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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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 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


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


The White Room

An invite to an exhibition opening exacerbates my cultural numbness.

Another November night, another private view for an exhibition that makes no sense to me apart from free booze. They’ve got the thermostat turned up to thirty and I’ve arrived in a clearly ill-judged suit appropriate for the season. I should have worn beachwear.

As a rule I dislike shows that require sheets of paper to tell me what’s going on, but tonight I find myself asking the charming woman who pours the vodka if there’s anything that can help me make sense of this. She doesn’t have any literature that can help but, ignoring the plaintive looks of the usual suspects chasing a glass of warm Prosecco, she gamely leaves her station behind the booze table to give me some guidance.

“All the pictures are different,” she tells me, “taken in different places.” I’m beginning to get that feeling of ironic uncertainly again. “He told me the key is to see the work in there,” she says, pointing to a circular wall, off centre in the room, which I’d previously taken to be some form of unavoidable void.

“I didn’t know there was something in there,” I offer. Her expression shows no sign of irony or humour – so often the case with the young. She’s very willing to help me achieve understanding, but the Prosecco hungry crowd is growing and I take pity on them. They’re going to need it. “Thank you,” I say – her expression is almost pleading – “I’ll have a look in there.”

I go ‘in there’, which involves waiting with the rest of the sadly curious until a young woman dressed head to toe in black, with long straight black hair, pale skin and round glasses, senses the moment is appropriate to open the curved door and allow us entry.

It doesn’t offer any enlightenment. The projected work is presented in such a way that necessitates a constant turning of the observer’s body, inducing a nauseating dizziness in your correspondent. The small circular room is heated even more than the rest of the gallery.

I escape the small room and see a man in shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Wise.

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


Royal decree, number 1


Two streets away, the thumping annoyed. One street away it reached intolerable. Once the source was in plain view it got no louder until I was close enough to understand; the backing track for a steel drummer standing outside Boots.

Appreciator of steel percussion I may be, enjoyer of banging beats played loudly in public I am not.

When I’m king we’ll have no more of this. I’m all in favour of street musicians – even the ones I don’t like – but standing on the street playing recorded music on an amp doesn’t make you a street musician. It makes you a public nuisance.

This is true, only more so, in tube stations. I understand TfL carries out auditions for those keen to express themselves musically on the underground network. I can’t imagine what this consists of, but can I suggest that they establish whether an applicant can actually make music? Or is it considered a sufficient skill to plug an iPhone into a battery powered amp?

There would be an exception written into my royal decree though: for electric guitars. It’s an instrument, after all, that doesn’t make much sense without an amp. Then you must allow electric violins, I hear you all cry. No. The electric guitar is a distinct instrument from the acoustic, with a separate repertoire. Let that be the criteria. Your king has spoken.

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It’s Strephon


No stranger to the Coliseum Theatre is your correspondent, and while I by and large enjoy the English National Opera productions, many of which are superb, I’d never seen any of the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan. That changed the other night.

G&S, as I’m now qualified to call them, inhabit an uncomfortable slice of the opera spectrum, with a reputation as being middle-class, middle-England, and middle-of-the-road; one foot in the lifeboat of political satire and the other on the dwindling iceberg of frivolous entertainment. Enough with the metaphors.

I’m making ‘entertainment’ sound beneath contempt, which isn’t my intention; being simply entertaining is a great skill, and indeed this production of Iolanthe achieved it – and a lot more besides.

Also refreshing to see the Coliseum full. It’s a large house and I’ve seen great performances of Mozart and Puccini, Strauss and Delibes, playing to two-thirds capacity. Perhaps back-to-back G&S is what the ENO’s needs to end it’s constant flirtation with financial disaster.

Hardly the youthful audience the ENO dreams of though; I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s unusual that I lower the average age of any gathering, but this was certainly an exception. The assembled snowbirds didn’t necessarily get what they were expecting, judging by the reaction of the stony faced couple next to me who seemed determinedly unamused. A dancing peer-of-the-realm falling spectacularly off the roof of a full scale stream train: not a glimmer of a smile. An irrelevant pantomime cow wanders across the stage and joins in the chorus: nothing. Another peer with a badly behaved terrier glove-puppet (memories, for me, of Spit the Dog): nada.

