31 March 2006


The papers are full of stories about drunken yobs running riot in the streets of Britain, but while I agree it sounds awful, and while there are definitely parts of town that I make a point of avoiding, I haven't personally had many bad experiences. And I spend a good deal of time down in Soho and the West End, two of the locations supposedly most overrun by said yobbos.

But tonight I was standing in Charing Cross Road talking to my friend Stefan, who manages a bar there when an altercation broke out at one of tables outside a gay pub two doors down (yes, people are sitting outside on the pavement as if this were the Mediterranean, even if it's barely 10C/50F - it's a British thing, and if it were even a couple degrees warmer, they'd be stripping down to shorts and halter tops). A few sharp words, and suddenly a gang of young men came tearing in like a wolf pack, knocking over tables and kicking and punching one hapless gay boy. I saw a glint of light reflected in a bottle as it came crashing down on the side of his head and he went staggering to the ground as the gang ran off laughing and shouting, "You fucking poof!"

Stefan is a huge man, probably twice my size, and he was flanked by two bouncers who are of a similar build, but all of them watched the attack dispassionately, doing nothing to interfere. The bouncer from the pub where it had happened came over to take a look at the young lad, now bleeding profusely as he wobbily tried to get on his feet. "It's none of my business, mate," said Stefan, and before I could say, "Yeah, but you could have helped out, you could have chased that whole gang off yourself," he added, "We used to get involved, try to sort things out, but it goes on every night, the same sort of thing. Anyway, what did that kid expect, saying 'crackhead' to a gang of schwarzes?"

The attackers were dark-skinned, possibly Middle Eastern, possibly Asian - I hadn't noticed, because it had all happened so fast. Stefan is Maori, and dark-skinned enough that someone might refer to him as a schwarz, too (though I wouldn't recommend it). In fact, we'd been having an in-depth discussion about Maori and aboriginal matters (he lived in Queensland for a while before coming to England), which is why I hadn't really noticed the trouble brewing. Apparently the victim had been taunting his attackers, calling them crackheads and dustheads (as in angel dust, something I haven't heard mentioned since my California days). Not a wise move, considering there were five of them and one of him.

Viewed in that light, it was harder to be sympathetic toward him, or angry toward his attackers, even if I still wished a couple of policemen could have suddenly emerged from the shadows and shot them all dead (the attackers, that is; a glassing was punishment enough for the mouthy kid). Unfortunately, English cops don't carry guns, and like cops everywhere, are seldom around when you need them.

This all happened at about 11 pm; I had been considering staying out and maybe going to a club or something, but suddenly that no longer seemed like such a good idea. Actually, I'd never been all that serious about it anyway; I'd cut out an ad that would have got me in free before midnight, but by most midnights, I'm usually running out of energy for club-type shenanigans and queueing on rainy corners at 3 am in hopes that a night bus might come along sometime before morning. Answering email and doing a bit of blogging felt like the far more sensible option. Yeah, yeah, I know I'm getting old...


As I've noted here before, I don't always enjoy waxing all fulminatory about this world's seemingly limitless supply of outrages, indignities, injustices, and offences to common sense and good taste. And I can't even use the "It's a tough job but someone has to do it" excuse, since both the blogosphere and talk radio are absolutely replete with commentators at least as outraged and grumpy as I could ever hope to be. So I have to reluctantly conclude that there's at least a part of me that rather likes getting my knickers in a twist.

What I don't like is the aftereffects: I stay up late at night composing diatribes, denouncing people, places, things and situations, citing examples, making analogies and then torturing them within an inch of their lives, and when I've finally produced a screed of sufficient bile and pushed the "publish" button, I walk away wondering, "What was that all about?" Especially since half the time I was just flailing away at some boring and thoroughly predictable topic like French people, Islamofascists, criminals, corrupt and incompetent politicians, lousy public transport and the weather.

Geez, now that I think of it, that covers considerably more than half of my output. In fact, if I were one of my readers, I might be on the verge of asking for my money back. So while I don't think I can totally abandon my complaints and criticisms - all jokes aside, the threat posed by Islamofascism is pretty serious stuff - I'm going to try to keep them a bit more condensed, and leave more room for other, possibly more upbeat subjects. Yeah, I know, sounds implausible, but I'll give it a go.

So, one-paragraph rant on recent evils: Islamists claim Tony Blair is "Islamophobic" because he points out that their desire to impose a totalitarian way of life on the world is at odds with the traditions of liberal democracy. They're wrong, he's right. John Prescott, the buffoonish yet occasionally oddly endearing Deputy Prime Minister, wants to tear down a couple hundred thousand perfectly good terrace houses and replace them with ugly new houses, much as his soulless predecessors did in the 60s and 70s, wreaking more havoc on British cities than four years of German bombers. He's being taken to court about it; let's hope he loses. Banksy, the articulate but obnoxious graffiti "artist," argues that painting over graffiti in preparation for Melbourne's Commonwealth Games represents a form of cultural whitewash that might be repeated in London as the 2012 Olympics approach. He's wrong about graffiti, wrong about Mel-boring (as Sydneysiders love to call it), but let's hope he's right about London. A Guardian letter-writer explains as well as I could why Banksy's retro-hippie/anarchist philosophy is a pile of crap. Walking back from Portobello this morning, I strolled past the Mau-Mau Bar and mused, for at least the hundredth time, why it's "cool" to name a club after one gang of racist murderers and not another. I mean, why no "KKK Bar"? Similarly, why is there a bar named after the KGB and not after the SS? Why are Guevara and Mao countercultural icons and not Goebbels or Hitler? And one last note on the subject of bars: there's one in my street that advertises that it "takes you back to London in the swinging 60s, where you can re-enact your favourite scene from Withnail And I." Just what do they mean, I wonder? That the bar is grotty, dirty, smelly, and populated by self-indulgent and self-centred prats? I've never cared to step inside to investigate, but as it happens, I used to frequent that same bar, in a different incarnation, during the 1970s. Which, as anyone knows, were merely a bulbous canker on the backside of the 1960s. It was grotty, dirty, smelly and populated by self-indulgent and self-centred prats. Plus que ca change...

Okay, I cheated; that wasn't a proper paragraph, but at least I tried. It's the weekend now, and I'm off: football at Craven Cottage tomorrow as we host Portsmouth, then to Bristol to meet up with Danny and Bella in preparation for the Sunday reconvening of the West Country Walking Society, this time in Swanage, Dorset. The weather promises to be suitably foul.

30 March 2006

Fear And Loathing At The Border

There's been an abundance of dishonesty and hysteria from both sides on the issue of illegal immigration, but I think the worst offenders by far come from the lefty, identity politics crowd, who've somehow managed to turn a legitimate debate over the nature and extent of immigration - something every country on earth engages in - into the latest incarnation of Nazi Germany and its death camps.

Among the worst offenders is one Juan Santos who contributed this diatribe as well as this one. Both are shameful examples of the worst sort of inflammatory rhetoric, so obsessed with the author's skewed view of racial politics that they end up being examples of the racism he claims to be combatting. Here's a sample of his rhetorical technique:
As I write, the US Senate is debating legislation that would make migrant peoples a felonized, legally scapegoated racial and cultural under-caste, a move with deeply dangerous implications for us all. Maybe it wasn't such a lie, what the German people said after Hitler -- "we didn't know."
Once Hitler has been introduced, it's not long before:
The color of our skin will mark us as suspects, as felons, as threats to "the homeland." Any cop will be free to stop us at any time, under any pretext, to check -- not for dope -- but for our "papers."

At first it won't seem like much. Quietly, at first, a few of us will begin to disappear, just like some 60 thousand immigrants of Muslim and Arabic descent have disappeared since the onset of the Patriot Act; without a word. Like them, we will become targets of the so-called "war on terror."

First it will be dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. Mothers will disappear walking to the corner store. Fathers will never come home from work. Children will be left behind, sobbing in apartments empty of food, warmth, money and life. The neighbors will be afraid. The tens of thousands could readily become millions.
Hang on here; this is the United States of America we're talking about here, right? The same USA where nearly 36 million Latinos live? The same USA where tens of millions of Latinos have been allowed to immigrate, both legally and illegally, where Latinos have come to dominate whole cities and portions of states, both numerically and politically? And suddenly, according to the egregious Mr Santos, we're going to do this dramatic turnabout and start hauling them all - 12% of the nation's population - off to concentration camps?

