate influences are Bill James, the Kansan factory manager whose annual Baseball Abstracts revolutionised thinking about the game, and Michael Lewis, who adapted James' findings in his book Moneyball. Both men used their lateral thinking to propel themselves into positions of influence, and some success, in major-league baseball.

Kuper has been using the sceptical approach taken in this book in his Financial Times sports column for the past few years, with many pieces, such as on the need in football for 'relocation agents' to help foreign signings settle in unfamiliar surroundings, and the reason why richer countries are generally more successful at sport, functioning as dry runs for the book. I played Saturday-morning football with him here in Paris for a couple of seasons before we each slunk off into our respective 'retirements' and back then there was a similar scepticism in his thinking on the sport, one time he cast cold water on the claims, expressed in L'Équipe that week that Helenio Herrera's alleged doping of his Inter and Roma teams in the 1960s might have led to a abnormally large number of early deaths among former players. It reminds me also of a passage from his excellent first book Football Against the Enemy, where he described his first visit to Cameroon:

On my first morning in Yaoundé, I discovered why Cameroonians are good at football; they play a lot. Forget all that nonsense about African suppleness... all you need to know is that at lunchtime, in the evening and all weekend, Yaoundé turns into a football pitch. Some kickarounds draw dozens of spectators, and the quality of play is rare.

This unstinting empirical tendency is allied with the statistical rigour brought to the subject by Szymanski. And the results are interesting, if sometimes less revelatory than some might imagine. Early in the book, they apologise in advance if the harsh objectivity of their findings destroy some of the romance of the game for readers. And their main target is received wisdom. And the country whose football suffers most from the dominance of received wisdom is the country that invented (or, rather, formalised) it, England.

England's miserable record in international football is the subject of the title essay, and Kuper and Szymanski demonstrate that England's record has, in fact been improving over the past fifty years, and that, contrary to popular opinion, and with a number of variables taken into account, England do relatively well. But, of course the birthright of English football does not allow for this, and even if one acknowledges the simplest economic reality of sport - that there are few winners and many losers - English football fans are unlikely to be placated by the authors' conclusion: 'The sad fact is that England are a good team that does better than most. This means they are not likely to win many tournaments, and they don't.' The statistical surveys reveal one vital truth, that England and Germany have similar records in international play but the Germans tend to win more games that matter rather than meaningless - if sometimes prestigious - friendlies. But it is England's isolation from the hub of continental football - an isolation that is only slowly eroding thanks to the globalisation of football - its insistence on clinging to long outdated training and footballing techniques, and its over-reliance on a shrinking working-class base that means it is unlikely to ever be the force in world football it imagines itself to be.

The book is particularly good on the transfer market, and finds Olympique Lyonnais chairman Jean-Michel Aulas and Arsène Wenger to be the real geniuses here (and OL's recent brilliant acquisition of Lisandro López looks like further confirmation of this) and it also throws up a hilarious finding about football scouts: they overwhelmingly value blonde players above others. More controversially, the book questions the worth of a manager, claiming that 92% of the time, the fate of a team is dependent on the salaries it pays its players rather than who is in the hot seat. James Hamilton over at More Than Mind Games has disputed the generalisation of this finding, noting that the remaining 8% is an unquantifiable value, which does indeed make the difference between a good and a bad manager. That's debatable but it's hard to argue with Kuper and Szymanski's findings that new managers are prone to make bad signings and to needlessly dispose of perfectly good players.

There are some findings in the book that are merely confirmation of adventurous rumination on the game. We are told that a racist signing policy - as practised by a number of English tems up until the late 1990s - is generally punished by poor results. Something that would not come as news to Celtic fans: the late Jock Stein always said that, given the choice between signing a Catholic and a Protestant player, he would go for the latter as he knew Rangers' sectarian signing policy would disbar them from taking on Catholics. For much of the time from Stein on, Rangers floundered second or third to Celtic, and later Aberdeen and Dundee United. It was only when Graeme Souness put an end to the signing policy in the late 1980s that Rangers became a force in Scottish football once again. Irish fans will not be surprised to learn that the Republic are ranked the 10th most overachieving team in world football (even if few of us are happy with performances and continual failures to reach finals of major tournaments). It is similarly not too shocking to discover that hardcore, season-ticket-holding fans form a minority within their clubs' following. In fact it's more mystifying that the myth of the diehard fan persists, especially in an age where the pricing of tickets has moved football out of the reach of its traditional working-class demographic.

All in all, Why England Lose is an engaging read that doesn't quite manage to destroy one's faith in the romanticism of the game, most football supporters secretly know the general predestination of much of footballing fortune is a fact. That they prefer not to admit this is more out of loyalty to the theatre of football and the culture of resignation that goes with it, a footballing fado, one might say. There is however one major lacuna in the book. Though there is a chapter devoted to penalties, I would have preferred if the authors had focussed on the 'justice' of the penalty shoot-out and confirm something that I have long suspected: that the penalty-shoot-out, far from being a 'lottery' is actually a fair reflection of the gap in mental strength between the teams and also of the match which has gone before it. It's not for nothing that national teams with strong mental personae, such as Brazil, Germany and Argentina are often successful in shoot-outs where mentally brittle teams, such as England, Spain, Italy and Holland do well less often. An interesting thing would be to examine on a much larger scale the results of penalty shoot-outs and see what this throws up. It was certainly something that preyed on the minds of Italy in the World Cup semi-final against Germany three years ago, thrusting them to score two goals in the final moments of extra-time, desperate to avoid a penalty shoot-out against their hosts that they were almost certain to lose. As Kuper and Szymanski say in the book, the plural of anecdote is called data. I think there might be something in this little observation, in my own humble opinion...

On a sidenote, Kuper has an amusing, and largely true piece on dealing with Parisian rudeness, co-written with Pauline Harris, in today's FT.

Not a Matter of Life and Death

L'Équipe had an interview with Steve Savidan the other day (unfortunately there's no link, as L'Équipe wisely protects its print edition by running only a cursory website). Savidan was a journeyman striker who, after plodding about unnoticed in the lower divisions of the French league, suddenly came alight late in his career with the unfashionable northern clubs Valenciennes and Caen. For the past four years he was among the top scorers in Ligue 1, not bad for a guy who earlier in his career combined his football with a stint as a binman and who also, by his own admission, was fond of a drink.