Even my favourite gag of the night, the Fairy Queen’s constant mispronunciation of the leading character’s name ‘Strephon’ as ‘Strapon’ – which if you ask me got more hilarious every time – didn’t crack their granite expressions.

Nonetheless, you can now count me as a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The skilful combination of wit and charm, especially in the hands of such an accomplished company, nailed it.

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




Pulp Fiction is a film of doubtless quality – it’s certainly among my favourites – but it has limited ambitions. Those ambitions are fulfilled perfectly; this is an intricately planned and beautifully made entertainment.

Many at the time criticised this. The violence should have more context, it was said. The vacuous, hedonistic life of the protagonists should be shown to have negative consequences. They missed the point, I think: this is entertainment.

But it’s not a film you’ll walk away from with any abiding questions. You’ll marvel at the plot, revel in the supremely quotable script, copy the style, wonder at the characterisations; but you won’t be asking yourself about the world-wide political crisis caused by the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid, war in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, or any other contemporaneous events.

Why should you? This is entertainment.

It isn’t always that way though. Landmark films of previous decades did manage to entwine entertainment with relevance: Taxi Driver, Casablanca, The Public Enemy…

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Storytime. A man visits a young boy and presents him with his fathers watch, fulfilling a promise.

Early one morning, twenty years later, two gunmen walk into an apartment and kill three young men while narrowly avoiding death themselves. They leave, taking with them a briefcase belonging to their gangster boss, and another guy, who they accidentally shoot in the car.

Startled, they drive the car to a friend’s house where, with the help of a well dressed fixer, they clean up the blood and dispose of the car, and the body, and go to breakfast in a diner. While they eat, a later-day Bonnie and Clyde hold up the diner at gun-point. They escape again, minus their wallets but with the briefcase, and go to meet their boss in a nightclub. He’s busy bribing a boxer to fix a boxing match, but they wait and give him the case.

Later one of the gunmen, after a stop to visit his heroin dealer, takes the boss’ wife out to dinner, at the boss’ behest. She accidentally overdoses on his heroin and he drives her to the dealer’s house where he administers a shot of adrenaline direct to her heart. She survives.

Later again, it’s the night of the big fight. The boxer has double-crossed the gangster. Instead of taking a fall he bets on himself, knocks out his opponent – unintentionally killing him – and runs to a rendezvous with his girlfriend in a motel room, planning to abscond the following day and disappear. She brought his belongings, but omitted the most crucial thing – his father’s watch, given to him twenty years earlier, compelling him to return to the apartment he knows will be watched by the gangsters.

He returns, collecting his watch and killing a gunman. While making his escape he’s recognised and shot by the gangster boss, who pursues him to a pawn shop where they are captured by a psychotic rapist and his friend. While the gangster is being raped the boxer escapes and, to his own surprise, returns to rescue him.

In return, the gangster forgives the boxer’s double-cross.

Heard it before? I didn’t make it up; it’s the plot of a legendary film. Rightly legendary too. It is an astonishing piece of work, ground breaking and shocking in it’s day, and it confirmed the auteur as a great film-maker. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino.

Almost twenty-five years after it’s release it still feels contemporary; a film I can sit through again and again, relishing it’s affect on first time viewers.

But I’ve always been curious how it was plotted. On screen the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, and I wanted to see if I could iron out the wrinkles, lay it out flat, and examine the story to see if it still works.

I think it does, don’t you?

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


The unforgivable sin


There must be people who can speak with authority about railways. State owned? Private? Build more? Subsidise fares? Rip them all up?

I’m not one of them; all I can offer is opinion. Although clearly my opinion would be more important than anyone else’s.

But one thing is obvious: without exception privatisation has led to visual cacophony. Each company tries to out-dazzle the last and the result is the only unforgivable sin: crafted ugliness.

I had the privilege to stand in the concourse of Brussels Central Station this morning. A beautiful piece of modernism from, I assume, the 1950s – several squadrons of British and American bombers having conspired against the previous building. In its proportions, scale and fabric; a building of stature. A confident building, proud of its purpose and of the railway it represents. Built to last by a company thinking of the long term, not of the next quarter’s balance sheet.

And beautifully free of garishly competing corporate identities.

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


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