Thursday, April 25, 2013

long overjew

Let's laugh at some Jews. I don't mean in a Holocaust-y kind of way, merely at the ridiculousness of some of their more outlandish religious practices.

You'll recall my unseemly chortling over the kosher telephone, the kosher light switch, the kosher lift and the kosher fridge. Well, here's a rather more public display of hilariously unreflective obedience to authority, however barking that authority's rulings may be: a bloke sealing himself inside a plastic bag on a plane.

An over-cautious approach to on-plane hygiene, you might think, or perhaps it was just that he wanted to ensure not a single morsel of airline food would pass his lips. But no, it's nothing as sensible as that; apparently certain ultra-Orthodox Jews are so pure that they will be irredeemably tainted by proximity to a cemetery. And not just any form of proximity, this is strictly vertical proximity we're talking about here. You can sidle up as close as you like in terms of horizontal separation, right up to the boundary fence, and you'll be fine, but even if you're 35,000 feet above it you'll be tainted. Look, I've drawn you a picture.

So the critical thinkers in the audience will be asking the following sorts of questions:
  • What form does this impurifying agent take?
  • How might we detect it?
  • Why does it only spread vertically and not horizontally?
  • Does it go down or only up? What if you were in a Tube train under a cemetery?
  • Why does the plastic bag stop the zombie voodoo but six feet of earth, 35,000 feet of air and the aircraft superstructure doesn't?
  • How would you tell, after the fact, if you or someone you were with had become impure owing to unwitting exposure to cemetery-based tainting? Is there a test?
  • Is there really anything about intra-aircraft impurity security in the ancient scrolls?
What I really love about this is that the answer to the last question is clearly "no", so you (as an orthodox Jew) need to rely on the teaching and interpretation skills of your local rabbi. In this case the rabbi, one Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, came up with the plastic bag solution after some serious thought and just making a whole bunch of stuff up at random, as follows:
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, published a halakhic ruling in the past stipulating that Cohens mustn't fly in this plane because they are prohibited from flying over a cemetery. Later, Rabbi Eliashiv found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.
So basically in the absence of anything in the Torah that says Thou Shalt Not Fly In A Plane Over A Cemetery he just pulled something out of his arse.

There does seem to be a bit of previous for all this stuff in modern Judaism, though. If you've ever encountered the concept of an eruv then you'll be forced to marvel at the ingenuity of modern Jews in subverting the supposedly unquestionable tenets of their whole religion. It is amusing to the non-believer, though, to see the utterly ridiculous contortions the devout will go to to be able to still live and do stuff that they need to do while obeying some squinty-eyed version of the letter of the law of their own particular brand of idiocy, while ignoring the most obvious solution to the problem, which of course is to abandon the idiocy altogether.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the last book I read

Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie.

Virginia "Vinnie" Miner is a fiftysomething American academic on her way over to Britain for a trip conducting research for her area of expertise, children's stories and rhymes. Solitary, something of an Anglophile and well-practised in her travelling routine, she is somewhat vexed to be waylaid by brash Chuck Mumpson, a tourist from Tulsa, who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane over.

Fred Turner is a twentysomething American academic in Britain for a shorter trip conducting research for his area of expertise, the work of John Gay, leaving his wife Ruth ("Roo") back in America and their volatile relationship in an uncertain state.

Don't get the idea that Vinnie and Fred are going to have some sort of tender May to December romance or any of that sort of heartwarming crap, because it's not like that at all. They do know each other, though, and it's through Vinnie that Fred meets - and starts up a relationship with - Rosemary Radley, an actress who may or may not also be a minor aristocrat, but who certainly is archetypally actressy in being what sympathetic people might call "flighty", "free-spirited", "eccentric", etc., but the rest of us would just call "mental".

Meanwhile Vinnie has unexpectedly found herself keeping in touch with Chuck Mumpson, and despite her initial reservations finds herself becoming quite fond of the big lumbering oaf. When Chuck decides to extend his stay (not having much to go back for, his marriage seemingly being in a similar state to Fred's) to do a bit of family tree research in deepest darkest Wiltshire Vinnie even finds herself drawn into having a full-blown affair with him.

But the two academics are on borrowed time in Britain, and will both have to return to America before the start of the autumn term. Rosemary takes the impending separation badly, behaving increasingly eccentrically (and drunkenly) and eventually locking herself in her flat and refusing to see Fred at all. Vinnie's relationship ends in somewhat different circumstances as she learns that Chuck has had a fatal heart attack down in Wiltshire.

And so the two academics arrive at the point of having to return home. Fred returns with a bit of a spring in his step, as he's had word from Roo that she is keen to meet up and hopes for a reconciliation, while Vinnie returns with rather more mixed feelings. Should she be sad at Chuck's death, and maybe feeling some pangs of guilt that their energetic sexing might have played a part in his demise, or happy at having (however briefly) loved and been loved? And after all, she's never been very good at living with people, and she and Chuck were too different for it to have worked out in the long term.

Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 - it therefore becomes the third Pulitzer winner on this list after Independence Day and The Road. It seems in a lot of ways a bit light for such a heavyweight award; Lurie cynically suggests in this 2003 Guardian interview that its being the only one of her books in which she killed off a major character probably swung it for her. Of course readability and the appearance of lightness while tackling such heavy subjects as sex and death is a cherishable skill in itself, Anne Tyler being the obvious point of comparison in terms of female American novelists. Another obvious point of comparison would be with David Lodge; the whole thing of academics criss-crossing the Atlantic and their various romantic entanglements while away from home is very familiar from Changing Places and Small World in particular. Of books in this list Weekend turns on a similar plot device as well.

Foreign Affairs was also made into a made-for-TV movie in 1993, starring some quite high-powered names. I think Brian Dennehy is a pretty good fit for Chuck Mumpson, though I must say I'd pictured Vinnie Miner as looking less like Joanne Woodward and more like Edna Mode from The Incredibles. I'd also pictured Fred Turner as being a bit more square-jawed and orthodox-looking than Eric Stoltz. And yes, all right, less, you know, ginger: there, I said it.

I think this is better than the previous Lurie in this list, The Truth About Lorin Jones, as I wasn't so sure about the slightly broad (though probably affectionate) swipes against feminism there, as well as some plot implausibilities. I think it's probably not quite as good as the only other one I've read, 1974's The War Between The Tates. Maybe you should start with that one.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

good mourning Britain

Well. What to say about Thatch? Or, at least, what to say that hasn't already been said, and since I haven't read absolutely everything that's been written on the subject, as there's rather a lot of it, the answer to that may well turn out to be: nothing whatsoever. But, just to be clear, it's not going to stop me saying it anyway, as I have a number of crackpot theories on the subject.
  • Here's the first one: governments and politicians have rather less ability to influence the mysterious ebb and flow of economics than is popularly believed. And where they do influence it, rather more is down to blind luck than they would like to have you believe. This is a corollary of a wider theory that says: the success or failure of governments and politicians in general, and therefore who gets remembered by history as a success or a failure, is more down to blind luck than you might think. It certainly could be argued that Thatcher was a lucky Prime Minister, for instance, with the huge economic windfall of North Sea oil revenue in the 1980s (in addition to the more calculated cash grab of privatisations and selling off of council houses), and the (in hindsight) opportune timing of the Falklands War enabling her to surf a tide of patriotic fervour to victory in the 1983 general election. She was also fortunate in the self-destruction of the Labour Party in the 1980s which rendered them essentially unelectable until their recovery at the tail-end of the decade under Neil Kinnock.
  • I think it's significant that I am of the generation which grew up and became politically aware during the Thatcher years: I was nine when she became Prime Minister, and twenty when she was ousted. So I have to view my overall view of her (not especially favourable in general, in case you hadn't got that already) through the distorting lens of having been a teenager for most of her tenure and therefore inherently likely to view all authority figures as deserving of my visceral hatred. That is soooo unfair; I hate you.
  • One of the defining characteristics of the conservative authoritarian mindset, of which Thatcher was a prime example, is a general lack of empathy, i.e. the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and try to see things from their point of view. Almost more important is the lack of any desire to try to do so, and even the viewing of such a desire as some sort of sign of moral weakness. One of the effects of this is to make Conservative governments inherently hostile to the recipients of state benefits, since they cannot help but view the need to receive such things as a sign of laziness and moral degeneracy. I say "governments", plural, because of course the current administration has been peddling the same sort of rhetoric, with all the talk about "workers" and "shirkers" and the shameful attempt by George Osborne to co-opt the Philpott case as some sort of argument against state hand-outs. 
  • Crackpot theory number two: I suspect that one of the main reasons that Thatcher was uniquely ill-disposed towards benefit claimants and the underprivileged in general was as a side-effect of her personal circumstances - as a woman in the toxically sexist environments of first science and then subsequently politics (mind you, pretty much everywhere was a toxically sexist environment in the 1950s) it must have taken some pretty remarkable drive and single-mindedness to wade through all the bullshit to get to where she wanted to be. All of which probably meant that she simply couldn't understand people who were unable to get through or over the barriers their life and circumstances had put in front of them. It also made her, despite her iconic status as the first woman Prime Minister of the UK, not much of a friend of feminism. After all, what are all these silly women complaining about? What glass ceiling? I made it, why can't they? Just pull yourself together.
  • As Mark Steel in the Independent points out, all the banging on about her being a "conviction politician" is picking a slightly strange thing to celebrate. Having strongly held convictions is only a good thing if they are right, and even if they are a general refusal to consider counter-arguments or other points of view isn't really very healthy. You know who else had strong convictions? That's right, Hitler.
  • Crackpot theory number three is a corollary of number two: most self-made types, entrepreneurs and the like, are not only instinctively unpalatable conservative authoritarian types who can't understand why everyone can't just do what they did (and - see theory one - fail to realise how much dumb luck was involved), but more generally just really tedious and awful people outside of a business context. This theory was partly confirmed and partly undermined by listening to Hilary Devey (her off Dragon's Den) on Desert Island Discs a few months back - she came across as a nicer person than her pantomime persona on DD would have had you expect, but she scoffed at any notion of there being any barriers to women succeeding in the business world, and her choice of tunes was heroically dreadful.
  • Back to Thatch: the other side of the sexism thing is that I'm quite sure one of the reasons she inspired such visceral dislike during her lifetime and premiership is simply the fact of her being a woman. Clearly the trade union movement would have hated a conservative Prime Minister implacably opposed to their very existence anyway, but the fact that they, almost exclusively men, were being told what to do by A BLOODY WOMAN must have added a bit of extra sting. Some of the post-mortem glee has been a bit too focused on her gender for my taste as well, notably the bid to get Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead to number one. Note, however, that while I think it's a bit of a crass stunt I absolutely oppose the craven antics of the BBC regarding its appearance (or not) on the Radio 1 chart show at the weekend. It's in the charts, it's based on sales, don't editorialise, just play it. Rather magnificently the Daily Mail still managed to spin this spineless cave-in to conservative pressure as a victory for the Trot faction at the BBC; that is some impressive cognitive dissonance right there.
  • While a lot of people did take the opportunity to make a point of celebrating the event of her death, there was a sense in which she'd already got away from us, since she'd had dementia for the last decade or so of her life. There's an interesting parallel with her great ideological soul-mate Ronald Reagan, who had a long downward slide into dementia at the end of his life too. So crackpot theory number four is that the long battle between right-wing ideology and reality eventually destroys the brain
  • The ding-dong over Ding Dong is one aspect of another area of stupidity: the whole ridiculous notion of not speaking ill of the dead. Personally I favour the sort of robust post-mortem assessment provided by the late Christopher Hitchens on the demise of Jerry Falwell: "if you'd given him an enema you could have buried him in a matchbox". 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

