Archive for November, 2008

Don’t Get Fooled Again

November 30, 2008

scepticprimer1If you’re new to the explosion in investigative scepticism then Richard Wilson’s book on bullshit past and present serves as an excellent primer. You’ll find excellent chapters on the AIDS denial epidemic that’s killing Africa, the rise and fall of the Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving, the socially acceptable lunacy of alternative medicine. For critics like Dan Hind who feel that sceptics take on too soft targets, there are savage explorations of America’s internment policies, the cover-up of the link between smoking and cancer and the profligate corruption of the Enron corporation.

But there are also revelations for the seasoned sceptic. Wilson has a fascinating chapter on Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s pet agronomist who denounced Darwinism as ‘bourgeois’ (so much for the rational atheist superstate) and claimed that ‘wheat could be trained to thrive in a cold climate by being soaked in freezing water’. There’s also the asbestos charlatan John Bridle, who claimed for years and despite massive evidence to the contrary that white asbestos was harmless: his assertions were plugged throughout the 2000s by the ludicrous Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker.

As Wilson points out, we must now be sceptical even of sceptics: deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica and climate change and 9/11 and 7/7. These are people who use the language of evidence and objectivity in a scramble for the moral high ground. Yet their florid and bizarre claims are only ever backed up with plaintive cries of ‘Open your mind’ or ‘How do we know?’ The pitiful trajectory of David Shayler will serve for all these cases: a former MI5 agent jailed for exposing very real conspiracies, Shayler was reduced to babbling in a Somerset town hall that he was ‘God incarnated as spirit and man… Journalists are asked to arrive with an open mind.’

Wilson draws a firm line between scepticism and denial in a paragraph that should be spraypainted in ten-foot letters on the houses of every smug 9/11 lunatic and apologist for fascism:

Sceptics form their beliefs on the basis of concrete facts, and evaluate each piece of evidence on its own merits. Denialists select their facts on the basis of their pre-existing beliefs, and reject evidence that they dislike, or find inconvenient.

There’s so much gold in Wilson’s book it’s hard to pick out specific examples. Wilson explains in a wonderful aside that the brain regenerates itself every seven years – meaning in effect that you will be a completely different person by November 30 2015. He shatters the postmodern paradigm of a Western imperial Enlightenment forced upon complaining natives by discussing the developing world’s substantial contributions to science.

But somehow Wilson loses his nerve in his chapter on the millennial con-trick of religion. He doesn’t defend its claims about the world (although there was a time when religious apologists did exactly that) rather, he approves of faith as ‘wishful thinking, strategically deployed.’ Theism is ‘a decision to take on, in the apparent absence of compelling evidence either for or against, a set of beliefs that cheer some people up.’ All very comforting, but this is just the Straussianism of the neoconservatives that Wilson rails against in his chapters on Iraq. Only Strauss advocated delusion as a means of keeping the masses under control, rather than a positive lifestyle choice.

‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Wilson chuckles, ‘then most recreational users I know seem to manage their habit fairly comfortably.’ There’s nothing wrong with lying to yourself to be happy, we all do that from time to time, but there’s something shitty and depressing about the argument that we need to keep these noble lies around to prevent us from killing ourselves. It’s not true, in any case, and for the life of me I don’t understand why advocates of this fashionable pessimism ignore the very real sources of comfort and transcendence in our mortal realm: the appreciation of art and creativity and sport, starting a family, falling in love (which is the defining transcendence for most people).

Wilson also says that ‘It’s not so much faith in God that is the problem – it’s faith in human beings.’ Nope: humanity is more worthy of worship than anything. Ideas, as Wilson has shown in his otherwise essential book, are fair game.

Quayle Laid Low

November 29, 2008

This piece of fiction – it’s another Rebecca Quayle story – has been published on Parasitic.

Outside the academy’s lustrous gates

November 28, 2008

jghI’ve just received the heartening news that my friend and comrade John G Hall has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. As you can see it’s fairly prestigious with past nominees including Raymond Carver, John Irving and Rick Moody.

If you don’t know John he’s a Manchester poet and editor of radical poetry magazine Citizen 32. He does free poetry workshops in the Cornerhouse and Fuel and hosts popular spoken word nights in which the bar is always rammed with Tony Walsh’s rare breed, the Lesser Spotted Non-Poet Audience Member. Most of this is done with absolutely no financial support from Arts Council North West or any other public body.