Savidan's dogged, unlikely rise to fame brought him a call-up to the French national team where he won his only cap against Uruguay last year. And then his dream move came, to Monaco, in June this year. However, those dreams were dashed when the routine medical inspection revealed cardiac anomalies, forcing him to hang up his boots. One might expect this to be a source of eternal regret but the 31-year-old Savidan is a model of level-headedness. He said finding out about the heart defect was the luckiest day of his life, pointing out he could easily have gone the way of Marc-Vivien Foé, Antonio Puerta and Dani Jarque, among others. Savidan also said he has already achieved things in football way beyond his wildest dreams. He now plans to move into coaching and punditry, while he keeps fit cycling and runs a bar-restaurant in his adopted hometown of Caen. Monaco, by way of recompense, offered to let him kick off their recent home game against Toulouse. Football gets a bad press much of the time thanks to the obscene salaries earned by many players and the bad behaviour of a minority. But it would be nice to think that people like Steve Savidan, devoid of pretentiousness or delusions as to their importance in the wider scheme of things, are every bit as representative of the game as those less savoury elements.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bad Language

Le Monde reports French educationalists are soul-searching over French students' poor showing in an international TOEFL league table. France ranked 69th out of 109 countries in prowess at speaking, reading and understanding English. And, even worse, these were the 'better' ones, those who were trying to get into university in an English-speaking country. It must surely irk former Education Xavier Darcos, whose quixotic long-term plan was to produce bilingual students (in the main speaking English as a second language) by the end of their schooling. Le Monde wonders if the problem might not lie with the educational system at all:

Y aurait-il dans l'ADN gaulois un gène qui empêcherait de parler, voire de comprendre l'anglais ? A l'heure où la génétique aide à comprendre les dégénérescences et autres blocages, on aimerait qu'elle nous explique pourquoi les Français restent irrémédiablement imperméables à la langue de Shakespeare. A moins que le vrai problème ne soit notre système éducatif et que les étudiants qui remontent la moyenne ne fassent partie des 170 000 jeunes favorisés qui partent chaque année en séjour linguistique à l'étranger ?

Is there a gene in the Gaulish DNA that could prevent one from speaking, even understanding English? Now that genetics helps explain degeneration and other mental blocks, maybe it can tell us if the French are irremediably impermeable to the language of Shakespeare. At least it might tell us that the real problem is not our educational system and that the students that raise the average are not among those privileged 170,000 young people who leave to study English abroad each year?

It's a typically French pre-occupation to search for the rot in the educational system rather than elsewhere, and by way of a rather strained syllogism, if the fault lies not there, it must lie in the constitution of the average Frenchman or woman. The answer is rather simpler and has little to do with schooling or education. There's nothing particularly unusual in French teenagers being unable to speak English well upon leaving school - English speakers rarely master a foreign language through school alone. But of course, France being France, coming so far down the table behind smaller, less prestigious countries rankles. And if the Netherlands or Sweden or Norway can command so many good English-speakers, why can't France?

The problem though has little to do with education, or even teaching. Scandinavian and other smaller countries usually speak languages unique to themselves or only one or two others. So the need to speak a lingua franca (and these days that is, for better or worse, English) is more pressing. People from small countries are also usually more outward-looking than those from larger ones, and only Germany in this test scored highly as a big country. Finally, children in countries where English is understood and spoken widely, such as Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Finland and Portugal, learn relatively little from teachers, few of whom are native speakers in any case. They learn at home, through direct, daily exposure to English; in those countries American films and TV programmes are subtitled rather than dubbed. In France, the vast majority of imported product goes out in version française.

A language is only as good as how useful it is to you, and if one relies on artificial situations concocted in a classroom isolated from the language as it is genuinely spoken, the necessity to learn is weakened and inhibition built up. It's ridiculous to say that French people are genetically or culturally indisposed to learning English; I know many that speak good English, and it usually follows on from an interest in Anglophone culture, be it film, music, literature, fashion or sport. And, needless to say, in none of these is this interest at the expense of an interest in their own native culture. If France wants to get serious about its citizens learning English (and the way the world is going, it's probably in its best interests to) it should break with its isolationist linguistic protectionism. Ban imported film and television being dubbed into French and make people watch them in the original language with subtitles. It's a harsh measure but after only a few years the difference would be noticeable, and France would even be spared the feared deluge of 'Anglo-Saxon' culture. But that's unlikely to happen and, in 30 years' time France will still be plodding along with middling English and wondering why the linguistic gods cursed them with a genetic inability to learn.

Les étudiants français toujours aussi nuls en anglais - Société - Le

Only on the Internet

It's not only fluff we post here; sometimes we go for the hardcore ephemera that is so ephemeral one barely notices it ephemerating before one's very eyes. It's like Marty McFly in those photographs that he always manages to have on him as he zips and back and forth to the future.

First up today is Keggers of Yore, a photo-blog devoted to the festivities enjoyed by past generations of American (and, no doubt, Canadian) college students and hangers-on before they faced reality, conquered their five-beers-a-week alcoholic hell, sharpened their straight edge, made a fortune selling mousepads or organic yak's milk to gullible yuppies, or became Secretary for Defense. A surprisingly large number of these photographs can bear the simple caption: 'in happier times.'

There is also the Slanket, which is nowhere near as weird as it should be, now that is has featured on an episode of 30 Rock. This ingenious variation on an old favourite is a big hit with the monks of Chartreuse, the Ku-Klux Klan, Obi-Wan Kinobi and Masonic lodges in wintry northern climes among many other key demographics.

From the Emerald Isle comes a brave stab at at mounting an Áine Chambers-esque bid for Internet Meme Stardom. The trick, not surprisingly, involves clowns, coffins, funerals and pre-Y2K web-design. I would try and analyse it as it clearly means something but it's not as if I wasted my time in college studying art history.

And though this has been around for a few months now, here's the latest piece of annoying self-referentialism from hipsters, for whom fashion clearly never sits still for one minute. Die hipsters die!

Hat tips to Octavia, Cormac and Jim, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unluckiest Writer of the Twentieth Century?

