Wednesday, December 31, 2008

That is so 2008

So farewell then, Harold Pinter. There have been many glowing tributes to him, quite rightly, but this one by Minette Marrin in the Times asks the awkward question: why are so many writers (e.g. Tolstoy, Pound, Sartre and Neruda) such idiots about politics?:
It struck me as a child that people with a way with words often sounded much cleverer than they actually were. Lots of upper-middle-class ladies, born to articulacy and witty banter, sounded witty and wise, when my childish experience suggested otherwise.
Contrariwise, people who could hardly string two words together were often much more generally intelligent than their inarticulacy suggested. Verbal articulacy is in part, I believe, rather like the gift some people have for languages: I feel sure now, having known and worked with lots of polyglots, that the gift for articulating foreign words and phrases – and, indeed, one’s own – is a specific kind of cognitive aptitude that may have little to do with logic, argument or judgment.
Someone close to me, much to my annoyance, has for years insisted that the same applies equally to writers who lay claim to logic, argument or worldly judgment. Writing – any writing – is like knitting, he says. It’s an unintellectual knack that some people have naturally, and which develops astonishingly with practice, but which lots of clever people can’t do.
This has always annoyed me profoundly, as it is meant to, but I feel forced to agree that there may be something in it. We should be careful, both readers and writers, of the bewitchment of language: it can often mean less than you might think.
Here is a robust defence of suburban life, so often traduced in novels, movies and pop music (yes, we’re looking at you, David Byrne) from Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal. reviewing the film adaptation of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road:
Yates’s novel, cherished by literary intellectuals and Paris Review interns to this day, expresses American suburban-phobia with crude explicitness. Describing the Wheelers’ new neighborhood, Yates writes: “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy.... [The neighborhood] was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.... A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.”
No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates’s puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for “Revolutionary Road” is a testament to the degree to which antisuburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture. For what might a neighborhood that had been designed to accommodate a tragedy possibly look like? For a man running down the street in desperate grief to fit right into the landscape, he would have to be hurtling through a place where vampiric towers blocked out the sun and corpses hung from the lampposts.
Chris Bourke has put online his characteristically thoughtful review of Hamish Keith’s memoir Native Wit here. Beautifully done, though I do think he could have mentioned how outstanding the editing was.

Going forward, as we say now, here via Marginal Revolution is a hint about how the new world order may pan out:
Today, Gazprom is deep in debt and negotiating a government bailout. Its market cap, the total value of all the company’s shares, has fallen 76 percent since the beginning of the year. Instead of becoming the world’s largest company, it has tumbled to 35th place. And while bailouts are increasingly common, none of Gazprom’s big private sector competitors in the West is looking for one.
That Russia’s largest state-run energy company needs a bailout so soon after oil hit record highs last summer is a telling postscript to a turbulent period. Once the emblem of the pride and the menace of a resurgent Russia, Gazprom has become a symbol of this oil state’s rapid economic decline.
And the money shot is:
“I can describe the Russian economy as water in a sieve,” Yulia L. Latynina, a commentator on Echo of Moscow radio, said of the chronic waste in Russian industry.
“Everybody was thinking Russia had succeeded, and they were wondering, how do you keep water in a sieve?” Ms. Latynina said. “When the input of water is greater than the output, the sieve is full. Everybody was thinking it was a miracle. The sieve is full! But when there is a drop in the water supply, the sieve is again empty very quickly.”

You had Keith Richards for Christmas so who else but Abba for New Year? Here they are in late 1980, when Bjorn (right) and Agnetha (second right) had been divorced for a year. Benny and Anna-Frid announced their separation a few months after taping this. Still, eh? Agnetha is now 58, Benny is 62 and Bjorn and Anna-Frid are 63. Here they are pretending to wish each other a happy new year. As Bono would say, you too.

