Ironic America

Does a teenager raised on virtual violence become a man unable to understand the incitement-act-effect process?

The most disturbing thing, among many disturbing things, revealed in Louis Theroux’s new documentary Forbidden America is the twisted logic behind the protagonists philosophy.

I don’t mean their views, which I trust, since you’re an attentive reader of this blog, you already know I don’t share. I’m talking about the sight of men in their twenties screaming abuse like frustrated thirteen-year-olds. What might be irritating but almost understandable behaviour in a pre-pubescent boy, erupting as it does from confusion, heightened testosterone and frustration that the world doesn’t seem to care about his ego, is cause for concern in a grown man.

Is this what happens when young men are isolated, communicating only through violent online games, the most extreme behaviour rewarded? In one scene a man threatens to rape a particular young woman, describing in detail what he’s going to do to her, and then laughs. The girl herself then says that she understands he’s being ironic, but that she still felt threatened.

I’m still trying to come to terms with that.

These men – and they are almost exclusively men – excuse their outbursts by saying they’re ironic; the word keeps cropping up. They espouse extremely right wing views but then say they’re not part of the right wing; they’re being ironic.

Presumably the fact that they all make their living from streaming their childish nonsense, and are therefore constantly craving viewers, is not an insignificant factor.

The Internet: the greatest tool for communication in the history of humanity. Look upon ye works and despair.

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A little corporal maintenance

Please be patient, I’m being careful.

As a regular reader I’m sure you’ve noticed that I talk about alcohol more than is good for me; this is because I like a drink. I don’t drink to get drunk but I view alcohol as an excellent, and well proven, social lubricant in the right hands. I relish the extraordinary variety of ways humans have found to brew, ferment and distill the flora of the world into its intoxicating essence.

However, I’m currently on the wagon. Abstaining. Off the sauce. In short, I’m not drinking.

A shameful state of affairs, but desirable for a time. Your correspondent’s trousers have been getting a little tight around the midriff recently, so it’s time to lose some weight. A bit of body maintenance required. Nothing extreme, you understand, but a quick refresher course in moderation.

As one whose body has always taken every opportunity to store away fat in preparation for some far off primal emergency, I’ve spent my adult life watching what I eat. Acquaintances are often surprised at my ability to start and stop smoking at will, or stop drinking for a while with no outward signs of a struggle, but these things are as nothing compared to the constant self-discipline that prevents over-indulgence in my deep and abiding love of food.

If I ate what I liked I’d be the size of a house, so my day-to-day diet is careful anyway, but I’m being a bit stricter just now.

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That’s progress?

Change is not only good, it’s inevitable – but what happens when the baby is thrown out with the bathwater?

I travel to Edinburgh by train two or three times a year, as a rule. If you’ve never been, rest assured it’s worth the trip. A fine city.

The experience of the train trip ranges from passable to ghastly but is never, these days, a pleasure; largely because, aside from the aesthetic unpleasantness of modern trains, there is no restaurant car. Whoever thought an aisle trolley pushed by a disgruntled employee on the minimum wage, attempting to sell you an unwanted bag of crisps because she needs the commission, is an improvement on a cottage pie and a glass of claret served at a proper table with a white tablecloth, real cutlery and a little vase of flowers – albeit by a bolshie British Rail waiter in a stained white jacket – has no place making such decisions.

Watching the Northumberland coast roll past your dining table as you sup on a postprandial digestif is a pleasure now lost to us. The best that can be said for modern trains is that they’re faster; the dull aching pain of the journey passes relatively quickly. I’ll take slow pleasure over fast convenience any day, thanks; but I can’t stand in the way of progress.

The guard’s van has also been left behind at the depot of abandoned happiness. All trains used to have a guard’s van (if you’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night you’ll remember the lovable mop-tops playing an impromptu gig in a guard’s van). It was effectively a goods carriage, often attached to the back of the train, where you could not only leave large baggage for the duration of your journey but also you could send your heavy items to travel on their own, ahead of you, in the guard’s van of an earlier train, and it would be waiting, when you, well fed and content after your lunch, achieved  your destination. And there would be a porter with a trolley to carry it to the next stage of your journey.

Progress has meant that now anyone who is not able-bodied, and weight-trained, is left attempting to heave their bags into a rack, which is usually already full. Which means luggage is left to become obstacles for the aisle-trolley of the underpaid potato-crisp sales-woman. All this happened when ‘passengers’ became ‘customers’.

Arrival at Edinburgh Waverley reminds you that the entire porter’s profession has been eradicated. If you can’t carry your bags yourself you’re stuffed; there isn’t even a self-drive trolley to be had. A very friendly station employee confirms that there aren’t any trolleys, and cheerfully reassures you that he knows this is a flaw in the slick modern rail transport machine and that he’s told them but they don’t listen.