I meant to post a couple of weeks back on a review by Fintan O'Toole on Flann O'Brien's Collected Novels (Everyman edition) that appeared in the New York Review of Books recently but I was stymied by the NYRB's limited online access (even to those of us that fork out for a print subscription). Now I seem to have mislaid the copy amid the piles of books, magazines, periodicals and manuscript papers with the words 'red rum' scrawled all over them that litter my flat. It was an interesting piece (if untimely, as the Everyman edition, to the best of my knowledge has been out for a long time), and on first reading I was most interested in the parallels O'Toole makes between Flanno and Beckett, a pair rarely thought of in the same moment yet who shared a similar knack for stepping outside the constraints of language (and their own language) and they also both shared a significant love for Ivan Gonchurov's Oblomov. The NYRB has now posted a podcast interview with O'Toole where he summarises his arguments in the essay. It's well worth a listen.

O'Toole comments on Flanno/Myles' writing in English as if he were writing it as a dead language, or one translated from another. It's a part fanciful, part persuasive idea but I was definitely taken by O'Toole's diagnosis of sexual repression in Flann's work, where he sees writing as taking the place of sex, scored out of the literature of official Ireland; I had never noticed before that much of the writing in At Swim-Two-Birds take place in bed (though that might have something to do with the fact that I read it as a student). I think that O'Toole (and others) are a little hard on the Ireland of O'Brien's time; while it was, of course a grey, priest-ridden, poverty-stricken place, it nonetheless managed to provide some unlikely cultural resistance. I also think that O'Brien, rather than being frustrated at being stuck in Ireland, stayed in the country out of a clear love for the newly-independent nation, you have to remember he was only 11 - and a fluent Irish speaker - at the establishment of the Free State. No matter how maddening he found the place, he was not necessarily given to flee it, especially as an (initially) idealistic and brilliant member of its fledgling Civil Service.

O'Toole is correct in saying that Flann was one of the unluckiest writers in 20th-century history, seeing At Swim-Two-Birds sink into obscurity shortly after its publication on the eve of World War II and then, of course, The Third Policeman was inexplicably rejected by his publisher. Even today Flann is criminally neglected with few people knowing his much funnier journalistic work (most of which is still in print) and even his name itself is little known outside cult literary circles, even within Ireland. Do yourself a favour this week and go out and read some Flann O'Brien, especially if you haven't already.

There's also a fine review of Flann's Collected Novels by Joseph O'Neill here.

Dear Reader...

Joe Queenan is, as a friend of mine and a fellow fan put it a few years back, a very facile man. Queenan is also consistently funny, as anyone who has read his masterpieces of snide humour will attest. These perfectly-formed volumes of snark include Imperial Caddy (about Dan Quayle's expected impending run for the 1996 Presidential election) and Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (an account of his year slumming it amid American middle-of-the-road pop culture - retitled simply America for benighted Europeans).

In a piece in the Wall Street Journal Queenan turns his hand to a short study of readers' reviews on, because someone must, just as many imagine someone must pen those reviews in the first place. Queenan imagines a world in which the Amazon readers' review - that great leveller of canonical rankings and literary esteem - has been with us from the dawn of writing (and reading, of course). Below are a selection of his reviews. No fish in this barrel escapes Queenan's fire, nor does this detract from his greatness.

• "King Lear"—Average reader rating: Two stars. The author tells us: "As like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." Oh, right, like I didn't know that? Like I didn't know that to be or not to be is the question? Like I didn't know that the fault lies not in us but in the stars? Tell me something I don't know, Mr. Bard of Whatever.

• "The 120 Days of Sodom"—Average Reader's Rating: Five stars. OK, so I like totally pre-ordered this book based on the author's name, which just happens to be the same as my maiden name—Marquis de. Yeah, a sketchy reason to buy a book, but I was pumped. But when it got here I didn't understand it at all. It just didn't go anywhere. It just kept repeating itself. I went through it a few times more, searching for some deeper, awesome meaning, but just ended up totally bummed. Actually, some parts of it were kind of gross.

• "Mein Kampf"—Average reader's rating: One star. Lively writing, but just too, too depressing. Why does he keep using big words that normal people can't understand, like lebensraum and oberkommandant? Hey! I own a thesaurus, too! And what's up with the Jewish thing?

Next week Joe Queenan turns his attention to YouTube commenters.

Joe Queenan: Amazon Reviewers Take On the Classics -

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Wasn't Expecting That

I am mostly agnostic on Quentin Tarantino these days and I didn't expect to much like Inglourious Basterds but I was shocked to discover on watching it on Sunday night that it was actually very good, in a way that any plot synopsis would hardly suggest. It may be effect of a bottle or so of wine consumed before watching it, so maybe I should watch it again before repeating the word 'masterpiece' which I bandied about a bit in the fuzzy aftermath of watching it. Anglophone media have been largely negative in their assessment of the film while in France the critical reception has been almost unanimously enthusiastic. The French are sometimes right in their praising of some American cinéma maudit (such as Heaven's Gate) and also sometimes very wrong (the entire career of Brian de Palma). In this case, I think they might be right, as a lot of the references in this most multilingual of Hollywood films would go over the heads of some Anglophones. A rich irony, and one you don't really expect from QT. Here's the trailer for the film, though you'd never imagine from watching it that the thing could be any good. More on this matter later (after I've watched the film again).

We Got It On Tape

AquariumDrinker asks if cassette tapes were the perfect music technology. Not a fashionable opinion by any means and, despite having a pretty hefty collection of cassettes gathering dust in an attic back in Sligo, each one of them was a poor substitute for a vinyl copy, which back home in the late 80s and early 90s, weren't always available. But I do agree with him that cassettes were an underrated technology and the charm of the blank tape/compilation is undeniable. And he also has a pertinent point about the development of CDs being a technological dead end.

Let’s face it, CDs are a regressive technology. They have all the problems of a record — they scratch, break, and warp in the heat — with none of the advantages of holding a big piece of LP art in your hands and experiencing the music in the way the artist intended.  What’s more, before the advent of iTunes and read/write discs, CDs were a locked and essentially inflexible technology.