I’m going up north for a while to read The Last Cigarette and Coda by Simon Gray (RIP), Bit of a Blur by Alex James, Doors Open by Ian Rankin (I had dinner with him in Auckland once: I went home at 10 pm to wife and baby; he went out into the night with half a dozen of the most attractive women in publishing. Bastard.), End Games by Michael Dibdin, The Pages by Murray Bail, Dubliners by James Joyce (essential every decade or so as a touchstone of good writing), Painting Out the Past: the life and art of Patricia France by Richard Donald, and a bunch of magazines. The view from our room will be approximately this:

Eat your heart out. Normal service will resume mid-January.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas gift for you

This was a live performance in Nashville for Christmas 1988 of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from A Christmas Gift For You, Phil Spector’s 1963 Christmas album which features the Ronettes, Darlene Love, the Crystals and others. Soul/pop heaven, obviously. There aren’t any clips of the original artists in this repertoire at the time (though Darlene Love does a great version of this same song in 1981 in a badly lit amateur vid of a good show) but this one below comes close, with a full Spector-quality band – note the bassoonist in the green jacket in the front row. What was the director thinking? The singer is Jana King; the host and pianist is Al Delory who played for Spector and was the man who produced the great run of Glen Campbell singles such as “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman”. Which makes him the Man.

Right. Happy Christmas, everyone. I’m off for a drink with Laughy Kate, who’s come up north for a while. Barry Humphries reports Amy Tan’s theory that:
every holiday dinner and all weddings and funerals need the presence of some irritating person or drunken uncle to unify the other guests.
Kate’s got the irritating-person gig, so I guess that leaves me as the uncle. Not again.


Many people here in New Zealand are aggrieved that the preview of the second season of Flight of the Conchords was available only to US viewers of the website Funny or Die. Many people don’t understand copyright, then.

The website, run by US citizens and earning its revenue from US citizens, would have bought US-only rights. World rights would have cost a fortune, and generated no revenue. Why on earth would Will Ferrell have bought them? He's running a business, not a charity for New Zealanders.

And let’s not get started on Rhys Darby, who seems like a nice fellow and a Good Thing. He has done rather well out of America, but says that “A lot of the blame has gone on America, the country itself, which is great.” There's a word for people like that.

Investment of the year

I can’t find the original for this but the information has been repeated here and here, which is where my old friend Penny Wise, an economist who knows her stuff, found it. So here goes:
Consider that one year ago Royal Bank of Scotland paid US$100 billion for ABN Amro. That seemingly impossible amount would now buy:
Citibank $22.5 billion (74% down)
Morgan Stanley $10.5 billion (-72%)
Goldman Sachs $21 billion (-67%)
Merril Lynch $12.3 billion (-77%)
Deutsche Bank $13 billion (-71%)
Barclays $12.7 billion (-71%)
And still leave $8 billion change – with which you would be able to pick up General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and the Honda F1 team.
Not too shabby!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An inconvenient strewth

Gotta love the Aussie way with language. This is from an Age story about farmers’ scepticism about global warming:
Climate change was the feature exhibit at this year’s Elmore Field Days, north of Bendigo, complete with school kids offering to calculate visitors’ carbon emissions at the door — until one farmer told a year 3 student to “f--- off”.
Field days treasurer Frank Harney — who last week housed a new load of 10-week-old piglets in RSPCA-accredited eco-shelters next to his grain crops — says farmers should see the opportunities offered up by climate change, such as potentially earning credits by sequestering carbon in the soil or by planting trees.
“There was one bloke on the field days committee who helped me put up the sign for the feature and he said, ‘You know, I’m dead against this climate change’. And I said, ‘It’s not about climate change, it’s about having an awareness of what’s going on in the world around you,” Mr Harney says. “They can argue the cyclical thing, but something has changed that’s stretching the parameters. Let’s accept that and be smart about it. Otherwise you might as well stick your head in the sand and park a bike up your arse.”