I’ve known him for several years, the bulk of that time spent drinking in the Cornerhouse – our normal table on the top floor, me with a Heineken, him with a Corona, discussing and arguing into the night.

A middle-aged man with the fire of a twenty-year-old, John has a wealth of fascinating information about classic and contemporary poetry, particularly the Beats, as well as loads of hilarious and shocking stories about the labour movement in the 1980s. I remember thinking that he would make a fine lecturer in poetry or creative writing. But as John is a working-class trade unionist from Wythenshawe, this was never going to happen and despite his talent I don’t think John will ever be accepted by the mediocrities that govern the arts in this country. The establishment has already got its token working-class Northerner and it’s Ian McMillan.

But he’s always enjoyed success in the States and is a close friend of surviving Beat poets George Wallace and Diane di Prima. I’m always going on at him to move to San Francisco but the silly bastard is scared of long-haul flights.

I can think of no better living poet than John G Hall and I’d love to see him get the recognition he deserves. I want to close with George Wallace’s description of the man and his works.

In these early days of the 21st century; in these days of Cookie Cutter MFAs, McPoems and MTV-style performance poseurs; in these sad, terrible wondrous days, it is reassuring to read the poetry of John Hall, writings that remind us that the generative power of poetry comes not from the formalists and the faux counter-culturalists inside the academy, but from the people standing outside the academy’s lustrous gates.

Woolas Boolas

November 27, 2008

woolasMost of you will be familiar with George Orwell’s classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ in which the great man argued that political leaders twist words into their opposite meaning. Thus:

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Phil Woolas is the kind of politician who is routinely described as ‘brave’ and ‘outspoken’. But as Orwell might point out, these words have different meanings in the language of the political class than they do in general usage.

For example, ‘outspoken’ in political language means: ‘Someone prepared to talk ill-informed bullshit, in public, without embarrassment and often looking directly into reporter’s eyes.’ 

And ‘brave’ as applied to a politician doesn’t mean bravery as you and I would use the term: i.e. to describe someone who fought in Afghanistan, or someone who intervened against a mugger or bully. Bravery in political language is always used to describe a comfortably-off politician who will denounce the weak and vulnerable and those who can’t answer back.

This is Woolas on immigration:

Immigration minister Phil Woolas has attacked lawyers and charities working on behalf of asylum seekers, accusing them of undermining the law and ‘playing the system’. In an interview with the Guardian, Woolas described the legal professionals and NGO workers as ‘an industry’, and said most asylum seekers were not fleeing persecution but were economic migrants.

Are we really back to the old 1990s binary thinking of ‘asylum seekers’ versus ‘economic migrants’? Perhaps Woolas hasn’t considered that economic migrants are good for the market. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, so far economic migration has:

a) pushed up economic growth, allowing the Treasury to revise its projections of future performance upwards by a quarter of a percent,

b) reduced labour costs, thereby helping to keep a lid on the inflation rate,

c) had no appreciable impact on the employment prospects of British workers – migrant workers have, for the most part, been filling gaps in the UK labour market rather than displacing British workers because they’re doing the jobs that British workers either don’t want or don’t have the skills to do, and

d) had no negative impact on the public finances. In fact migrant workers are net contributors to both the British economy and to the public purse. They pay their taxes, like everyone else. They contribute to the local economy in the area they live, by spending some of their earnings in local shops and on renting accommodation – and, of course, to the profitability of their employer. And they take less out the system than UK workers, because they have fewer rights in terms of access to welfare benefits, social housing and some other public services and have much less need of those services because, in general, they have fewer dependants and also tend to younger and therefore less likely to require the services of the NHS than Britain’s ageing population.

As Unity (from whose site the report can be read) has it, we’re in a win-win situation.

Woolas denies an affinity with Enoch Powell, claiming that: ‘Enoch Powell was trying to divide this country. I’m trying to heal this country by allowing us to have a mature debate on immigration.’ Well, no one’s against debating immigration – but I think that Enoch had his own ideas of what national unity would look like.