If Mr Santos could allow himself to be troubled for just an instant by either honesty or reality, he might acknowledge that the measure being debated in Congress has absolutely nothing to do with the great majority of Latinos in the USA, those who are either US citizens or legal immigrants. The proposal - which will never pass anyway - merely re-states the obvious: that if you entered the United States illegally, you are, um, guilty of a crime. Nearly every country in the world has some variation of this law; the few that don't are countries that hardly anybody would want to live in.

In case I need to say it still more clearly: this proposed law has nothing to do with race and everything to do with behaviour. People from every race and culture on the planet are routinely welcomed into the United States as legal immigrants. The USA has, with only occasional exceptions, consistently had one of the most generous immigration policies of any country on earth.

But for the likes of Santos, that's not enough. The United States must abandon any efforts whatsoever to have a controlled immigration policy and simply open up the borders to any and all who want to come across. No middle ground: it's either that or Nazi death camp time.

Todd Chretien is another unbalanced agitator (sounds like a washing machine problem, doesn't it) who's mining a similar vein of racial paranoia. His contribution is entitled "The Racist War On Immigrants" and subtitled "Jim Crow Goes Fishing." As the titles suggest, he leaves Mr Hitler out of it in favour of making analogies to segregation in the Deep South; ironically, nearly every state in the supposedly racist South has a large and growing population of Latino immigrants who, the last I heard, are drinking from the same fountains, using the same bathrooms, and working at the same jobs as anyone else.

Just like Santos, Chretien stealthily and sleazily glosses over the fact that we are not talking about immigrants nor about members of a racial minority; the issue at hand is simply illegal immigrants. Of course in Chretien's PC world there is no such thing as "illegal immigrants," only "undocumented workers." As if there were no such thing as an "undocumented" person who doesn't have a job, or an "undocumented" person who is a professional criminal or an "undocumented" person who is living on welfare. No, every last one of them is perfectly virtuous, honest, hard-working, and is actually doing the American people a favour by being here. You almost have to wonder why, if every single immigrant they send north is such a boon to civilisation, the governments and economies of Mexico and other Central and South American countries are consistently in such a mess.

To introduce some balance here, something Santos or Chretien could never be accused of, it's my opinion that most Latino immigrants have been an asset to the USA, that most of them do work hard and enrich the communities where they settle, both culturally and economically. And I'm not just saying that because I like burritos and mariachi music. Nearly every Latino person I've known has been wonderful. My business and musical partner for many years was half Latino; so was one of the great loves of my life. But lest this veer into "Some of my best friends..." territory, my point is that while my experience with Latinos has largely been excellent, that's not the sort of anecdotal evidence on which a sane country makes social or immigration policy.

Nor is it the approach embraced by demagogic, vote-seeking politicians or a Catholic Church hungry for new blood. That old blowhard Ted Kennedy has been making impassioned speeches comparing the current wave of illegal immigration to the vast numbers of European immigrants who flooded in at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Once again, though, those were largely legal immigrants, and America at the time had a great deal more room. Also, we weren't caught in the throes of a pernicious multiculturalism; immigrants were expected to - and did - quickly learn English and become Americans. Many of the champions of today's waves of Latino immigration speak openly of La Reconquista - the re-conquest of North America by Hispanic culture - and sneer at the idea that newcomers should be required to learn English or integrate themselves into the American mainstream.

The gist of it is that while immigration is generally a good thing, and has played a crucial role in America's cultural and economic development, the USA has both a right and a responsibility to establish reasonable levels and channels of immigration. To fail to do so hurts everyone, especially those immigrants who obeyed the law and came here legally. To continue to serve as an escape valve for Mexico's failed social policies does no one any favours, and to turn large parts of the USA into Mexico del Norte merely relocates the problems that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are trying so desperately to escape. Robert Frost was right: good fences make good neighbours, and it's time we mended the one along our southern border. Leave plenty of gates, yes, but don't tear the whole thing down just to placate the race-baiters and self-serving politicians.

29 March 2006

Going Underground

At Notting Hill Gate there was a French guy with an amplified guitar singing a note-perfect rendition of "Stairway To Heaven." I know certain of my friends will want to blacklist or browbeat or thrash me about the head for saying this, but it was actually kind of touching.

Of course, full disclosure is in order here: although not originally a Led Zeppelin fan, once I had taken enough LSD, I became a rather earnest one, once travelling a thousand miles by train from Rome to London to see them. On another occasion, extremely drunk and sitting on a bridge somewhere in Montreal, I translated the entire text of "Stairway" into French and sang it repeatedly for the bemusement of passersby. However, my passion for the Zep passed as quickly as it had developed once the LSD supply ran out. It wasn't exactly like the old Grateful Dead joke (Q. What did one Deadhead say to the other Deadhead when they realised they'd run out of dope? A. "Hey, man, this music sucks."), because I could still hear some merit in some of their more ethereal goblins-and-wizards works, but the last time I went to see them, circa 1976, without benefit of drugs, I turned around and walked out after about 20 minutes.

But I digress; my next Underground musical interlude came at Tottenham Court Road, where the incredibly annoying blues-rocker and his pseudo-band were, as always, inflicting his mindless, repetitive wanking on the public at a volume that carried through the entire station.

I say "pseudo-band" because from a distance it sounds like a full-fledged bar band - as in, you'd have to be really drunk to want to hear it - but in reality, it's just one dork with a tape machine, a big amp, and a guitar tuned firmly in the key of cliché. I really, really hate that kind of endless, mindless boogie; I hated it the first time I heard it in the 60s, when one of our chin-stroking pothead mates whipped out some new blues record just after we'd dropped acid and whisperingly confided, "Check this shit out, it's got some really tasty guitar licks."

I don't have a lot of firmly held opinions about guitars or licks, but one principle on which I firmly draw the line is that neither of them should ever be "tasty," and that people who suggest they are should be at risk for having their tongues cut out. Anyway, the train arrived quickly for a change - I assume God was in his heaven looking out for me, and that he can't stand that blues-rock shit either - and soon deposited me back at Notting Hill Gate, where the "Stairway To Heaven" guy had been replaced by an Eastern European ESL student delivering a tortured rendition of the John Lennon chestnut, "Imagine."

Now there was actually a time - yes, once more drugs were involved - when I enjoyed this song, too. I even remember it eliciting a tear or three during the vigils after Lennon fell victim to Jodie Foster's one man army, but it's not a song that's worn well. Its mawkish sentiments are not only infantile; they're grotesquely at odds with the real-life behaviour and attitudes of the guy who penned them. "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can," he has the nerve to demand; this from the guy who bought a multi-million dollar apartment for the sole purpose of storing his wife's fur coat collection. And every time that infernal tune gets played, which probably happens somewhere in the world as often as I breathe in and out, that awful wife of his collects another dime or so toward her next fur coat or, worse, another record of her hideous experimental "music."

But that wasn't even my main point. What I wanted to say was that I'm entirely in favour of the new policy which allows buskers to perform on Underground stations rather than sending the police after them, which used to be standard policy. But I'm not so in favour of allowing them to bring in huge power amps and simply play along with pre-recorded sound tracks, which is what most buskers are doing these days completely drowning out the few who try to go the old-fashioned acoustic route. Okay, I'm old-fashioned, too, but I'd like to see it limited to unamplified instruments and live music only. There'd be room - sonically as well as physically - for a lot more musicians, and when it sucked - which it often will, at least you can get away from it by moving around the corner.

And I was about to wrap that up until I thought of the crucial flaw in this theory. Actually, it's twofold: in the entrance tunnel to Tottenham Court Road, someone who, if I weren't trying to avoid being intemperate, I would call a moron, holds forth with an extremely loud conga drum. Completely unamplified, and completely annoying. Secondly, if the Potatomen were ever to be resurrected under the streets of London in our old, semi-acoustic streets of Berkeley style, we'd be using a slightly amplified (12 volt battery only) bass, just enough to be heard but not enough to bum anybody out.