Muslims in Sweden

The phrase “backhand bitchslap” is not one that is broadcast regularly on Sweden’s well-mannered state-owned television channel SVT. So when the perfectly coiffed male host of a morning television programme rose from his sofa, informed the audience he was about to introduce them to this bizarre English-language phrase and then strode across the studio to be voluntarily backhand bitchslapped by a young, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, it was a strong indication that this peaceable and conservative Nordic nation was in something of a tumult.
The rest of the story is here. It’s from the Financial Times, part of a series on television round the world.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Davy Graham invents Led Zeppelin

Davy Graham was an English guitarist who introduced Middle Eastern and Eastern styles and techniques to folk music and influenced Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch (and thus Johnny Marr), Paul Simon, Richard Thompson and many other greats. He died last week at 68.

His song ‘Anji’ was the entrance exam for anyone playing folk music in the 60s: little did we know as we tried to copy the record that he had invented a new tuning for it, but that wasn’t the only reason it was so hard to play accurately. He was a phenomenon.

Here’s a case study: what he does with the jazz standard “Cry Me a River”. First, the fabulous Julie London, who owns that song, in 1964 with the Bobby Troup quintet:

There is a version based on this by Lulu with Jeff Beck. Yes, seriously, and it is very good but it’s in copyright so you’ll have to find it yourself on YouTube. Or buy the Martin Scorsese box set The Blues Collection, in which it appears.

Now here is Davy Graham’s version. It’s primitive by his later standards, but was revolutionary at the time:

Did you hear what he did in the opening bars? That’s “Stairway to Heaven”, that is.

Monitor: Distractions

Cowen grills Krugman

Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman responds to questions from Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen on the credit crunch:
1. Where would you find the institutional capability to run a nationalised banking system?

2. Do you have a point estimate of the probability that an ethanol-friendly Congress spends the money for a stimulus plan in an efficacious way?
Good questions, and good answers, as you would expect. In brief:
1. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be not too bad and get the money flowing again.

2. Will they spend it in a way that is better than nothing? Probability 100 per cent. Will it be spent as well as ideally it should? Zero.
This video has the full monty.

So farewell then, Paul Holmes

Chris Bourke thinks he’s an idiot, David Farrar rates him on the radio but not on TV, the Herald praises him for being “acutely conscious of the travails of others”, and Dave Lobster says, bafflingly, “It makes Iron Maiden look even more of a bargain than it did before.”

What more fitting way to say “Goodbye” could there be than this?:

Some people really hate cats

This outfit is called “Anne of Green Gables is under cleaning” and costs 3800 Yen. Here’s the sales pitch:
Do you also attach to a cat and do hair? It is the costume play of a masterpiece “Anne of Green Gables”!
Anne of Green Gables appeared in popular costume play series! The hair of the red hair of costume is coquettish and cute. The cat which became a hood figure is likely to have a broom at any moment, and is likely to begin cleaning. As for the blouse of the country tone made with the same cloth as a hood, the yellow flower arrangement of the center of a collar is impressive, and looks very prettily! Since it can equip with a hood and a blouse on a piece of Velcro, attachment and detachment are easy!

Or how about the “Frog transformation set”, also 3800 yen:
It is spring new work! They are frog transformation goods!
This is a dear frog transformation set. It is made from bright green felt cloth, and the big eye of a frog is attached. Even if it takes, it is finished to the pop impression. Please observe the leg fin wound around a head. Since it can equip also with a hat and head volume on a piece of Velcro, attachment and detachment are easy!
You can order these and others just like them here.

Monitor: Scepticlawyer

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Keith Richards

His Keefness is 65 today. This is him with the X-Pensive Winos in (probably) 1988, performing “How I Wish” and “As Wicked as It Seems” from his excellent solo album Talk is Cheap. Sadly there is no clip available of his great Christmas song from 1978, Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” but you can get it on iTunes. Best Christmas record ever.

Bear in mind while you watch this that he was 45. And aren’t those Amy Winehouse’s eyes?