But Woolas does concede that there are some genuine asylum seekers:

He recounted how another asylum seeker visited his constituency office in Oldham: ‘One lady showed me the scars on her thighs from where the soldiers had raped her, so I know,’ said Woolas, ‘but I cannot take a decision on that lady’s behalf if I am fogged by cases that are misusing the law.’

Oh, but Phil, don’t be taken in – that woman could have scarred her own legs to take advantage of Britain’s bloated welfare system.

In one case, Woolas said, an asylum seeker had won the right to stay after going through six layers of appeal. ‘That person has no right to be in this country but I’m sure that there is an industry out there [with] a vested interest.’

Why would someone want to get into this country so badly that they would appeal six times? Hmmm…

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the appeals process was a vital safety net for asylum seekers who are ‘criminalised’ on arriving in Britain. ‘Having your asylum claim rejected does not make you an economic migrant. For some nationalities, such as Eritreans and Somalis, almost half of refused asylum seekers have their cases upheld on appeal. These are people who would be in danger of persecution such as murder, torture or rape if sent back to the repressive regimes they are fleeing.’

Come back, Liam Byrne: all is forgiven.

The living hell of Mary Kenny

November 26, 2008

atheist-busYou may recall that Mary Kenny took exception to the atheist bus slogan displayed in this post. This is what she said in the Guardian:

Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where’s the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: ‘Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun.’ You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.

Having realised that she has tapped into a rich comic vein here, Kenny has recycled the ‘boring old atheists’ routine in the Independent.

I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters. Read GK Chesterton’s great poem ‘The Ballad of the Sad Athiest’. It perfectly describes this kind of dreary and austere puritan.

Can you see why Kenny gets such aggressive email? I mean this is low criticism. Attack my character, my work, my family, my reputation… but when you slander my commitment to having fun, then really, please, come on. No need for that…

Mary, you should come down the Hyde Park Social with Christopher ‘The Hitch’ Hitchens, Richard ‘Richie’ Dawkins and ‘Mad’ Sam Harris. We’ll see about joie-de-vivre. First round of Sambucas is on me.

Kenny is irritated by the amount the bus campaign raised:

It says something about the affluence of Guardian readers that, in a time of recession, they can contribute £90,000 to a bus campaign dissing the notion of God.

Of course, if the campaign had raised a smaller amount, this would have proved its irrelevance in proudly Christian Britain.

When the atheist bus appears in Belfast, it is far more likely to unite Catholics and Protestants in their common Christian rejection of its message.

Well, we shall see.

But there’s a time when the joking has to stop:

I am convinced that this injection of atheism into the culture is directly responsible for the increase in drug-abuse, in crime and, most specifically, in the five-fold increase in suicide that we have seen in these islands over the last 25 years.

A life without a spiritual sense of purpose, or the moral parameters set by the Ten Commandments — is a living hell.

Troubled and immature young persons, given a nihilistic message that there is no meaning to life — that we are just reasonably clever animals who evolved from a set of molluscs, quite by chance — are easily driven down the road to despair.

Now who’s the miserable blighter? Even a cold-hearted atheist like me can appreciate that life is much better in 2008 than in 1983. Any evidence for this epidemic in drug abuse, crime and suicide? Or, for that matter, Kenny’s dismissal of evolution? Any consideration that people might find more comfort and joy in the knowledge that we only have one life than the religious assertion that life is merely a waiting room for death?

But then Kenny really gets nasty.

Britain has been hugely shaken, over the last month, by the public tragedy of ‘Baby P’, and the tormented infant’s young life has been taken as an all-too-accurate indictment of an aspect of British life today.

That is a life without moral parameters; in which fathers walk away from their children because the state provides all welfare; in which relationships are casual, and a variety boyfriends and serial stepfathers move in; in which mothers spend the day smoking dope, drinking vodka and cruising for sex on the internet, while their children die with broken backs — among filth and excrement, dead mice and pet snakes.

Think about what Kenny’s saying here. Read it again. First off: she is using a dead toddler to make a sectarian point in the faith/secularism debate. Secondly, she’s taken the responsibility for this horrific crime away from the perpetrators – from the people who killed Baby P, from the people on the estate who knew what was going on but said nothing, from the social workers and doctors who saw the child with a broken spine but did nothing.