So I take it back, most of it, anyway. Potatomen and Brent's TV-style bands can play in the underground. John Lennon interpreters and blues-rock wankers are sentenced to be strangled with their own guitar strings, and "Stairway To Heaven" guys will be judged on a case-by-case basis. Them's the new rules; put me in charge of the Underground and I'll have it sorted out just like that. Next thing you know, I might even have the trains running on time.

Drought, English Style

Leaving Central London, I walked to Tottenham Court Tube in a steadily intensifying drizzle, got off at Notting Hill Gate and waited in a steady rain for the bus, got off the bus and ran for home in a downpour.

Ah, you say, a rainy night in London? And this is news because...?

It's news, of course, because we are supposedly enduring a terrible drought. Hosepipe bans have already been imposed in some areas, and we are warned to expect them over much of the country come summertime. And if things get any worse, we are warned, city water supplies may have to be shut off and we'll have to queue for water from standpipes in the street as happened in the drought of 1976.

Now tonight it's been raining more heavily than usual, but as I looked back over the week, I seemed to recall that it rained at least a little on every day but one. This is typical English stuff: it's not that, contrary to popular opinion, it rains constantly or even a lot here, it's that it rains at consistently inconvenient intervals. In other words, instead of having a good downpour one day and then enjoying a few days of sunny weather, we tend to have annoying spits and spurts of rain on a nearly daily basis. It's often no more than a quick shower or a half-hearted drizzle, but it's just enough to make planning a picnic or any other outdoor activity a lottery stacked strongly against you.

Psychologically, it causes you to think of London as a maddeningly rainy city, but in reality, it only gets half the rain New York City does, and about the same as San Francisco does (though since SF gets all its rain in the winter months and London's is spread out through the year, you'd think that London would feel a good bit drier; it doesn't).

But in any event, England is nowhere near running out of water, or rather, it wouldn't be except for the cowardice, venality and incompetence of its political leaders, who've been busily privatising the water system, selling off reservoirs to be paved over for housing, and not even bothering to think about tapping into the abundant supplies in the North, where it seldom stops raining. On top of that, a full one third of the water supplied to London is lost through unrepaired leaks in the 19th century mains. Now that said mains are in the hands of the privatised Thames Water company, the government can legitimately claim that it's not their problem, and it looks like Thames Water is about to be flogged off again, this time to the Chinese, and who knows what they'll do with it?

Meanwhile, I just took a peek out the window, and yes, it's still raining, and I just checked with the Environment Agency and yes, we're still having a drought.

Quelle Outrage! The Racist, Fascist Police Are Stopping The Oppressed Third World Youth Gangs From Robbing Us!

The current wave of strikes and blockades that threatens to reduce France to a more catatonic state than usual has an interesting - and slightly frightening - aspect that until now has received only passing mention in most media accounts. It seems that the predominantly Arab and African youth gangs from the banlieue, the ones who engaged in that jolly little orgy of looting and car-burning last autumn, have come into town to play their part in the protests against proposed reforms to French labour laws.

But much to the chagrin of the student radicals and trade unionists spearheading the marches, the young casseurs had not come to town to support voice their opinions about the youth unemployment crisis; they were there to beat up and rob middle class demonstrators, which, while it certainly qualifies as a form of income redistribution, may not have been exactly what the prep school socialists had in mind.

But let it not be said that the Frenchies went back on their principles; despite being ratpacked, beaten, kicked and robbed (see this pleasant picture), they still stood up for the rights of the oppressed third world muggers, as the Guardian reports:
At the edges of the march, plain-clothed police snatch squads grabbed youths, many of them black, and forced them towards riot vans or frisked them as others shouted that the police were "fascists and racist."
It's always been a wet dream of the academic and intellectual left to link up with the visceral power of the underclass, or the lumpen proletariat, as it used to be known in Marxist theory, but results have been mixed at best. One thinks of the 60s radicals and their myopic romanticisation of the Black Panther Party, which ultimately was little better than a street gang with a smattering of revolutionary patter (to be fair, the sociopaths of the Weather Underground were just as guilty of straight-out thuggery, the only difference being that most of them had rich daddies to bail them out of prison). Or, for that matter, the infatuation would be avant-gardeists like Hunter Thompson or the Rolling Stones had with the Hell's Angels and which resulted in a gratuitous ass-kicking for Thompson and the brutal murder of a young Rolling Stones fan.

Of course past totalitarian movements of both the left and right have successfully used the underclass as shock troops when seizing power, but this was generally followed by a liquidation of the stroppier elements, something our current crop of lefties, totalitarian as they may be in principle, probably lack the stomach or the weaponry for.

A Safe Space For The Self-Harming Community

This news is a bit old by now, and I'm not sure if it made its way to the other side of the Atlantic, but it's been rattling around in my brain ever since the weekend. The gist of it is that some mental health professionals here in Britain want to create a "safe" environment for people to indulge in the increasingly popular adolescent (but open to fun-lovers of all ages!) pastime of "self-harming." In slightly less antiseptic language, this refers to the practice of slashing or cutting oneself, though I imagine it can extend to other damaging activities like banging one's head repeatedly against a wall or trying to win an argument on the internet.

I don't have a lot of personal experience in this field, though I once did toy with the idea of cutting my wrists while high on LSD because, at the age of 25, I had suddenly realised that I was hopelessly old and past it (don't all rush to agree). However, the razor blade had barely brushed my skin when I had an epiphany of sorts: slashing my wrists would hurt, and from then made a conscious choice to resolve any future existential dilemmas through means that didn't involve the deliberate seeking out of pain.

So at the risk of sounding flippant (a risk I'm apparently willing to take rather frequently), the attraction of slicing and dicing yourself, but I've heard enough horror stories to know that it's distressingly common. A psychotherapist I know told me of one girl who had to be restrained pretty much constantly; she's jumped through windows, smashed mirrors so she could use the shards of glass in lieu of a knife, all sharp instruments having long ago been removed from her home. "Shouldn't she be institutionalised?" I asked. "Probably," my friend said, "but the sad fact is that there's not nearly enough hospital space to accommodate all the self-harmers we encounter."

Apparently that's a problem all over Britain and America, but I wouldn't have thought this to be much of a solution:
He was supported by Jeremy Bore, vice-chairman of the RCN’s prison forum, who said: “We should give patients clean blades and a clean environment to self-harm and then access to good-quality dressings.

“My instinct is that it is better to sit with the patient and talk to them while they are self-harming. We should definitely give advice on safer parts of the body to cut. It could get to the stage where we could have a discussion with the patient about how deep the cuts were going to be and how many.”
Yes, that sounds like a very interesting discussion indeed, but a discussion I'd be more interested in having would be about how far we go in attempting to normalise any and all behaviours. I suppose it's just a logical outgrowth of cultural relativism, but rather than simply accept self-destructive activities like cutting, drug addiction, and eating disorders as personal choices that need to be understood rather than proscribed, maybe it's time we questioned why such pathologies (and sorry if that's un-PC or insufficiently respectful, but they are pathologies) are so much more prevalent in the most privileged and allegedly enlightened Western societies. In huge swathes of the world, people struggle to obtain sufficient food, warmth and shelter to survive; in the West, where not just survival, but comfortable survival is a given, vast numbers of people, especially young people, seem to react to that privilege by seeking ever more elaborate ways to damage themselves.

Okay, maybe I don't have any easy answers (or any answers at all) to why that might be or what we might do about it. But there has to be some point at which we say about at least some kinds of behaviour: "No, that's not normal and not acceptable," rather than, "Here, let me give you a hand with that razor blade."

26 March 2006

Seasons And Synchronicities

The temperature has finally risen into double digits here (i.e., above 50 degrees for you Fahrenheiters), which means, of course, that the chilly blue skies of earlier in the week have given way to the more customary shades of grey one associates with an English spring (and summer, winter and autumn). It's been raining as well, precisely what one would expect at a time when the media and government have been banging on incessantly about our supposed "drought." In fact, by way of illustrating just how serious the "drought" has gotten, yesterday's Premiership match between Portsmouth and Arsenal had to be called off due to a waterlogged pitch.