meet the wankers

With reference to this BBC News story about "name meshing" as practised by zany modern people getting married I'll just say: I thought of it first! Except that I didn't, because this Telegraph article from November 2012 reckons that people in America had already been doing it for six years. Oh well.

A couple of other things: it's interesting, if you watch the video, to see what a relatively large proportion of the couples doing interesting mashups of their names are same-sex couples. I imagine that there's maybe a sense of being less weighed down by the baggage of "tradition" in these cases, since the whole idea of same-sex unions is pretty recent (and I acknowledge that there's some way to go yet), and therefore a bit more of a sense of freedom to make your own rules. Or it could be pure chance, and that could just be bollocks. Who knows.

The other thing is that the BBC article makes a reference to lovable showbiz couple Chris O'Dowd and Dawn Porter having done this when they got married in August 2012. That's not quite right, as it happens, as while she seems to have adopted the name Dawn O'Porter, apparently seriously, he remains resolutely Chris O'Dowd, so it's not really a very good example. If they were following the rules (inasmuch as there are any) it really ought to be something like O'Dorter or O'Dowter anyway, the general convention being roughly half of each of the original names plus whatever mucking about with the bit in the middle you need to do to make it pleasing/pronounceable/amusing.

Clearly these rules can lead to some amusing imaginary celebrity pairings. I'll start you off with rock'n'roll pioneer Carl Perkins (whose 81st birthday it would have been today, had he not died in 1998) and tennis star Chris Evert becoming Carl and Chris Pervert, and stylist Gok Wan and actress Zoe Lucker becoming Gok and Zoe Wanker. No doubt you can make up your own.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

the last book I read

A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon.

Harry is a concert pianist, travelling round the world knocking out a bit of the old Schubert, Rachmaninoff and the like, and negotiating the upcoming recording of a CD of his work. He's in a nice safe relationship with an Englishman, Bernard, and still very close to his parents and his younger brother Freddy. The only cloud on the horizon is his mother's polite disapproval of his gay lifestyle, not a big enough problems to sour their relationship, but a source of some tension nonetheless.

At least, that's the only cloud on the horizon until Harry's mother is taken ill on a family trip to Paris and medical investigations reveal that she has cancer - almost certainly some form of bowel cancer, though the book is fairly coy about the details. The initial prognosis is encouraging, and Harry continues his nomadic lifestyle, flitting back and forth across the Atlantic between his various musical engagements in Europe, Bernard in London and his mother in New York.