“Run Rudolph Run” is also available legally on eMusic, and much cheaper than iTunes at US40c if you are on the standard plan. Just to prove that it is real, here is the cover of the original single:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Un-Merry Christmas

Think your office Christmas party was/will be dire? Thank your lucky stars you weren’t at this one in 1925. That sign, “Profanity Positively Forbidden. Shut up or Get OUT By Order of Staff Capt. Myers” was possibly not a joke. Which may explain the sheer desperation on the faces of the first three from the left.

There is a full-size version and much else here.

Monitor: Mick Hartley

Book review of the month

Kevin Jackson in the Sunday Times on Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point:
Has it ever struck you that, had Neil Armstrong been born in the 17th century, his chances of becoming the first man on the moon would have been severely diminished? That remarkably few medieval peasants ever made killings on the stock market? That the drive and attack of the Rolling Stones’s singles might have been a bit dampened if their lead instruments had been crumhorns or flageolets? If so, you will find yourself in enthusiastic agreement with the first half of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, which sets out to demolish the myth – as he sees it – that success (and/or genius) is either a happy fluke of nature or the product of solitary, unaided talent. Nope, he says. You have to be born at the right moment; at the right place; to the right family (posh usually helps); and then you have to work really, really hard. That’s about it. I have just saved you 17 quid.
That’s just the first paragraph. If you want more, it’s here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Porn in the parsonage

Peter Phillips, founder and conductor of the early music choir the Tallis Scholars, writes in the Spectator about a concert he gave earlier this month in Moscow, in St Andrew’s Anglican church, not far from the Kremlin:
I was surprised and impressed by the sound, though anyone with even a passing knowledge of Moscow would have known what to expect, since for many years this church was the recording studio of Melodiya. Between 1920 and 1991 the building had been confiscated, and it was really only as a result of a visit to Moscow by the Queen in 1994 that Yeltsin gave permission for services to take place again — once a fortnight on Sundays. Melodiya, with contacts all over the political landscape, took a lot of removing, a task which was only completed by the present incumbent, Canon Simon Stephens, in 2006. Before that, services had had to share the space with recording booms in the church and pile upon pile of old black vinyls blocking up all the entrances and porches: no doubt a dream situation for any collector of rare discs. But what had started the hand-back of the buildings in the Anglican compound was Yeltsin’s apparent disquiet at the use to which the Soviets had put the adjoining parsonage: housing a printing press churning out pornography for the politburo. There was a concern that the Queen, whose visit was already planned, might not like it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Leia upon Leia

Carrie Fisher became famous as Princess Leia in Star Wars, which she says ruined her life. She then successfully reinvented herself as a comic novelist (Postcards from the Edge, etc) and scriptwriter, using her own experiences with drug addiction and manic depression, not to mention being the child of a couple of cracked actors, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. She has now written her autobiography, Wishful Drinking. Lyn Barber reviews it in the Daily Telegraph:
Debbie is a game old bird – still performing at 78. Eddie Fisher said in his autobiography that she was a lesbian but, Fisher exclaims indignantly, “My mother is not a lesbian! She’s just a really really bad heterosexual.” She once gave Carrie, then aged 15, and her grandmother matching vibrators for Christmas, but the grandmother said she didn’t want to use it because it might short-circuit her pacemaker and anyway she’d lived all this time without having an orgasm, she didn’t plan to start now. . .

[Fisher] has a wonderful self-deprecating wit and total lack of self-pity – there is none of the I Will Survive grandiosity one expects from Hollywood memoirs. The only sad note is that Fisher says she recently had electro-convulsive therapy for depression, which cured her condition but left her with no memory at all. She has a message on her answering machine telling callers to leave their name, number and a brief account of who they are and how they know her. She is a one-off and a joy.

Cruelty to children

Literary gossip: a small boy was recently seen outside a suburban hall in the capital bawling, kicking his famous-in-Wellington writer parents in the shins and yelling, “No! No! Not another poetry reading!”

Friday, December 12, 2008

A little something for the weekend

Sinologist Jonathan Mirsky, former East Asia editor of the Times, mourns the death of Qi Qi in his review of Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin by Samuel Turvey (OUP).