And you thought it was the secular left who downplayed personal responsibility. Now Kenny is ventriloquising for child murderers: Your Honour, it’s all society’s fault. Or Richard Dawkins’s fault. Pretty fucking low.

(Thanks to Ophelia, who always gets there first.)

Forever delayed

November 25, 2008

So Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers has been declared legally dead. I’m saddened at this but understand it’s probably the right decision. This erudite and talented musician left his car near the Severn Bridge in 1995 and hasn’t been seen since.

I grew up a hardcore Manics fan and have the self-inflicted scars to prove it. One of the best gigs I saw was the Manics, post-Richey, at the Manchester Nynex (is it still the Nynex?) I liked to think that Richey had holed himself up in a cottage somewhere with a load of books. That’s because I think suicide is a pointless and destructive act, both for the person in question and for their loved ones. Certainly there is a loss of potential – I think that Richey could have emerged as a first-rate poet or novelist when the Manics finally broke up. Not to mention the peace and fulfillment he would have almost certainly found in the end.

I am sorry that Richey was not around to share in the success the band finally enjoyed (or to advise them against some of the sillier stunts – what the fuck was that Cuba gig about?) Still, this sick and tormented man leaves behind a body of work that shames most living and dead musicians. As Nicky Wire said, he was the greatest lyricist of his generation.


Is it politically irresponsible…

November 25, 2008

…to change my vote on Manchester’s proposed congestion charge from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ just because I see from 8 Out of 10 Cats that Jason Manford is against it?

Update: Well, we’re not getting it now. There’s a fantastic post on Lenin’s Tomb (naturally, not by ‘Lenin’) explaining why Manchester made the right choice.

The Letters of Noel Coward

November 24, 2008

coward1The Bright Young Things are just as determined to be bright as were their fathers and mothers; parapets are still walked at midnight it seems, and dinner-jacketed young men are still falling or being pushed into swimming pools or the river to round off successful parties.

Everyone has an idea, or a stereotype, of what Noel Coward was; to me he conjures up a vision of The Fast Show’s 13th Duke of Wybourne: ‘With my reputation… what were they thinking of?’ Despite Saki, others will think of all pre-1960s gay men as repressed, hunted, miserable creatures: supporters of the 1967 legislation tended to argue ‘that homosexuals were pitiful and in need of Christian compassion.’ But like Saki, Coward was happy and active and according to Rebecca West, conducted his sex life with ‘impeccable dignity’.

Still others see Coward as a ‘trilling ferret’ which is true but only a surface truth, for in his collection of letters Barry Day reveals Coward to be, like many relentless extroverts, a man of deep steel.

The Letters of Noel Coward is, as Martin Amis would say, ‘the size of a Harlem boombox,’ but despite knowing almost nothing about Coward or drama I found the collection engaging and entertaining. Day puts the letters in context, organises them thematically, concentrating on each of Coward’s innumerable relationships in turn. He includes biographical notes, photographs and letters to Coward as well as from him. The decoration makes for an easy, slippery read.

There’s some particularly good stuff in the late fifties and early sixties when Coward is confronted by John Osborne and the Look Back in Anger generation: angry young men with plays of fiery realism that stood in opposition to Coward’s witty, intricate and apolitical comedies. In a 1961 article for the Sunday Times Coward declared that the theatre was ‘a temple of dreams’ and not ‘a scruffy, illiterate drill-hall serving as a temporary soap-box for propaganda.’ He went on to say this:

It is dull to write incessantly about tramps and prostitutes as it is to write incessantly about dukes and duchesses and even suburban maters and paters, and it is bigoted and stupid to believe that tramps and prostitutes and under-privileged housewives frying onions and using ironing boards are automatically the salt of the earth and that nobody else is worth bothering about.

You can see his point, but Coward’s rage is still that of a dying generation as it is succeeded by another.

Yet for all the deep steel, The Letters of Noel Coward is a hilarious book that showcase the subject’s talent for wicked invention. Coward delighted in the telegraph form, using it to criticise his actors (‘TENOR INCAPABLE OF SPEECH EVEN IN ITALIAN’), or to congratulate his friend Gertie Laurence on her engagement (‘HOORAY HOORAY AT LAST YOU ARE DEFLOWERED’). Probably the best and most revealing anecdote is of Coward trying to sign a telegram as the Mayor of New York:

Being fond of signing both his letters and cables with fanciful names, he dictated as his signature ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’

There was a moment of outraged silence on the line. Then…

‘Are you really Mayor La Guardia?’