My guess is that this combination of factors — fragility and the inability to copy and mix — probably made early CD technology the holy grail for the big record companies. In short, we were duped by the record companies into spending millions (billions?) of dollars on what was essentially a flawed technology that would be rapidly replaced by digital downloads.

I agree especially with the latter point; the record industry never liked the flexibility and recordability of cassettes and emblazoned early cassettes with the legend 'Home Taping is Killing Music' (as seen in the picture above). It never did though and filesharing will not kill music either (though it may kill off some incompetent inefficient peddlers of it).

were cassette tapes the perfect music technology? | aquariumdrinker

Jeremy Scahill, Another Journo Doing His Job Properly

If I'm going to praise Jon Stewart, I should also proffer plaudits to The Nation's Jeremy Scahill, whose ongoing reporting investigates Blackwater and the CIA's collusion in the alleged murder and torture of Afghans and Iraqis. The other night on 'Real Time With Bill Maher', he took aim at fellow journos, such as fellow panelist Chuck Todd, for their lack of due diligence in reporting the affair. Todd had previously dismissed the matter as 'political catnip' and that reporting it more vigorously would turn it into 'a political foodfight' that would ultimately allow Blackwater off the hook. Todd's point might, in other circumstances appear commendably clear-headed and pragmatic but Scahill's reply trumps him, saying that 'the only way you prevent future torture is to prosecute past crimes.' The fact that Todd allegedly complained to him off-air about sullying his reputation on TV shows where his priorities lie.

Jeremy Scahill Slams Chuck Todd, Media, Congress Over Blackwater On "Real Time With Bill Maher" (VIDEO)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jon Stewart, a Real Journalist Among Jokers

After having a go at the US media yesterday, I have to salute one of the truly great American newsmen, who presents a show on the Comedy Channel. Yes, I'm talking about Jon Stewart. People have said that it's a poor reflection on the US media that one of the most probing mainstream journalists is ostensibly a comedian/entertainer when many of the supposedly more serious journalists churn out stuff that is, well, comical in its worth. But that is unfair to Stewart. For all his charm and inflected irony he is a proper, responsible journalist who doesn't make a song and dance about the fact. While it's true that Stewart has a team of researchers and writers that most journalists don't have, his sense of probity and his skill at calmly outlining an argument marks him out from the rest of the field. He was one of the few in the mainstream US media to question Israel's murderous pummelling of Gaza and last week he demolished 'death panel' guru Betsy McCaughey, who, for all her mendacity and hyperbole, is a formidable adversary. It's a long debate but worth a watch. The US needs more journalists like Stewart and more networks and media outlets willing to air dissent. And I have to lift my cap to Comedy Central for its sensible and generous policy of allowing others to embed its videos.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show
Full Episodes
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The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ireland's Athletes

Well done to Ireland's athletes who performed well in the World Championships in Berlin, only one year after being tarred as failures at the Beijing Olympics by the media. A silver medal for Olive Loughnane in the 20km race walk, and superb performances in sprints by Derval O'Rourke (4th and a new Irish record in the 100m hurdles) and David Gillick (6th in the 400m). These performances are phenomenal from athletes that often labour alone with little official support and are forever dependent on the benevolence of sponsors willing to invest money in unfashionable non-stars. They deserve better than the pillorying they've been getting in recent years by armchair critics and deserve better than the outrageous snubbing delivered them by RTÉ in its decision not to cover the Championships.

Why Is There Such Uncritical Acceptance of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's Conviction in the US?

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi walked free yesterday, having been freed on compassionate grounds by the Scottish executive. The US is outraged, as, understandably are many families of victims of the Lockerbie terrorist attack, and everyone, including Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, questioned the taste of the hero's welcome afforded Megrahi in Tripoli. The Libyans have pointed out that the welcome was not an official one but that's hardly going to convince the critics. But what few people have mentioned is the fact that those that welcomed Megrahi were not necessarily gloating over the murder of 270 people but because they believe that Megrahi is innocent. And they're not the only ones.

There are accusations flying about, most notably that Megrahi's release was part of a deal the UK struck with Libya to further open the country up to British oil companies. And Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who holidayed with deputy PM (and former EU trade commissioner) Peter Mandelson on Corfu last month, says that's exactly what happened. Whitehall firmly denies this, leaving us in the invidious position of deciding whether we should believe the son of Muammar Gadaffi or a New Labour government. There are those who rightly point out the shabby behaviour of the British government in all this, who have been able to maintain their good relations with Libya while letting the SNP-run Scottish executive take the flak. Then there are others who suspect that the compassionate release was timed to avoid uncomfortable truths emerging in Megrahi's second appeal.

I'm not sure if I completely agree with the matter of compassionate release in cases of such gravity, but, as victim's father Dr Jim Swire says, that's neither here nor there because, like him, I am convinced that Megrahi had nothing to do with the bomb that brought down Pan Am flight 103. His conviction rests on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence and on the word of one man, the Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who claims to have sold Megrahi the clothing that was wrapped round the bomb. Gauci was interviewed by police 17 times and gave conflicting evidence on a number of occasions. It is also alleged he was offered a $2m reward in return for giving evidence, and that he was coached by police, and wined and dined by them in advance of giving his testimony.

Megrahi's defence also argues that the forensic tests on the circuit board of the timer were incomplete, relying on visual evidence rather than on gaseous swabs. The credibility of the three forensic scientists employed by the prosecution is also in doubt, not least because of them Dr Thomas Hayes was involved in the framing of the Maguire Seven in 1976. The defence also says it has a secret document that disputes prosecution claims that Megrahi bought a digital timer from a Swiss company, Mebo and then planted the bomb on a flight from Malta to Germany. In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced there was 'no reasonable basis' to place Megrahi in Malta at the time in question. It has admitted new evidence to allow a second appeal to go ahead, which Megrahi withdrew - needlessly - last week. Its 800-page report has never been published.

The US and British prosecutors originally targeted Mohammed Abu Talb, an associate of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was allegedly contracted by the Iranian government to blow up the plane in retaliation for the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the US navy cruiser Vincennes five months previously. But it seems realpolitik intervened during the 1991 Gulf War when the US declined to antagonise Tehran so as to be able to use its airspace during the attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The focus then turned to Libya, none too implausibly, given Muammar Gaddafi's deep enmity towards the US and his previous sponsorship of terrorism, including the LaBella nightclub bombing in Berlin in 1986.