In other words, about as perfect an early-spring Saturday as one could ask for, and so naturally I was out into the streets, hoodie pulled up against the droughtish draughts of rain and looking for all the world as though I'd just wandered off one of the dodgier council estates, which, if you saw where I lived, is not as big a stretch as you might imagine. My mission, apart from admiring the occasional bursts of colour mirrored in the gathering puddles and the lines of trees on the cusp of bursting into bud along Sussex Gardens (one benefit of the longer and harsher winter we've endured - excuse me, that the people who stayed home this winter endured - is that the trees for once didn't flower prematurely last December or January, only to be stripped bare by the next frost, and that for once we look set to see a spectacular display of colour when they all come into bloom at the appropriate time - probably the week before we're buried in an unseasonable April blizzard), was to buy a computer book recommended by my favourite computer genius, Patrick Hynes of Little Type Mail Order.

During my brief visit to California earlier this month, Patrick gave me my first lesson in html, which was a bit like Einstein lecturing on the General Theory at the local school for the retarded learning disabled. As such, and because our time was so limited, I learned only the barest basics of the language that enables one to put together web pages, but because I'm determined to develop larrylivermore.com into a full-fledged website, I'm venturing into realms from which I once would have fled in terror, i.e., anything involving cognitive reasoning and symbolic logic, if those are even the appropriate terms to describe a "language" that looks to this novice like a hopeless welter of brackets and squiggles,

I've been using computers now for nearly 20 years, and I realise now that I should have tackled some of the basic theory and programming language behind them long ago; I might by now have managed to qualify for a half-decent entry-level job, though it would be a bit embarrassing having to compete with all those teenagers. But you're looking at someone who managed to get through four years at Berkeley without taking a single course outside of the squishy liberal arts and humanities field until my very last semester, when the powers that be decreed I wouldn't be allowed to graduate without passing a basic statistics course, which proceeded to stretch my wits and patience further than the combined total of every other course I had taken.

The symbols and system used in html have virtually nothing in common with those of statistics, but to my untutored mind they're just similar enough to remind me of that horrifying moment when I opened my final final exam at Berkeley, the one that would determine whether I would graduate, to find that the statistics problems I had valiantly if vainly studied for had been replaced by indecipherable Martian runes. I sat there half panicking, half crying, for most of the allotted three hours, and will forever remain convinced that it is only through sheer charity (or absent-mindedness) on the part of my beleagured statistics professor that I have a university degree today.

But for years afterward, I would wake in a cold sweat from nightmares about that exam, one more reason I've studiously avoided anything that reminds me, however obliquely, of applied symbolic logic. "But html is merely a language of sorts," I tell myself, "and you were always good at languages." True, I dubiously concede, and head into the four-storey Borders megastore in Oxford Street.

I can never set foot in Borders without being reminded of its origins as a tiny cornershop in Ann Arbor, Michigan (and did you know, that belying its vaguely alternative image, Borders has long been a subsidiary of K-Mart? I didn't) back in 1971. I used to shop there, which has always led me to have a slightly proprietary feel about the now-massive corporation. Similarly, back in the mid-60s, my friend Darrell and I lived right round the corner from the world's first Domino's Pizza in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and would like to think that our frequent patronage had something to do with that company's worldwide success over the ensuing decades. Or would have, if we had actually paid for most of our pizzas; as it was, we were usually cadging free ones from our friend who worked there, a hippie with a lucrative sideline in Civil War memorabilia obtained through midnight graverobbing.

I located the book Patrick had recommended, found it largely as undecipherable as I had feared, but exhibiting a touching and hopefully not misplaced faith in his advice, decided to buy it anyway when I noticed that it was published in Sepastopol, California, home town of Wesley, my favourite computer genius on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, that's how my mind works, which I fear doesn't augur well for my future success in any field requiring the rigorous application of logic. But never mind; nothing ventured, etc. etc...

While standing in the queue to pay for it, I was startled to see a magazine cover featuring an impossibly arty photo of my old friends Alison and Jamie, now long since reinvented as VV and Hotel (I can never remember which is which) of The Kills. They've been media darlings for a while now, and it's been a couple years since I've run into them around town (as you might suspect, my own media darling status is, to massively understate the case, limited). But I'll always remember Jamie as the skinny, edgy singer for proto-emo band Scarfo, who I first saw upstairs at the Laurel Tree in Camden, briefly a hipsterish hangout (and, for reasons never satisfactorily explained to me, a shrine to the Pet Shop Boys) during the halcyon early days of Britpop. No, I didn't see a future for emo back then, either, which makes me wonder how I ever made any money at all in the music business.

I think it was a couple years later that I first met Alison, singing at the Red Eye in Islington with her emo-pop-punk band Discount. She was so painfully shy that she hunched over the microphone in a way that let her avoid having to look at the audience and similarly denied the audience the opportunity to see her. As anyone who has seen The Kills will know, shyness no longer appears to be much of an issue with her.

When we first met, she was a resolute non-drinker and non-smoker, and I was decidely the opposite. At some point we crossed paths. I think it was in Glasgow, at the wedding of Amanda from Bis to Alison's bandmate Ryan; while I was beginning to think that it was time to clean up my act, I was still drinking and smoking up a storm, and for the first time, Alison joined in with me. By the next time I saw her, which was the day of England's famous 5-1 World Cup qualifier victory over Germany, she was pounding down the brews and I was newly sober. Since then her trajectory has been toward ever greater fame and mine toward ever greater obscurity. Perhaps there's a lesson there, but it's not one I'm likely to draw on. I'll leave the world of glamorous pop stardom to those better qualified for it, crack open my new book, and start learning all about the wondrous world of html.

25 March 2006

It Was The Prayers Wot Done It

We are deeply grateful for all those who prayed for our release. We don’t have words to describe our feelings, our joy and gratitude. Our heads are swirling; when we are ready, we will speak to the media.
So say the one British and two Canadian hostages just rescued from Islamist terrorists in Iraq, somehow failing to notice the hundreds of British and American troops and the tens of thousands of pounds that also seem to have played a role in effecting their release. In fact, the "Christian Peacemaker Teams" they represent have
always made it clear that its members did not want force to be used to rescue them if they were kidnapped or held hostage.
Funny, though; when the troops showed up to bring them back to safety, none of them refused to come. One of their companions, Tom Fox, never had that option; he was tortured and killed a couple weeks ago.

Of course it is entirely possible that the trio's rescue was accomplished entirely through the prayer they mention. I personally have great faith in the power of prayer, and wouldn't sneer at anyone else's belief in it. However, I'm reminded of the old joke about the devout Christian marooned in a flood, praying passionately for God to save him. First a truck, then a rowboat, finally a helicopter offered him a ride out, but he turned them all down, saying, "I have faith that God will rescue me."

Then of course he drowned, and got to heaven in a foul mood, berating God for abandoning him. "What are you talking about?" God retorted. "I sent you a truck, a rowboat and a helicopter." I realise it must be hard for such committed pacifists to accept, but possibly, just possibly, God, who notoriously works in mysterious ways, might sometimes choose to send in the Marines.

Surrender Monkeys Cry: "Work? Mais Non!"

Despite the way "cheese eating surrender monkeys" rolls so delightfully off the tongue, anyone with a passing familiarity with the ways of the French will be well aware that les grenouilles are hardly the pacific individuals many Americans assume them to be, concerned only with getting blotto on red wine while snarfing down buckets of slimy snails and smoking incredibly stinky cigarettes.

Of course plenty of that does go on, but the French are also as contentious and stroppy a race as exists anywhere, and said contentiousness is not limited to late-night shouting matches over the relative merits of Foucault, Derrida and Camembert. While they've shown little enthusiasm for doing battle with foreign enemies, at least not since Napoleonic days, they've regularly been to charge out into the streets to wage war upon the state, les flics, and, if need be, themselves.

The latest riots, said by some to be the worst threat to the established order since the baby boom eruptions of May 1968, may have the corrupt and ineffectual French government quaking in its boots, but for the rest of us, there has to be a certain hilarity factor in the spectacle http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifof intellectuals, anarchists, garden variety leftists and the usual assortment of apolitical punks, hippies and thugs tearing up the paving stones in protest of reforms proposed to French labour laws. Put more succinctly, they're rioting against the possibility of being fired from jobs they don't have, and jobs which they'd probably never take even if they did exist.