Bruce Sheppard sticks it to oldies here and here:
My new rule is, I’m not going to spend any time with anyone aged over 60 because, frankly, their residual economic value to the rest of the country is so low they should be put through euthanasia programmes right now.
In view of which, Cactus Kate has some career advice for Winston Peters, building on his proven skills and market niche: start a finance company. Perhaps he could call it Scampi Investments.

Home Paddock explains why she doesn’t support the New Zealand Made campaign.

Tyler Cowen, author of Discover Your Inner Economist, has a great sentence on time management:
All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.
Discussion follows here.

The Economist gives the untold and, in Thailand untellable, story of Thai politics – the role of King Bhumibol and his meddling. Fascinating stuff, and I bet this issue isn’t available in Bangkok. Lèse-majesté, you see.

Finally, Atlantic books editor Benjamin Schwarz calls Europe Between the Oceans by Barry Cunliffe (Yale):
an extraordinary book. In a work of analytical depth and imaginative sweep, Sir Barry Cunliffe, the emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, has synthesized the voluminous recent record of excavations from Iceland to Turkey, the burgeoning scholarship on DNA and ancient populations, and research on topics ranging from Stone Age shipbuilding to trade in Muslim Spain and from salinity levels in the ancient Black Sea to state formation in Early Iron Age Denmark. This all serves to elucidate the “complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other” in Europe from 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.—10,000 years of cultural, social, and material development, starting at the close of the last ice age and ending with the emergence of the European nation-states. . .
No book so well exemplifies what Cunliffe joyously calls “the vibrancy of archaeology.” More important, its focus on what Braudel called the longue durée will jolt the temporally complacent (and aren’t we all?), just as its bracingly materialist approach—which leads to the inescapable conclusion that trade has always laid the foundation for the exchange of ideas and beliefs, indeed for most cultural transformations—nicely tempers our blather about the power of ideas and the individual.
Just the thing for the beach these holidays, then.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Modern life

Oxford University Press has published a new edition of its Junior Dictionary “to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multi-faith society”.

Words removed include:
carol, cracker, dwarf, elf, goblin, abbey, altar, bishop, christen, nun, saint, sin, devil, vicar, empire, bacon, blackberry, bloom, brook, canter, chestnut, clover, dandelion, fern, marzipan, melon, pasture, porridge, spinach, vine, violet, walnut, willow.
Words added include:
blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, citizenship, conflict, debate, EU, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, donate, endangered.
via Mick Hartley

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Get Carter

Elliott Carter, the greatest living US composer, turns 100 on 11 December. He is still writing music, and in the last couple of decades has produced an amazing number of new works, including his first opera, 1999’s What Now? and the 2007 piano concerto Interventions which had its premiere this week and will be performed at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night (New York time) to mark his birthday.

Here is an interview with him recorded in July:

Here is a brief interview from the Boston Globe on 5 December.

Even apart from the music it has been an extraordinary life. He knew Charles Ives and Edgard Varese (which is comparable to knowing Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, or Matisse and Picasso), and sat next to George Gershwin at the US premiere of Berg’s opera Wozzeck. He talks at length about this and his own music in this 1994 interview.

A good place to start with his music might be Enchanted Preludes, a six-minute duo for flute and cello from 1998, written when he was 90:

Or this dress rehearsal for his Cello Concerto of 2001:

There’s also on YouTube, for now, the lovely 1986-87 Oboe Concerto, the thornier 1997 Piano Quintet, and 1994’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux II, a brief and beautiful tribute to Pierre Boulez for flute, clarinet and marimba.

Or two newish CDs from Naxos, which at $13 are a painless experiment: this is his First String Quartet (1951) coupled with the Fifth (1995), and this is a collection of chamber pieces from the 1990s, including Enchanted Preludes. If you’re at all curious about contemporary classical music, there couldn’t be a better place to start.