Gaddafi kept Magrahi and fellow suspect Lamin Khalifah Fahima under house arrest for several years until, after protracted negotiations with the US and the UK - and UN sanction - he handed them over to Scottish prosecutors in the Netherlands, where they stood trial, and Magrahi was convicted, in 2000. Since then Libya has gradually eased itself out of its pariah-state status, agreed to scrap its weapons of mass destruction, signed successions of trade deals with Western investors and become Italy's de facto immigration policeman in return for 'reparations' for Italy's colonial past in the country. The fact that Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003 is uncritically accepted as the cornerstone for the soundness of the case against them, as if the word of a dictator who brutally suppresses dissent at home and who sponsors terrorism abroad would ever be worth anything. The Gaddafi regime has done well out of its co-operation with the Lockerbie prosecution but it now seems to be having second-thoughts with Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem telling the BBC in 2004 that the admission was made - and $2.15billion dollars of compensation to victims' families paid - as the 'price for peace'. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was the convenient patsy that took the fall for all this.

The case for Megrahi's innocence is not some obscure 9/11 'truther'-style conspiracy theory. UN observer Hans Köchler questioned the conduction of the trial, detecting political motives. Former Scottish Labour MP Tam Dalyell has long proclaimed Megrahi's evidence as have two British parents of victims, Dr Jim Swire and Martin Cadman, both of whom described Megrahi's trial as a farce. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission saw sufficient irregularities in the trial to allow a second appeal while a retied Scottish police chief has testified that evidence was fabricated by the CIA. All of this points to a strong suspicion that the compassionate release was designed to sidestep uncomfortable disclosures in the appeal. The evidence to hand is almost overwhelmingly in favour of describing the conviction of Abdelbashet al-Megrahi as a miscarriage of justice of such a scale that it makes the framing of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven seem minor indeed.

But all of the above either falls on deaf ears in the US or is never reported. Washington's protestations have been matched by victims' families, with Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora calling Megrahi's release a 'disgrace' and 'vile'. There has been further outcry from newspaper editorialists and from commenters on blogs. But references to questions over the soundness of the conviction are few and far between. One can forgive victims' families their bitterness - and Megrahi, while maintaining his innocence, has done that - and one can also forgive the average American their ignorance, considering the other side of the case is so poorly reported in the media over there. One might cynically point out that a substantial number of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had a hand in September 11th and that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in March 2003, but my intention is not facile Yank-bashing. The US media are however culpable of a shocking irresponsibility in their coverage of the affair from start to finish. One might expect nothing less from the likes of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, whose stock in trade is lies and libel. But the behaviour of other media outlets, both old (The New York Times, Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune) and new (Huffington Post) has been exceptionally remiss with all the self-righteous editorialising completely ignoring the strong evidence there is for a miscarriage of justice. Instead Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune says 'Libyans celebrate mass murder', a pundit on CNN wonders if the Libyans who cheered Megrahi's return home were terrorists. The Philadelphia Inquirer says Megrahi showed no compassion to his victims. The paper of record says questions arise after Megrahi's release but, of course, these questions pertain only to a possible deal done between London and Tripoli. Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is similarly coy (or ignorant) about the dubiousness of the conviction, while her colleague Eric Tarloff breaktakingly says 'Assuming Megrahi received a fair trial -- and I have read nothing to indicate otherwise -- a life sentence seems the minimal appropriate punishment for a crime of such enormity.' If Tarloff has failed to read anything that casts doubt on whether Megrahi received a fair trial, you have to question his fitness to hold a press card. The Boston Globe similarly omits to mention the flimsiness of the evidence against Megrahi. Even left-wing media are reticent on the matter, with no mention even of Megrahi's release to be found in The Nation, Mother Jones or In These Times. Only the New York Times' Lede blog gives any airing to questions raised in the media the other side of the Atlantic while the Daily Kos wonders, tentatively if there might be something wrong with the conviction.

So why is the US media reporting the story - and opinionating on it - with an almost unanimous disregard for the facts and with moral cowardice, as if questioning Megrahi's guilt would in some ways be an insult to the victims and their families? Why is the US media so uncritical and supine in its acceptance of what is clearly a flawed judgement? Why is it abdicating its responsibility to investigate a story that is crying out for media attention? It proves that David Simon's fears of a compliant, unquestioning media that doesn't do its job properly is already with us. My suspicion is that the US media and those outraged by Megrahi's release are willfully deluding themselves, repressing unwelcome truths in order to facilitate a narrative, to bring 'closure' to the bereaved, who are, understandably never going to recover from what was a terrible loss. An article in the Chicago Tribune says that Megrahi's release 'erases some of the victims' closure'. Larry Wild, whose stepdaughter Miriam Woolf died in the bombing says 'we thought we had judicial closure'. It's natural that grieving relatives should feel this way but the fact that this 'closure' was provided by Megrahi's dubious conviction does not make it right. Some of the US families accept that Megrahi was probably not ultimately responsible but they are still happy to accept his conviction, for want of a bigger fish in the net. In this psychodrama, Megrahi functions, both literally and metaphorically, as a scapegoat, and his role as the villain of the piece has symbolic value even for those who suspect he might not actually be the right guy. And the US media feeds all this. The role of responsible news-reporting is not to provide comfort and succour, not even to those who, like the families who lost loved ones in the Lockerbie bombing; its role is to investigate and query when there are reasonable grounds for doubt. The case against Megrahi is thin, the evidence so circumstantial that it would probably fail to meet probable cause for prosecution in a US court.

Relatives of British victims have been much more objective and clear-eyed in their reaction to Megrahi's conviction. This is understandable, as unlike American families, they have more immediate access to the investigation and have been able to follow it more closely. The fact that it was a Scottish court that produced the miscarriage of justice also gives them an extra vested interest in seeing something more than summary justice done. But the intransigence of some American families, while understandable, is harmful. Jim Swire says he has been unable to have a meaningful conversation with the US families since the 2000 trial and he also says the families were groomed, prepped and isolated by US authorities throughout the trial. Martin Cadman said last week that American families convinced of Megrahi's guilt need to 'get real' - a harsh comment but Cadman, like Swire and Rev John Mosey, knows that the show trial has deepened rather than assuaged the pain and hurt caused by the attack. Swire has been said to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome by Lord Fraser, the Lord Advocate who oversaw the Camp Zeist trial, an outrageous smear on someone who rightly questions the conviction, and who is supported by many top Scottish legal minds, including Robert Black, who first proposed holding the trial in the Netherlands.