For those who haven't been following the situation, the Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin, the oily character you'll remember protesting the Iraq invasion as though he actually cared about Iraq as opposed to France's oil contracts therewith, tried to put through a law making it more attractive for employers to hire young people, who presently have an unemployment rate of over 20%. Its main provision was that for the first two years of employment, the boss was entitled to give young Pierre the boot if he turned out to have la tete d'une bloque. As it stands now, bosses are pretty much stuck with anyone they hire.

As someone who's been both an employee and an employer, this hardly sounds unreasonable, but this is the French we're talking about, remember. Anyway, even as I type this, news comes that de Villepin is ready to "make concessions" to the rioters, which I think is the fancy-pants French way of saying "surrender." To which I can only say, quelle surprise!

Only A Bloghead...

It was in the mid-80s, when I had only recently begun publishing Lookout magazine, that I first discovered Samuel Johnson's dictum about having to be a blockhead to write for any reason other than money. "Blockhead," I've since discovered, was one of Johnson's favourite epithets, as was "rogue." At one point he pondered whether someone who annoyed him was "a rogue who had become a blockhead, or a blockhead who had become a rogue."

Since Lookout magazine was not making any money for me - if anything, it was costing me a fair bit more than I could afford at the time - I spent more time than was probably wise wondering if I was one of those blockheads Johnson was referring to. Since the magazine never did much more than break even, and that only in the wake of the success and publicity enjoyed by Lookout Records in the 1990s, the nature and extent of my blockheadedness was something I was able to contemplate for a number of years without ever coming to a meaningful conclusion.

Although I occasionally wrote for other publications following Lookout magazine's demise - or, as I prefer to think of it, it's rather extended hiatus - most of them paid me at least some token sum for my efforts, so it wasn't until I started this blog that I again had an opportunity to flagellate myself for dispensing my pearls of literary wisdom to an unpaying public.

On the bright side, publishing a blog costs very little compared with the printing bills and related costs of a magazine. On the not so bright side, the fact that it's so cheap and easy means that blogs are multiplying at such a rate that the weight of sheer verbiage already produced would probably knock the earth off its axis if it ever were/could be committed to print.

In light of that, it's hard not to contemplate why I bother; surely someone out there - if not several someones - has already said everything I have to say, and very likely said it more eloquently and incisively to boot. Hopefully you'll be pleased to know that I've successfully managed to resist any such contemplation, and therefore will not proceed to bore you with heartfelt ruminations about "why I write" or somesuch. I had an assignment on that topic in college, and it was among the most tedious ever, apart from a statistics class mandated analysis of the standard deviation and the coefficient of variance.

Instead, I'll apologise to my readers for being MIA much of this past week; getting settled back into London sleep and activity patterns has taken more out of me than I anticipated. Or, to put it less elegantly, I've been lazy and scatterbrained. I've also been having a bit of a crisis in confidence, something which I meant to write about when I was still in Australia, but never got around to because I was, well, too lazy and scatterbrained.

The gist of it is that I find myself being pulled in opposing directions when it comes to writing here. On one hand, I want to post indignantly about all the dangers and outrages afflicting the world; on the other, I want to regale my readers with heartfelt personal tales of days past and present that leave all of us feeling a warm, fuzzy glow about the strange and wonderful world we live in. On reflection, scratch that last bit; it sounds distinctly ugh-ish.

But you know what I mean, or I hope you do. The stuff I've enjoyed writing most here has been reminiscences of the Lookout Records/East Bay/Gilman days, and what I've enjoyed least has been my diatribes about war, crime, Islamism, government ineptness, the sort of thing that risks making me sound like the internet version of an American radio talk show host.

The thing is, I think I've made some good points in those areas, even if they are routinely covered by hundreds or thousands of other writers, and considering all the drug-addled pseudo-political nonsense I've spewed out in the past, I feel somewhat of an obligation to try and redress the balance. But I've noticed that even when I complete an especially vitriolic - and hopefully effective - diatribe, I come away from it feeling none too great. Whether this comes from focussing my attention so intently on the negative, or whether it's my insecurity over whether people might think bad things about me for expressing the "wrong" sort of thoughts, I don't know.

As it is, I think I end up censoring myself; on any given day there are usually at least half a dozen items that I think about posting and never get around to because I don't want to hammer away constantly at the same old topics. At the same time, the stuff I really enjoy writing - like a piece I started last week about punk rock record producers I've known - seems to take much more thought, effort and time. Which might mean it's ultimately more valuable, or might mean, as previously noted, that I'm lazy and scatterbrained.

I had a similar conflict with Lookout magazine; the old lefties who were my most avid (and paying) subscribers wanted a steady diet of Reagan-bashing; the punk kids who mostly picked up the magazine for free didn't mind the Reagan-bashing as long as it was short and succinct, but were far more interested in bands and scene gossip, of which the old-timers complained they couldn't understand a word. Eventually I resolved that conflict by ceasing to worry about what any of them thought and simply trying to make Lookout the kind of magazine that I personally would want to read, and having just remembered that, think I'll proceed to do exactly the same with this here website.

21 March 2006

Oaktown Body Count

Two more murders this weekend in lovely Oakland, California, bringing the year's total so far to 30. That puts San Francisco's unlovely stepsister on course to tie or maybe even break the all-time homicide record set back in the 90s. In fact, adjusted for population, Oaklanders are now shooting, stabbing and otherwise dispatching each other at rate even higher than that racked up by pre-Giuliani New York City in 1990.

The difference is that since 1990, New York's murder rate has plummeted to where it is now barely a quarter of what it was in the bad old days and New York has become the safest big city in America. Meanwhile, Oakland continues to go from bad to worse, and the prospect of Ron Dellums, a David Dinkins look and think-alike, becoming mayor later this year, makes the prognosis grimmer still.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? In New York, the police started cracking down hard on so-called "minor" offences and lo and behold, major crime dropped precipitously. In Oakland, the police don't even bother investigating most crimes short of rape and murder. "You can file a report online," they'll tell someone who's missing a car or a wallet or the contents of his house.

The cops claim they haven't got enough manpower, which is probably true, and the city claims it doesn't have the money to hire more cops, which might be true as well. But at the same time, the cops were fighting tooth and nail to protect their union-guaranteed right to determine their own assignments. In other words, if the police chief decides a certain dangerous neighbourhood needs to be flooded with cops at certain times, the cops are entirely within their rights to say, "Sorry, man, I don't do nights and weekends."

It's hard to blame them; I wouldn't want to set foot in many Oakland neighbourhoods no matter how heavily you armed me or how well you paid me, but then I never joined the police department and swore to uphold the law. Also, the government and civil administration of Oakland is so intellectually and morally bankrupt that it more closely resembles that of a third world banana republic than a major American city, which wouldn't exactly inspire confidence in those who are out in the streets charged with upholding minimal standards of civilised behaviour.

My take is that much of Oakland has simply given up and accepted that this is the way things are, that there's nothing really to be done. Suggest a New York-style zero tolerance crackdown on routine thuggery and drug dealing and you'll run smack into the race baiters, who will scream that it's an attack on "African-American youth." Even point out the obvious, that the overwhelming majority of Oakland's crime is being committed by "African-American youth," and you'll be branded a racist whose views aren't worthy of being discussed.

So Oakland continues to live in let's-pretend land, and its leaders pull hangdog faces and make sanctimonious statments about how awful it all is while out in the streets people keep dying. And guess who's doing the most dying? African-American youths, of course, and who's killing them? The ones pulling the triggers and wielding the knives, obviously, but they have accomplices in the form of every city official who is too cowardly or too enslaved to a failed ideology to do what obviously needs to be done.

20 March 2006

The Perils of Anti-American Schadenfreude

Francis Fukuyama gets a lot of stick for a lot of reasons, not least for his rather premature hastiness to declare the end of history. He's also slagged off as a neocon, a label which I believe he has now declined. But regardless of what you think of him - I don't have strong opinions one way or the other - this analysis seems to be pretty much on the money.