Eventually, though, it becomes clearer that the first round of chemotherapy has not had the effect that everyone had hoped, and that the prospects are a bit darker than had been thought. At this point Harry ends his (always fairly half-hearted) relationship with Bernard, moves out of his flat and returns to New York to base himself there. As his mother's treatment continues and her condition deteriorates, Harry throws himself into the new York gay scene and has various fleeting hedonistic encounters, as well as branching out into boy-on-girl action for a brief but intense relationship with his old friend Helen, the demise of which inevitably results in a cooling of their friendship.

Harry's mother has planned ahead for the time when the general grimness of prognosis and the pain and indignity of day-to-day existence become too much to bear, and has been stashing away sleeping pills in readiness for a life-ending overdose while she's still capable of administering it herself. Eventually she decides that the time has come and summons her husband and two sons to her bedside for a few final words of love and wisdom - in Harry's case this includes apologising for her earlier suggestion that it was the stress caused by his lifestyle that brought the cancer on in the first place. Then, having made her peace, she scarfs down a lethal dose of pills and - a few hours later - dies.

And that's it, really. The first thing to say is that this, Solomon's only novel, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical account of the death of his own mother Carolyn (as far as I can recall the mother in the novel is never named). The second thing to say is that it's all very beautifully written. The third thing to say is that it's very difficult to find fault with a work clearly wrenched from some very personal grief and anguish (a bit like this one, say), but that I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.

It is perhaps fair to say that a set-up involving a clearly very rich and privileged family - there's no suggestion that Harry's piano-playing career, as lucrative as it may be, is funding any of the family's New York flats or European holidays, they're evidently very wealthy entirely separately from that - is going to find that the bar is set a little higher in terms of eliciting sympathy for the characters. I mean, getting cancer, or even having a much-beloved mother get cancer, is a legitimate tragedy, of course, regardless of your social and financial circumstances, but agonising about what colour peonies to order for a party or whether to play the Schubert or the Scarlatti at your CD recording session are not concerns that are going to resonate that much with Joe Average.

The slightly prissy and fastidious tone is a problem as well, mainly because it had me mentally reading the book in the voice of David Sedaris, who is a prize-winning humorist and all but who I've always found fairly irritating. A more reasonable criticism might be that the refusal to go into any of the icky detail of either Harry's sexual adventurings or his mother's illness (which given its nature must have been intermittently messy and embarrassing) make it hard to engage with the characters, particularly as the mother is painted as improbably saintly anyway, even in the face of imminent death.

It's hard to say how much of this is a by-product of reading the book immediately after No Country For Old Men, a book not shy at all about icky details, and one whose tone is so stark and gruff that if it were any starker and gruffer would just be a series of guttural grunts and barks. The contrast in tone and subject matter is considerable, which is obviously not A Stone Boat's fault, but there it is; I don't make the rules.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

you couldn't make it up

More interesting deconstruction, reconstruction and redecoration work going on at Halibut Towers at the moment, this time in our downstairs back bathroom. To distract me from the depressing gurgling sound of my bank account being steadily emptied I've grabbed a couple of bits of old newspaper that were acting as makeshift packing and insulation above the old ceiling, and that were revealed this week as the guys doing the work on the bathroom had to rip the ceiling out to move some water pipes and wiring around.

It's instructive to compare the newspaper I found, which is a copy of the Newport Argus from September 1987, with the January 1956 South Wales Argus I found in the loft just over a year ago. Those conservative authoritarian types who subscribe to the (barking) view that the 1950s was some sort of golden age - where you could leave your front door unlocked and the local bobby would doff his hat to you from his bike and then send you on your way with a cheery clip round the ear and everyone stood up for the National Anthem when BBC1 closed down for the night - will find much to support that view by comparing the headlines from the two papers.

So in 1956 we've got "Bigger grant for Newport", "First MCC pair put on 56 runs" and "Pastor dies suddenly at Blaenavon", while in 1987 we've got "Drug dealer jailed for 15 months", "Store theft woman sent to prison", "Teenage burglars get youth custody" and "Youth stole crucifix". They didn't even have "teenagers" back in 1956, let alone "youths".

And you know how lovable doe-eyed children turn into surly feral "youths" and "teenagers" who will knife you up for your meagre pension as soon as look at you - that's right, by not having SOME RUDDY SENSE BIRCHED INTO THEM at a young age, preferably followed by a short sharp dose of NATIONAL RUDDY SERVICE. It looks like Richard Littlejohn was right after all and we really are GOING TO HELL IN A RUDDY HANDCART. And that was a newspaper from over 25 years ago! Frankly I'd be surprised if you could step outside your front door in the general Newport area these days without some 7-year-old crack fiend disembowelling you with a Stanley knife, raping your dead eye sockets and making a crudely-fashioned flute out of your femur. Mind how you go.