Lost in the diplomatic outrage, the headlines and the motives of Libya - which, again, are not implausible - is a simple matter of legal rectitude. Libya may or may not have been responsible for the attack - its previous admissions of responsibility are not to be taken at face value - and Megrahi is probably no angel either, as few people working for the Libyan secret service (or any secret for that matter) are. The problem is one of due process and the irregularities are so glaring that Scotland's own legal review board has called the conviction into question. Convictions can only be secured on available evidence and testimony, which, in this case, are flimsy to threadbare. We mightn't like it (or like Gaddafi's squalid, brutal regime) but it is highly unlikely that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi planted the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103. That the US media is failing to report this side of the story is a dereliction of journalistic duty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fitzcarraldo Redux

The open-air cinema at Parc de la Villette wound up for another year the other night. It went out on a fittingly high note, with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, the B-movie par excellence, a film whose garish wash of second-hand accents and cutprice larger-than-life figures ought to have made it the quintessential Europudding. But it's a surprisingly sophisticated parable on the folly of industrial filmmaking and the maddening need for compromise and tolerance in order to mount the damn thing. Herzog, like his contemporary and countryman Fassbinder had - and still has - an instinctive feel for welding themes to robust, physical drama. Lars Von Trier (along with, perhaps, Tsai Ming-Liang) is one of the few filmmakers like that left though Von Trier is a great deal more calculating than the humanist cynics Herzog or Fassbinder.

The film also reminded me of a passage in a recent lengthy review of Peter Ackroyd's Thames: Sacred River by Iain Sinclair (that pairing strikes me as akin to the Beatles reviewing the Stones).

The corpse-fishers of Our Mutual Friend were recast as heritage television, while planning regulations for the Isle of Dogs, that unlucky swamp, were shredded for the construction of a shelf of towers. Michael Heseltine, a wild-haired, mad-eyed visionary (Klaus Kinski to Margaret Thatcher’s Werner Herzog), pushed Docklands across the Thames to the East Greenwich Peninsula, Bugsby’s Marshes. The obsessive, neurotic and delusional Millennium Dome concept was a remake of Fitzcarraldo, a film in which suborned natives (expendable extras) drag a paddle-steamer over a steep hill in order to get around an inconvenient bend in the river, the point being to bring Caruso, one of the gods of opera, to an upstream trading post. An insane achievement mirrored in the rebranding of the Dome, after its long and expensive limbo, as the O2 Arena: a popular showcase for cryogenic rock acts, artists presumed dead or missing in action, for Norma Desmond divas and the real Michael Jackson, a trembling skin-graft mask cursed with eternal youth. Parrot-scream arias and the cough of angry engines, as punters try to exit the gridlocked car park, carry across a broad expanse of oily water. Thames, Amazon, Congo: crumbling regimes like nothing better than a rumble in the jungle. A world-class photo-opportunity summit in some hangar on the edge of a dock, between old railway lines and a new airport. A major exclusion zone around a place nobody has any good reason to visit. A geography that only makes sense when viewed from a helicopter.

And there was a challenge to Herzog's own established modus operandi with his f(r)iend and regular collaborator Klaus Kinski. The Indians who played extras in the film offered to rid him of the troublesome leading man. But, no, that would be for another film. At least Herzog managed to channel the animosity towards Kinski to good effect.

Inglorious Basterds: the Making Of

The arguments against Obama's timid healthcare reforms aren't getting any stronger:

Hat tips: Cormac, once again, and Slugger.

My Funny Valentine

Keith Ridgway has an amusing anecdote on his blog about an encounter years ago with someone who answered his ad in Hot Press looking for a guitarist. The guitarist, a young lad named Kev, turned out to be intimidatingly better than Keith and his maladroit band-partner. The encounter ended there. Kev went on to form My Bloody Valentine, one of the half-dozen great rock bands Ireland has produced.

MBV have been in the news a lot lately, having reformed last year; one imagines Kev et al have cottoned on to the fact that there's money to be made being My Bloody Valentine. A friend of mine went to see them at the Route du Rock festival in Brittany at the weekend. Apparently it was the loudest gig he's ever been at but great nonetheless. Libération carried a brief review of the concert, which it said could be heard some ten kilometres away in Saint-Malo. There was a curious interview with one Christophe Brault, musicologist and friend of the band who has seen the Valentines live twenty times. Brault bemoans the fact that he couldn't hear the voices on the tracks. 'It's a real waste. I couldn't even make out some of the songs. It something they should look at.' To which one can only respond that, having seen the band twenty times, it's a bit late in the day to be finding that out. Maybe he was listening more to the -ology than to the music.

I have to say I'm finding MBV's newfound popularity a bit of overkill. I should be delighted that they're touring again (and about to record a third LP) but I'm feeling a bit nostalgic for the days when the couple of dozen songs and memories of teenage days were enough to sustain oneself, along with the opportunity to see Kevin Shields line up with Primal Scream on tour. Now I find it all a bit too much. Not that I find the music intolerable though:

My Bloody Valentine - When You SleepTechnorati Tags: ,

You Want Revisionism? I'll Show You Revisionism.

Those of us who read the Washington Post on a regular basis will know that the rather kind portrayal of the paper in All the President's Men is at odds with the slightly shabbier reality. Things have come to a pretty pass though when they're outsourcing their reports to what one can only imagine are idiot cub interns at Reuters. A piece on xenophobia in Northern Ireland (a phenomenon that, of course brings shame on the island of Ireland) by one Andras Gergely comes up with this interesting piece of historical information:

Historically, it was economic migrants from the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland who stirred up sectarian trouble in Protestant commmunities. The south, a "Celtic Tiger" until the credit crunch kicked in, is now the euro zone's weakest link.