English Weather Unappreciation Post

A BBC meteorologist just announced that we're on course for the coldest March in 20 years. And they still want us to get excited about global warming?

Sitting Here In My Not So European Home

Yes, I am back in England, where it is unpleasantly cold and an incessant wind blows in off the North Sea to buttress that sensation. But it's not so bad; at least most buildings nowadays have central heating, quite a change from when I first came here in the 1970s and most people I knew lived in neo-Dickensian squalor, wearing multiple layers of clothing and huddling around the tea kettle and/or a three-bar fire for warmth and perpetually cadging coins for the electricity meter to keep even that meagre level of comfort alive.

Of course that was when Notting Hill was full of squats and abandoned buildings; those buildings that survived the council's wrecking ball are now mostly worth a million pounds or more, and from the looks of the Jaguars, Range Rovers, BMWs and Mercs parked out front, probably offer a considerably greater degree of comfort these days than when they were being squatted by hippies and drug dealers. Actually, some of those hippies and drug dealers who hung on to their squats persistently enough are now millionaire property owners, thanks to various quirks in British property law, and judging from the abundance of illegal drugs in these parts, may have hung on to their old professions as well.

I don't want to get started on another anti-drug polemic, and not just because people could call me for hypocrisy based on my own drug history. But I am sick of stoned idiots running around the streets and making social policy and (probably) running whole Government ministries and police departments. You think I jest; check out Commander Cannabis, aka Brian Paddick, the gay pothead cop who turned Brixton into a laboratory for his cracked theory that allowing young black men to freely sell drugs on the street would distract or dissuade them from committing more serious crimes like street robberies and assaults.

Result: Brixton now is awash in both drug dealing AND street robberies and assaults, and Paddick, after getting caught up in various dodgy bits like allowing his boyfriend to keep his dope stash at the Commander's pad, was punished by being promoted to a more responsible position, where he now keeps track of and investigates the behaviour of other commanders. He's a New Labour darling, and as a certified (or certifiable, depending who you ask) minority who also happens to be articulate and good-looking, he's just about invulnerable, even if the Conservatives win the next election, which is looking increasingly likely, because David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has embarked on a more-New-Labour-than-New-Labour electoral strategy. Very touchy-feely, full of empathetic crocodile tears for the allegedly underprivileged, and just as bent on substituting phony symbolism for substantial policies as Tony Blair ever was.

Having said that, I do exempt Blair from criticism for precisely what he's taken the most stick for: his support for US policy in the war against Islamo-fascism. That's not to say I wholly agree with the way that war has been conducted, but that Blair, who has risked his career, reputation and place in history to pursue a course which was directly counter to the wishes of a majority of the British public but which he personally seemed to believe was the right thing to do. For someone who seems to have lived the rest of his political life in slavish response to opinion polls, that's fairly remarkable. What they used to call statesmanship, in fact, when it's successful, and bloody-mindedness when it's not.

Anyway, nine years into the New Labour project and things are looking decidely creaky. Billions were poured into the National Health Service in an attempt to rescue it from incipient third world status; it's improved somewhat, but is now going broke and being required to make swingeing cutbacks that will probably leave it right back where the Tories had it in 1996. Violent crime is up a whopping 1,000 per cent since the 80s, and rapists and murderers are still being let loose after minimal sentences on the theory that returning them to "the community" will somehow be more effective than keeping them locked up. The theory behind this is that decent, law-abiding citizens will somehow exert a good influence on rapists, robbers and murderers, thus inspiring them to stop behaving so badly; this is also the theory behind comprehensive education, wherein anti-social, mentally disabled, or just plain slow students are dumped into classes with the bright, functional and well-behaved kids on the premise that the latter will uplift the former. The result is that no one learns anything, teachers have to pay more attention to defending themselves than teaching, and the whole mess is covered up by government tweaking of exam standards so that practically anyone who shows up gets a top mark. To hear the government tell it, British kids today are the smartest in history, which does cause one to wonder why so few of them can read, write, or operate a cash register that hasn't replaced numbers with pictures.

Oof. Didn't realise that I was going to get on such a rant, and actually, apart from the weather, I'm rather pleased to be home. People are still smoking in restaurants and bars, the insensate cows, but a law has finally been passed banning it starting in mid-2007, which is a long time for me to refrain from accosting people in public places and shouting, "Way to stink up the joint, you Neanderthal clown" whenever someone near me lights up. But I saw my first daffodils today - only a handful; this cold weather has delayed spring by several weeks - and sooner or later it will be warm again. Well, mild, anyway; some years it never gets warm. We're also having a "drought," something which the privatised water companies periodically go mental about because building adequate reservoirs or fixing leaking pipes would cut into their profits. Most British homes don't even have water meters, meaning that people who waste exorbitant amounts of water will still pay the same water bill as their neighbour who scrupulously conserves.

If it doesn't rain soon, they say, we might have our water shut off and have to collect buckets of it from standpipes in the street, much as they do in Africa and other parts of the third world. If past experience serves as an example, we'll be out there hauling water in the midst of a downpour which, the Met Office will assure us, hasn't broken the drought because it's "the wrong kind of rain."

Oh, and why is this my "not so European home?" Well, because no matter how feverishly Europeans and British Europhiles try to convince us that we're part of Europe, even "at the heart of Europe," it just never seems to work. I was reminded of this earlier today during a discussion with the ever-fervid Nilz Nonchalant on the Stardumb Message Board about the French riots, where the grandchildren of the soixante-huitards are rioting in the streets against the prospect of being fired from jobs they don't have and which in fact don't even exist.

Kevin Aper butted in to say, "Just what we need, Germans (Nilz) and British people (me, apparently) discussing the problems in France." Nilz responded that we were in fact talking about Europe, and my instant reaction (at least in my mind) was, "Oh no we're not, we're talking about those nutty French people." The subtext being that Europe is still "over there," and only marginally, if at all, related to Britain. I don't think this is a minority or solipsistic opinion, either; in fact, my growing scorn for Europe in general and the French in particular is one of the surest signs that I am gradually, inexorably becoming Anglicised. I think in another year I may even be sufficiently acclimated to tackle irony, class consciousness, and obsequious politeness deployed in the service of being utterly vile to people who've mistakenly come to think I'm their friend. Britannia rules, ok?

19 March 2006

Fulham 1, Chelsea 0

All right, I know most of you aren't football (soccer) fans, so I won't bang on about it at great length, but what a glorious welcome home to England. Fulham and Chelsea are longtime neighbourhood rivals, but for many years the rivalry has been largely one-sided. Fulham supporters lived for the day that we might finally triumph over Chelsea, whereas you got the idea that fans of multi-zillionaire-backed Chelsea, home to arguably the most spectacular (and certainly most expensive) collection of football players in the world today, thought of us as that cute but inconsequential club down at the poorer end of the Fulham Road.

We often played well against Chelsea, and seldom got thoroughly played off the pitch the way we did against, say, Liverpool (last week, 5-1) or Arsenal (week before last, 4-0). But the best we ever accomplished was a couple of draws, both of which were celebrated as though we'd won the Premiership and the Champions League in one go. I was beginning to think that I'd never see a Fulham victory over Chelsea, and with several of our best players out of commission, I certainly wasn't optimistic about this week's encounter. In fact as I walked to the ground into the teeth of a nagging northeasterly gale, I couldn't help thinking, "I had to get off the beach in Australia and hurry back to England for this?"

It was true; I had arranged my Oz trip so that I'd be back in time for the Chelsea match, but that was last year, at the beginning of the season, when everything looked hopeful or at least possible. Things have turned a lot grimmer since then, Fulham-wise, and I was fully expecting to see us get brutally hammered today, but hope also springs eternal, and there was even a bit of sunlight splashing about the pavement on my way to Craven Cottage, encouraging me to think, "Well, it could happen. We have to beat them one day, don't we?"

And sure enough, today (well, yesterday, now) turned out to be that day. A lot of Fulham fans went mental, and some of the younger ones even staged a pitch invasion, something which hasn't been seen in England for a few years now, and got involved in skirmishes with some similarly benighted Chelsea lunkheads. As for me, I just stood there speechless, looking on in wonder at the unpredictable vagaries of football, and trying not to remember how I had fluffed my own moment of glory.