Fighting your way along the platform and across the concourse, haphazardly avoiding all the shops that have been deliberately placed in your way, dragging your bags behind you, you remember something. Waverley was designed by the victorians in a very practical way. The central feature of the concourse was a circular taxi rank, so that passengers could alight from their train and climb into a taxi with the minimum of fuss, i.e. without having to climb three flights of stairs, go outside into the wind and rain, and walk down the street. Dragging their bags.

Needless to say, progress has seen to it that the taxi rank, while still in evidence, is no longer used. It’s a security issue, apparently; although the consensus at the station seemed to be that the owners wanted to use the space for more shops. Whatever the reason, the nearest rank is now three stories up and down the street.

The taxi driver was very apologetic and understanding.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Covid incarceration, Day 2

A postcard from Covidland

Having spent yesterday coming to terms with my new status as a citizen of Covidland, with the help of a little whisky and a little more wine, I’m more at ease with the whole thing now.

I’m spending my confinement in a little house about 100 metres from my sister’s, which works out very well so far. Indeed it’s actually quite pleasant, since it’s only when I go and sit outside the big house to have a socially distanced coffee that I realise there are only a couple of days before Christmas and everyone else is getting stressed. In my own little part of Covidland things are calm and serene.

And I’d like to offer a word of thanks for the movie streaming services. Obviously their algorithms mystify me – the things they recommend for me are nothing like anything I will ever want to watch – but they are a great way of wasting time. I find I’m categorising films by runtime. This is the most important feature of a film in Covidland.

Today’s objectives: get back to the novel, and try to stay off the whisky until 7pm.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Covid on a rock

The guilt of the infected, and Tuareg blues

It seems Omicron is the variety of Covid-19 that finally has my name on it. Yes reader, I am stricken. Well, not so much stricken – I feel absolutely fine – as condemned, having had a positive PCR test.

And I feel guilty, like I must have contravened the rules in some way. I must have let the side down. I’ve always taken the risk of infection seriously, indeed my friends will tell you I have no compunction in telling them when I think they’re not being careful enough, but despite copious testing and the usual precautions, here I am; in quarantine on a tropical island.

In the grand scheme of things it could be worse. I’m being looked after (in a socially distanced and responsible manner) by my sister and her daughters, I want for nothing, the sky is bright and sunny, the temperature is consistently in the low 20s Celsius (it is a bit windy though – could someone do something about that please?), and I have a good supply of booze which I can still taste.

I’m also discovering some different music, thanks to a piece in The Economist. I believe the genre is sometimes called ‘desert blues’, in this case personified by Mdou Moctar on his album ‘Afrique Victime‘ which I recommend.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


British concentration camps in South Africa

Looking into the camps set up during the Boer War

A conversation the other evening sparked my history nerve: the concentration camps set up by the British Army in South Africa during the Second Boer War of the 1890s.

Concentration camp is one of those trigger phrases which brings to mind the worst attrocities of Nazi Germany, and is generally used with that subtext, and I realised I didn’t know as much as I should about the Boer camps to put my own perspective on the subject. So I did what every curious but lazy person does these days, and turned to Wikipedia.

Essentially, as far as I can understand, Lord Kitchener, commander of the British forces, set up the camps to house Boer families and black Africans displaced by the scorched earth strategy he used against the Boer guerilla fighters. The camps were badly run, leading to appalling conditions, with bad sanitation and starvation leading to epidemics of desase with dreadfully fatal consequences. A contemporary government enquiry established that there were over 100 camps and over 150,000 internees. Over 28,000 people died in them, of whom 25,000 were children under 16. Half of the entire Boer child population at the time. Such shocking figures are difficult to comprehend.

Some believe that it was Kitchener’s indifference to the plight of the people, rather than a deliberate policy of genocide, that led to the tragedy. Nevertheless, when Kitchener made the decision to force civilians off their land and into camps administered by the British Army, he also took on the responsibility for feeding them and caring for them; which he signally, and criminally, failed to do.

The full horror of the situation was well known to people at the time, with notable Victorians such as Arthur Conan-Doyle writing on the subject (opinions from the past are always alarming to contemporary eyes).

But for me the fascination of research is the discovery of people I hadn’t heard of before, and in this case it was the remarkable Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman who travelled to South Africa and saw the suffering in the camps for herself, leading to the establishment by the government of the Fawcett Commission to investigate. Incidentally, the Fawcett Commission (under Dame Millicent Fawcett) itself is interesting, since it seems to have consisted entirely of women – uniquely for a British government commission at the time.

So, the story is a horrific one without doubt, with the British Government to blame for appalling suffering. But should these camps be considered in the same way as the Nazi camps of the 1940s? I don’t believe so, since the scale and – more importantly – the intended purpose, are not remotely the same.

I’d relish the opportunity to discuss this further. Use the link on the left to comment.