One doesn't need to subscribe to the parity of victimisation so popular in the Six Counties to take one look at those words and just say WTF? I was wondering where all those economic migrants from the Republic were going all those years from 1922 on. Looks like it was one long border raid. The fact that the Post publishes a piece on racism and xenophobia under the rubric 'On Faith' says it all really.

Hat tip: Cormac

Battle for jobs feeds Northern Ireland xenophobia -

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celtic v Arsenal

I don't follow English football as closely as most, mainly because I have no emotional attachment. A brief childhood passion for Manchester United fizzled out in the early days of Alex Ferguson's stewardship. Now though I follow the results and highlights as much as I can, it's rare I go out of my way to watch a match. That said, I'm happy to accept the claims of it being the best league in the world, though I think La Liga, after a few years on the blink, is back on the ascendancy. And, in my own dispassionate way, I can observe and wish well or ill, as I like. I wouldn't mind seeing Liverpool regain the title, which is ironic as I beheld the end of their glory days in the early 90s with the same vague pleasure. Arsenal are also a side I admire, in spite of everything. A truly repulsive outfit in the George Graham era the club now has an admirable core of fine players, and a manager committed to intelligent, beautiful football. But they remain Arsenal nonetheless, a long-standing underachieving club, with colourless supporters, and a stadium so bereft of atmosphere and beholden to the new corporate order of football, that Tottenham fans rightly - if hypocritically - call it the 'library'. A friend of mine who is a longtime Spurs supporter says the fact that Arsenal play nice football these days really sticks in the craw - things were a great deal simpler in the days of 'Boring Boring Arsenal'.

The Arse' got the season off to a good start at the weekend, hammering a wretched Everton side 6-1 at Goodison. For us Celtic fans facing them tonight at Parkhead, this might be alarming, but you would also expect them not to be able to reproduce such freak form immediately afterwards. Arsenal are certainly the favourites for the tie but it's not unwinnable for the Bhoys either. Unfortunately the only way Celtic are likely to progress is via a titanic struggle, like when we beat Barcelona in the UEFA Cup six seasons ago. A slim 1-0 home win followed by a draw at the Camp Nou did the job. If we progress this time it will take a similar effort, and I can't see us taking a two-goal lead to the Emirates. Of course, Celtic have a good home record against English sides and English hubris often tends to backfire when teams travel north of the border. But Arsenal, with their dearth of English personnel and the presence of former Celtic manager Liam Brady on the backroom staff, probably won't be afflicted by this. And the Gunners have a strong record of over-performing when written off - think of their away victory against Real Madrid in 2006, and their hammerings of Fenerbahçe and Inter away from home.

Celtic have themselves got off to a decent start, the jitters in the home game against Dynamo Moscow aside. The performance in Russia was robust and professional as well as containing some attractive football. Nobody's going to read too much into the easy 3-1 win at Pittodrie last Saturday but the break with the pragmatism of the O'Neill and Strachan years is noticeable. Celtic fans are often derided for wanting to see football played the 'Celtic way' but the track record of teams that played that way in the past 20 years hasn't been great (one need only think of the fine football and lack of trophies of the Brady and Tommy Burns years). You might even say that Celtic playing an open game will favour the visitors tonight. On paper it should be a fine game but I think it might be too early in the season to expect that.


A comfortable enough 2-0 win for Arsenal, who deserved the victory even if they were gifted with two lucky deflected goals, and rarely otherwise troubled Artur Boruc. Celtic played some nice football (it's refreshing to see that some of the players who couldn't execute a ten-yard pass under Strachan now don't seem to have any problems) but they were largely ineffective, producing very few openings for their 60% second-half possession, giving rise to the worries I expressed above about attractive football yielding poor dividends. Turning the tie around looks an impossibility at this point and we should humbly accept the Europa League is more our measure for this season at least. A long run there wouldn't be out of the question.

Crossing all the Teas

He could be covering Hamas v Al Qaeda but Robert Fisk takes time out to pen a paean to the humble cuppa, one of the few things capable of unifying the Far East, the Middle East and the old metropole of the British Empire. Of course, Fisk surely knows that tea brewed south of Nottingham or east of the Irish Sea is a watery affair scarcely worthy of the name. But the most revealing information comes from his adopted region of the Middle East:

A secret, now, from the Arab world. Western soldiers in the Middle East are always encouraged to drink 12 litres of water every day. Long ago, in the deserts of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, I learned differently. The Arabs will drink tea at dawn to warm them up – often poured from a great height, at arm's length – and then they will drink tea in the burning heat of midday to cool them down. Then they will drink tea at dusk to warm them up again. I do just the same on my balcony in Beirut. It works. "Water makes you perspire," an old Syrian friend once told me. "Then you have to drink more water to make up for lost water. They you perspire again..." (So is there a military conspiracy going on here, I wonder, by the bottled water companies?)

That said, I suspect the Irish UN peacekeepers used to bring their own with them:

Robert Fisk’s World: In praise of tea, the brew that powered Britain for centuries - Robert Fisk, Commentators - The Independent

Monday, August 17, 2009

Musical Interlude

And now for those who do have Spotify, a bit of music. It's mostly acoustic guitars and stuff and not terribly well thought out, but hey, it's free.

I had wanted to include the late, great John Hartford's 'In Tall Buildings' but it's not on Spotify (a decent cover by The Jones Street Boys will have to do). And, thanks to the copyright-infringement joys of YouTube, here's Hartford himself giving it a go:

Underachievement Country and Folk

Out Damned Spot

Like most people in those countries fortunate to be able to use Spotify, I'm enthusiastic about the Swedish-streaming music service and it looks like it might be a much-needed reaction to illegal downloading from an industry painfully short on ideas. According to an article over at the Guardian, though, the artists are getting shafted. 18% of shares are going to big music companies (for a start-up it's not too unusual, and the majors are at least, for once, showing interest in something that does not guarantee the risk-free return that they see as their birthright) but artists are seeing little of the small profits accruing from it at the moment. Bob Dylan has already withdrawn much of his back catalogue and Swedish veteran Magnus Uggla has followed suit.