‘Then you can’t sign it ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’ What is your real name?’

‘Noel Coward.’

‘Are you really Noel Coward?’


‘Then you may sign it ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’

Stories of resistance

November 23, 2008

report3Recently the Centre for Social Cohesion released a report, Victims of Intimidation: Freedom of Speech within Europe’s Muslim Communities (pdf) a series of profiles of Muslim and ex-Muslim politicians, writers and artists. All of them have been persecuted and threatened by religious fundamentalists.

The researchers don’t judge or theorise: they take a step back and let the activists do the talking. You may not agree with what these activists have to say, you may think the Centre for Social Cohesion is a Zionist/neocon front but it can’t be denied that the stories of the men and women profiled are studies in courage and dissidence.

Mohammed Anwar Sheikh was an Indian immigrant to Britain whose critical work on Islam earned the inevitable death threats from conservative clerics. As a young man he was a devout Muslim and in 1947 he killed three Sikhs during the riots that accompanied Partition. The murders would haunt him his whole life:

If it had not been for my fanaticism, engendered by the Islamic traditions those people might have been alive even today. And I might not have felt the guilt which I still do.

Before his death, living as a writer in Britain, he said this:

Britain is my home and unless you do something about Muslim fundamentalism there is going to be a huge fifth column in our midst. England must wake up. You [the British] spent hundreds of years getting Christian fundamentalism out of this country. Don’t let fundamentalism come back.

Now I’ve never believed in the ‘Eurabia’ conspiracy theory (which depends on the racist myth that all Muslims are fundamentalist by nature) but I do agree with Sheikh that Britain has not learned the lessons from its dark centuries of medieval Christianity. We’re faced by a resurgent fundamentalism: not just Christian or Islamic but ecumenical.

It reminded me of this post from Iranian immigrant Azarmehr, writing about the Channel 4 Undercover Mosque programme:

To think that secular pro-democracy activists, like Arash, who stood up to theocracy in Iran are locked up in Britain’s detention centres waiting for deportation, while Saudi sponsored preachers of hate like Um-Saleem and others, shown in the documentary, are free to enter this country and spread their gospel of hate and destruction is beyond the comprehension of any sane person.

Best library ever?

November 21, 2008

I’m in cognitive behavioural therapy at the moment – or CBT boot camp as I’m coming to think of it. Don’t get me wrong, the therapist is fantastic, but the therapy itself is extremely intense. It’s not counselling. It’s a cold shower. You really delve, and the sessions can leave me tense and tearful. And there’s even homework. My life is like Martin Millar’s at the moment – except my therapist is much better than his.

Another good thing is that CBT has forced me out of my comfort zone. Walking to the clinic is always scary, but it’s getting less scary with each passing week. And on the way back I can go to the library – I haven’t been able to go there for months and the fines have piled up. The first time I attempted the journey, a couple of weeks back, it was fairly shaky – I was dizzy and disorientated, couldn’t concentrate on the book titles and had to leave after ten minutes.

The second attempt, however, I chose a book by Scarlett Thomas and got it to the counter. The guy serving commented on the book and recommended another. We rummaged around for a bit until he found the book he’d recommended and I got that one out as well. Seeing that I had no shoulderbag, he got a bag from behind the counter and gave it to me – not a flimsy plastic carrier but a good, strong totebag, which he said I could keep.

I was astonished by the high level of customer service here. In my experience it’s rare to find librarians who enjoy books. Most of them see books as priceless Ming pottery that must be handled with knifeedge care and attention (if at all) and yet there is no love for books in their attitude; they might as well be cans of beans. In their view, the library system would work perfectly well without members of the public coming in to borrow books and they generally treat you as if you’re a tramp swinging a bottle of White Ace in their back garden.

I said this to the Boardwalk library guy and we chatted for a bit and I even shook the guy’s hand. It’s rare to get good customer service these days, in the time of helplines that aren’t and support agencies that don’t.

And then I walked back along the Boardwalk.