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The great Notifications turn-off

Don’t notify me about what you think I’d like to know, just what I ask for

The notifications that some apps offer are a great idea, and a perfet use of the technology. The BBC Sport app is an example of best practice; it’s possible to control exactly the kind of notifications you get. I use it all the time.

Why? Because the world is full of sports, and the vast majority of them I have no interest in. If they just sent me notifications they thought I might like it would be based on the most popular, football probably, and since football falls into my category of “not remotely interested” then I’d switch off the notifications pronto. But instead they offer me the chance to select exactly which sports I want to know about, and also when and how I want to be notified, I use the service. Thanks BBC.

Sadly, one of the original mobile app rockstars, Twitter, is an example of how not to do it, and hence I don’t have their notifications switched on – despite Twitter asking me to do so several times a day.

Because they insist on sending me notifications I didn’t ask for, like tweets from people I don’t follow on subjects I’m not iterested in. Oviously they’re trying to use the service as a means to increase engagement but, for me at least, it has the opposite effect.

Which is a shame. In truth, I’d love to use Twitter more, and I believe many others would too, but unless they concentrate on providing the service their users want and cut out the crap, or at least give us an option to switch the crap off, they’re going to keep sliding down the social media league tables.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


The ghost of John Wayne

Learning tolerance from a dinosaur

A tall man in a wide brimmed hat stands a doorway, the bright western light behind him, his right forearm across his body, the hand holding his left elbow. A six-gun hangs low on his hip. His expression says he’s seen and he knows. He stands there for several seconds then slowly turns and walks away into the landscape with a slightly lob-sided gait.

John Wayne has become a forgotten movie star. It’s difficult, now, to describe how huge his fame was to anyone under 30, so you’ll just have to trust me; his face and his movements were instantly recognisable to a global audience until the 1980s. He was the very definition of a movie star.

He’s forgotten partly because that’s the nature of cinema, partly because the kind of masculinity he epitomised is out of fashion now, but also as a result of modern discomfort with his political views.

I’m not going to concern myself with the details of his politics here. I wouldn’t agree with him, but I’ve never felt disagreement should be a bar to discourse – unlike so many these days. It seems acceptable, indeed expected, now for someone with a political affiliation to simply ignore anyone with a differing idea. Which is a genuine tragedy.

Things haven’t always been that way; Wayne is a good example. He was a right-wing conservative, but one of his best friends in later years was Katharine Hepburn, his polar opposite politically.

A Hollywood dinosaur, but maybe there are things we can learn from when such beasts walked the earth.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


Tragedy and farce

Historic parallels are not difficult to find if you look for them, but some are more striking than others

To reference Marx, who was referencing Hegel:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

It’s an interesting idea to contemplate, and one that, in my all too frequent idle moments, I am apt to.

For instance:

A German leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Spanish civil war, increased his power over Austria, then invaded Czechoslovakia — while other powerful nations did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of German ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Poland and then invaded.

And then consider:

A Russian leader, having given his soldiery vital experience of combat in the Syrian civil war, increased his power over Belarus, then invaded Crimea — while other powerful states did nothing to prevent him. Using the existence of Russian ethnic minorities as an excuse he built up a massive military force on the borders of Ukraine and then…

Tragedy or farce? I guess we’ll see. But the western powers have clearly decided, by not allowing Ukraine to join NATO, that a full blown Russian invasion of Ukraine is not worth a military confrontation with Moscow. Maybe the Ukraine is Bohemia, not Poland.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies



Three years, the blink of an eye, and a return to blogging.

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It appears it’s been precisely three years since my last confession. Believe it or not the fact that I stumbled upon Toadstool today was purely accidental; if thought provoking. Precisely three years. Astonishing. 

Reading what I wrote three years ago, the person I was then, what interested me, is fascinating. I wonder what it will mean to people in, say, thirty years? Not much I suspect. It’s unlikely to concern me anyhow, since I’ll be worm food long before then.

But what three years they’ve been. One year into my little holiday from this blog there was a sweet little baby virus detected that the World Health Organisation became concerned enough about to name: COronaVIrus Disease 2019. It would be fair to say that COVID-19 has dominated our lives ever since.

Some people have taken exception to this domination, and have responded by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist. It’s the invention of, oh, I don’t know — an international cabal of pedophiles I think. Or Boris Johnson. Or the liberal elite. Whatever.

Anyway, these folk have decided that, since it’s a fake virus, we need not take precautions against it. We need not lock-down, or restrict travel, or wear face masks — and we certainly shouldn’t vaccinate ourselves.

We’ve all learned more that we cared to about viruses in the last few years, but the element of the situation that has struck me is how a virus can only be combatted through concerted community action. Whether an individual gets vaccinated or not is not just of importance to them, but to all of us. To be anti-vac is to be anti-social. Criminally so.

Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies


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