On his blog he said that, after six months on the site he'd earned "what a mediocre busker could earn in a day". Regarding his record label, Sony Music, he says "after suing the shit out of Pirate Bay, they're acting just like them by not paying the artists". When he found out that Sony had 5.8% equity in Spotify he wrote: "I would rather be raped by Pirate Bay than fucked up the ass by (Sony boss) Hasse Breitholtz and Sony Music and will remove all of my songs from Spotify pending an honest service."

Now, it may be that things might improve as advertising revenues increase, which will surely happen as the currently limited service is expanded (particularly to the US). Spotify, after all, is still only nine months old. But after all the bleating by the recording industry regarding artists being swindled by downloading, the situation on Spotify doesn't seem to be that much different.

Behind the music: The real reason why the major labels love Spotify | Music |

Et tu, Radiohead?

Radiohead are a band I've always admired more than loved. And it's likely to remain that way. But their stealing a march on entire swathes of a superannuated record industry is something I have to take my hat off to. They're far from the only group or musician to have a sanguine towards attitude filesharing by people who love their music but they are probably the most high-profile and the most consistent. They famously put their 'In Rainbows' album up online to be downloaded on a pay-what-you-want basis, using the rationale that they were reaching more than 175 countries at a distribution cost of a few pence per copy. The band ended up making £8 profit per copy; of course there are not many groups in the position of being able to command such a reach and Radiohead made their name using those old-industry distribution and publicity mechanisms that are now in such disarray. They were also fortunate to crack the US market in 1992 when British breakthroughs were as rare as hen's teeth (they also broke America before they had made much of a dent in Britain).

Now Radiohead have gone and, it seems, stabbed the poor old music industry in the back by making a new track available on the torrent-sharing site, Mininova. The band haven't admitted doing so but on their blog, Johnny Greenwood does offer Mininova as a download link. It's hardly big news nor is it really that surprising but having just read in The Times that Peter Mandelson intends to implement 'Hadopi'-style laws to keep the music industry happy, it's interesting to see the biggest band in Britain going in a direction diametrically opposed to both their former bosses and a government that seems as out of touch as the Macmillan one was when rock 'n' roll first reared its head fifty years ago.

Radiohead Leak Their New Track To BitTorrent | TorrentFreak

Hitchens, Whiskey and Arab Dictatorships

This is clearly well-researched:

Christopher Hitchens' Favorite Whiskey

Hat tip: Eamonn

Friday, August 14, 2009

Whistleblowers: the film

A film about referees. Now I have to say I find this very interesting indeed and I'm also surprised that nobody has ever thought of using a referee (or indeed an umpire in any other sport) as a vehicle for fiction. Surely referees are every bit as capable of being existential heroes as Peter Handke (and Albert Camus) imagined goalkeepers to be. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, in Why England Lose... (of which more later) also left referees out from their broad-ranging economic survey of the game. I've always been interested by the sort of men (and, these days, women) who voluntarily step into a position that brings glory to few and vicious invective to most. And many of them do it at a very young age; becoming a whistler is to assume an older, middle-aged persona it can only be comparable to being a Young Tory, or, these days, joining the priesthood. The referee must surely be the ultimate masochistic archetype.

Football referees get their own film | Film | The Guardian

Thursday, August 13, 2009

You've Never Had It So Easy

I took a gander up to Parc de la Villette to watch, for the first time in years, a film at the annual open-air cinema. Past years have been marred by a timid, unadventurous range of films but this year the middle-brow (Little Miss Sunshine) and the inexplicably remembered (Amistad) are leavened by some genuinely interesting films. Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo are both on this week. Another interesting film was showing Tuesday night, Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso, known in English as The Easy Life, or rather not known in English, as the film, like Risi (who died a year ago, aged 92) is shamefully neglected in the English-speaking world.

Not so in France, where he is revered as an equal of Billy Wilder. The French title Le fanfaron (meaning, roughly, the braggart or the loudmouth) has given its name to a bar not too far from where I live and the film is rightly considered a comedy classic. The tale of a chance encounter between a shy young law student (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and an ebullient older charmer (Vittorio Gassman), the film reminded me partly of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (I wouldn't be surprised if John Hughes was a fan) and partly Alberto Moravia's contemporary grim meditations on postwar Italy (Trintignant's Roberto has more than a hint of his role at the obedient young fascist in Bertollucci's adaptation of The Conformist).

While the trajectory of the film is predictable enough, it never strains credibility and Gassman's 40-something chancer masks a poignant loneliness and frustration at being just a bit too old for the recent opening-up of Italian society and relaxing of traditional mores. The film is unusual in that it has an almost equal spread of one-liners and visual humour. Risi is best known for his film Scent of a Woman, which was remade as the Oscar-winning Al Pacino shoutathon, but strangely his work is unknown to all but the most seasoned anglophone cinéphiles. Co-writer Ettore Scola went on to become an acclaimed director of social comedies in his own right. And Alfio Contini's evenly-lit monochrome photography recalls Aldo Scavardi's sunkissed lighting on Antonioni's L'avventura. And Risi even gets a dig in at the maestro of alienation too...

Il sorpasso (1962)
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Keep calm...

Hmm. Not a good night out down in Thomond Park and Ireland didn't even have the excuse of fielding an understrength side. That said, there's probably little to glean from a 3-0 defeat to a decent Australian side, which both Trap and visiting manager Pim Verbeek agreed flattered the Socceroos a bit. Ireland were far less solid at the back than they've been in recent matches and in the final third of the field there was precious little enterprise.

Trap might be right in saying that after a few more league games certain players will show a bit more pep. Ireland might have improved a bit in the second half but the rhythm of the game was still that all-too-familiar drudgery of Ireland games of the past (the Roy Keane-fuelled 4-2 victory over Iceland in Reykjavik in 1997 is the exemple par excellence). Switching over to the Holland-England game was a sobering glimpse of the gulf in, not quite class, but certainly urgency.

Trap's two defeats thus far have come at home in friendlies against teams (Poland and Australia) of similar stature to ourselves. Not too much to get panicked about. The fact that in each of those games we shipped three goals though is slightly worrying. For the moment though, I'm happy enough to keep winning (or drawing, if need be) those matches that count. Cyprus can hardly be too happy with their 6-1 defeat in Albania either...

Ireland are given Socceroos lessons - The Irish Times - Thu, Aug 13, 2009

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