You see, somewhere in the second half, the ball came flying into the stands and landed right behind me. I fished it out, and while the players, the officials, and 22,286 fans (in the stadium; millions more were watching the telecast around the world), lifted it over my head to throw it back onto the field. Waiting for it was Chelsea's John Terry, one of the best defenders in the league and a sure starter for England's World Cup team. Determined to show what I was made of, I flung the ball with all my might, and barely managed to clear the barrier separating the stand from the pitch. John Terry, instead of catching my masterful throw-in, had to walk ten yards toward the stand and pick the ball off the pitch instead of catching it, as he seemed to have been expecting. I might have imagined it, but I thought I saw him giving me a look that said distinctly: "What a wuss."

On the other hand, the delay allowed the Fulham players to get back in position and prevented Chelsea from taking a quick throw-in, so maybe in my small, inept way, I even contributed to a momentous victory. That's about the only consolation I get for being exposed to a worldwide audience as someone who throws like a girl.

14 March 2006

Grisly, Man

A caller to KGO this afternoon was apparently not the first to make the comparison between Tom Fox, the peace activist who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Iraq, and Timothy Treadwell, the quixotic nature boy chronicled in Werner Herzog's film, Grizzly Man.

It might seem a little tasteless - or heartless - to liken Fox's conviction that his religious faith and non-violent principles would protect him against the Islamo-fascists currently wreaking ruin upon Iraq to Treadwell's belief that grizzly bears were just "big party animals" that he could safely befriend.

But while Fox's death certainly occurred in a nobler cause, it's hard to avoid the sense that his actions were just as naive, if not downright foolish. His unfortunate demise should also - but probably won't - serve as an object lesson to left-wing Islamophiles who persist in believing that if only America weren't so "evil" and "imperialistic," the Middle East would settle right down into a cute and cuddly little workers' paradise.

The fact that Bush and Co. have so badly botched the war and are in serious danger of losing it does not obviate the disaster that would ensue if Iraq falls into the hands of the suicide bombing and beheading brigades. The growing sentiment for simply withdrawing American and British troops and leaving the Iraqis to their own devices is understandable, but I'm afraid it would only postpone a war that must be fought sooner or later.

Perhaps I'm wrong. America's withdrawal from Vietnam didn't lead to communist hordes rampaging across all of Asia. Okay, Cambodia suffered horribly, but after only a few decades, the region is stabilizing and, surprise, surprise, turning into yet another burgeoning capitalist market.

But my sense is that Islamism represents a different kind of enemy. Communism as an ideology had its bizarre aspects, but ultimately it was a thoroughly modern - albeit misguided - effort to pursue rational political and economic goals. Islamism more closely resembles fascism or Nazism: an irrational, implacable, totalitarian culture which insists on imposing itself on the world at large by any means necessary. Just as with fascism, our choices seem limited to either fighting it or succumbing to it.

In any pluralistic and progressive society like America or Europe, there's going to be a significant constituency for peace at nearly any price; in normal times, this can be considered almost a strength rather than a weakness. But when a society is under direct threat from outside forces, it's worth considering Orwell's argument that British pacifists who advocated a non-violent response to Nazi aggression could not claim a moral high ground because they were in effect lending their support to Nazism.

His reasoning turned on the fact that there was no equivalent pacifist movement in Nazi Germany, and that if there had been, it would have been immediately and ruthlessly snuffed out. The sad case of Tom Fox and other idealists who've preceded him should demonstrate that much the same holds true in the Islamo-fascist world.

13 March 2006

Big Brother Is Watching: And Your Problem Is...?

I've always had a general sympathy with civil libertarians, but either they've changed or I have, because the more I hear or see of them these days, the more I come to think that they have some sort of vested interest in - well, not exactly helping criminals and terrorists elude capture, but at least in giving them a fighting chance to do so.

This Guardian article describes how police are using the information encoded in Oyster cards (the semi-hi-tech computerized tickets we use on London public transportation) to track the movements of suspected criminals, and notes how this technique helped catch a teenage murderer who was using the Oyster card of his victim.

Basically, anyone with access to your Oyster card data can tell where and when you have traveled, what Underground stations you entered or exited, what buses you rode. And predictably enough:
Some civil liberties campaigners are opposed to systems such as Oyster, which is used by more than 5 million people, fearing the growth of a "Big Brother" surveillance society.
I'm tempted to ask what exactly is the problem with London Transport and/or the police knowing this information, especially if it helps catch dangerous criminals (the two kids who murdered the lawyer mentioned in the article had only moments before robbed another man at knifepoint, and apparently made a habit of such activities).

Of course I know too well what the problem is, because when I was at my most adamant about supporting civil liberties and restricting the powers of the police, it was - whether I admitted it or not - because I had quite a bit to hide. When I was running around dealing drugs and plotting to overthrow the government - hey, it was the 60s and the 70s; I just wanted to be down with the zeitgeist - I had very strong feelings about not wanting the police to know where I had been and where I might be going. Strangely enough, now that my illegal activities are confined to an occasional spate of jaywalking, I really couldn't care less if the police have a map on their station house wall detailing every journey I've taken for the past year.

This of course is the argument of many "good" citizens: if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear, and it's simplistic enough that I'm wary of embracing it too closely. Besides, while it makes sense on the surface, it doesn't take into account the possibility that the government or the police might not always be as fair or benign as we might wish in the use of their information.

So while I still don't feel the need to keep my own personal movements cloaked in secrecy, I'm not so ready to insist that everyone should have to adhere to the same standards of privacy (or lack thereof) that I'm willing to. That being said, under our present, relatively liberal system, who really needs to keep their movements secret unless they're running some sort of scam, whether it's straight-out criminal activity, or something as simple as lying to friends or family about what they're up to?

I suppose the best argument would come from those engaged in political activity and convinced that the government is out to get them as a result. And in light of some of the paranoid excesses that have come about in the wake of 9/11 - sandal-wearing old lefties being detained at airports because they once wrote a passionate letter to the article in favor of the Green Party or somesuch - they might have a case. But most police activity that I've seen around "seditious" groups and individuals has been directed either at potential Islamic terrorists or at the anti-globalization, black bloc types who stage demonstrations with the specific intent of smashing things, fighting the police, and in general trying to turn protest marches into riots.

No, I'm not suggesting that all Islamists are terrorists or that all anti-globalization marchers are violent anarchists; in fact only a tiny percentage of them are. But as I've noted before: if you accept a few psychos or thugs into your broad coalition, then you're choosing to accept and enable their behavior, and don't have much right to complain if the police trample over you and/or your rights on their way to get the criminals who genuinely need getting.

Anyway, it's all a pretty moot issue. Technology is not only not going to go away; it's going to continue to make secrecy and privacy more and more obsolete. Or, looked at another way, it's going to return society to the way it was through most of history: where people lived in smaller communities and everyone pretty much knew everyone's business. That may sound claustrophobic to some, but it's also the kind of societies that existed when basic democratic principles and the documents upholding them - from the Magna Carta to the US Constitution - were being created.

12 March 2006

California Unappreciation Post

I left Sydney on Friday afternoon after making a quick swing by the beach for one last swim before heading north. The sun was out, it was about 86 degrees (30C), and the water temperature was a lovely 75 (24C). I arrived in San Francisco, thanks to the vagaries of the International Date Line, on Friday morning, and walked out into an icy blast of wind, rain, sleet and hail. The temperature was, I believe about 42 (6C), and it got worse; by later that day, snow was falling intermittently in various parts of the Bay Area.

I thought I had planned things out so that I'd arrive in time for a lovely California spring, mild enough to cushion my re-entry next week into London, where March can generally be counted on to be miserable (and April, and very possibly May as well). I guess I was wrong; this foul weather is meant to keep up for the entire week I'm here.

Add to that the fact that most California houses, built on the premise that it never gets cold here (ha!), have very little in the way of insulation or heating, and you can picture me huddled over a tiny electric heater trying my valiant best to type while wearing gloves.

And as if on cue, midway through that last paragraph, a loud rattling sound from outside alerted me to the fact that it was hailing rather heavily, and a blanket of ice balls is piling up in the street. Brilliant! Sydney readers, please don't feel compelled to email and remind me that the sun is shining and that it's another almost perfect day in paradise down there. I'm more than well enough aware of that already.

Race, Cities and Gardens

The one time I visited Atlanta, some ten years ago, it felt like a lively but not especially comfortable place to live. Parts of the inner city were picturesque, but were obviously crime-ridden as well, while the suburbs were opulent but, well, suburban. As a result of the sprawl typical of many American cities, but especially pronounced in Atlanta, everybody went everywhere in private cars, and the traffic jams were nightmarish.

Now, according to this New York Times article, crime is down, the economy is booming, and people are streaming back into the inner city to live. Good news, you'd think?

Not according to some, who are "concerned" that as a result African-Americans may no longer constitute a majority of the city's population. To which I can only respond with a big "So what?" In the past half century dozens of American cities have shifted from white majority populations to black majority populations and anyone who tried to raise alarms about that would be considered, probably correctly, as a racist. So how is it any different to start yapping, "There goes the neighborhood" when white people start moving in?

I've seen a similar phenomenon at work in San Francisco's Mission District. The (largely white) artsy/bohemian/lefty crowd that have migrated there in recent years in search of cheap(er) rents and local color have been howling about "saving" the Mission from the more prosperous white professionals who followed them once gentrification's shock troops had helped pacify the neighborhood and opened a few cappuccino joints. Their argument: the Mission is "historically Latino," and should be preserved as such.

Since many of the radical gringos are recently arrived from Kansas or LA or the equivalent, they can perhaps be forgiven for their lack of local knowledge, but the fact is that Mission is no more "historically" Latino than historically Irish, which is what it was up until the 1940s, when large numbers of Latino immigrants started moving in. More to the point, when did it become "progressive" to try and segregate a neighborhood or city on the basis of race? Would it have been acceptable back in the 1940s or 50s to claim that Latino immigration was "threatening an historically Irish neighborhood"? I don't think so. How, then, can the reverse be true?

The fact is that all cities - living, thriving cities, anyway - change constantly. Neighborhoods that were desirable or hot or edgy become clapped out or cool or sedate; the people who were there move to some new part of town and make it reflect their needs and aspirations. It's only in culturally moribund places, or those in the grip of a misguided identity politics, that people attempt to freeze things in place in accordance with their vision of how a city or a society "should" be.

A not dissimilar mentality was at work in the hideous disfigurations and dislocations done in the name of "urban renewal" during the latter part of the 20th century; the high-rise slums and the once lively streets now reduced to little more than flyblown traffic corridors provide eloquent but brutal testimony to the attempt to introduce "rational" order into what should be an organic process. If you doubt this, look at the cities or sections of cities considered most desirable, where almost everyone would like to live if they could only afford it. Whether you're talking about San Francisco's Victorian neighborhoods or Manhattan's brownstone and redbrick terraces, almost without exception they were developed - and, in modern times, redeveloped - almost completely independently of central planning or political ideology. Conversely, look at the neighborhoods where people live only if they can't possibly afford to live anywhere else: rife with public housing and "planned" communities.

Does that mean the government should play no role in helping to develop housing or housing policy? No, but it needs to do so with a far lighter hand, more along the lines of a gardener who instead of willy-nilly tearing up the ground and trying to reshape it to suit his vision, instead patiently observes the lay of the land, tries to understand the way things grow naturally there, its assets and drawbacks, and only then begins to work, not as overlord, but in partnership with the natural forces that will, after all, outlive his puny efforts by a few thousand millennia.

Death Of A Gravy Train

"That's $200 million down the drain," was one of the more poignant epitaphs issued on behalf of deceased dictator and alleged mass murderer Slobodan Milosevic. I'd actually heard it was closer to $500 million, but what's a few hundred million among friends when it comes to putting on a good international show trial?

"Justice has been cheated," was the gist of most media coverage, such as this from the Observer and this from the Associated Press, but who in reality was lamenting the death of a clapped-out tyrant who at the very least was destined to spend the rest of his days in prison?

Apart from unregenerate Serbian nationalists, pretty much no one, except, that is, the small army of attorneys and bureaucrats who had made a major industry out of Milosevic's trial, and who had probably planned on it continuing to generate hefty incomes for them for years to come.

What other reason could there have been for dragging his trial out over four years, with no end in sight until Milosevic himself mercifully pulled the plug? Murderers who commit their crimes in dark alleys with few or no witnesses are routinely dispatched to prison or the death chamber after trials lasting weeks or even days. Milosevic did his dirty work on international television in front of an audience of millions and we need to hem and haw about the niceties of his guilt or innocence for nearly half a decade?

It's the sort of profligate, bloviating, and impotent spectacle one has come to expect from the United Nations, but the UN can hardly be saddled with all the blame; there's a tendency for legal matters to expand to meet not just the time and space, but, more pertinently, the legal fees available. In cases like that of Milosevic or of Saddam Hussein, those can be almost limitless.

Imagine if the government, in addition to spending millions to prosecute OJ Simpson, had also written a blank check for his Dream Team of defense attorneys. Hell, that trial might still be going today instead of petering out after a mere year. "You can't put a price on justice," apologists for the present system would argue, but there's little evidence that spending massive amounts of money on legal "expertise" produces more in the way of justice than a simple and speedy trial before one's peers. If anything, it probably produces less; for example, what exactly was or is the dispute regarding Slobodan Milosevic's or Saddam Hussein's guilt or innocence? Are they charged with slaughtering 100,000 peasants when a careful study might reveal that it was actually only 97,352? Should they be let off on the technicality that one of their underlings rather than the dictator himself gave the order to bomb and strafe the village or let loose with the nerve gas?

I'm not necessarily advocating the frontier maxim of, "We'll give him a fair trial and then take him out and hang him," nor the summary justice administered by Italian partisans to Mussolini, but couldn't there be some sort of middle ground here?

Of course you may expect that if I ever become dictator of a medium-sized country and am subsequently charged with war crimes, I'll be demanding all the justice money can buy, so perhaps I am being a little hypocritical here. But in the meantime, let me point out that rather than lamenting over the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on trying Milosevic, we could just as well take heart over the hundreds of millions more saved by his timely death.

09 March 2006

The History Boys

Today was my last day in Sydney, and a pretty full day it was, too, though I didn't get to do everything I'd hoped, meaning I didn't get to either the beach or the gym.

But I did have a wonderful sendoff at a dinner party hosted by Robert and catered by Michael (with sweets by Patrick) in lovely and colourful East Sydney.

And in the afternoon, R, M and I went to see the Alan Bennett play The History Boys at the Sydney Theatre Company, a highly entertaining and at times deeply touching study of how education and history shape our souls and our perceptions. It's got a bit of Goodbye, Mr Chips or To Sir With Love in it, but minus the occasional mawkishness of those pieces, and although it skirts the realms of sentimentality at times, it never stops to wallow in them. Mostly it's sharpish English humour - some of the suburban Aussie housewives in town for a bit of kulcha expressed bewilderment as to what those Poms were on about - and I found myself wondering how it will do with an American audience when it transfers to Broadway in mid-April.

Probably very well: for one thing there's a plethora of Anglophiles in New York, and for another, the cultural divide between London and New York has dissolved so much in recent years that it's often only the age and height of the buildings that reminds me which town I'm in.

Or maybe it's just because I've lived in England for a rather long time now, and while I once thought I'd forever feel like an alien there, many of the cultural markers that once seemed so impenetrable - regional accents, class distinctions, terminal irony - now feel almost comfortably familiar, even, or perhaps especially from 10,000 miles away.

How I came to be seeing The History Boys today instead of in London, where it had a very successful two year run, involves a bit of happenstance. I'm someone who used to go the theatre a lot, but for the past few years - say for all of the 21st century thus far - I just haven't gotten around to it, or been sufficiently inspired. So while I'd read about The History Boys and thought, "That sounds interesting," and while I'd walked across Waterloo Bridge dozens of times and noticed it playing at the National Theatre, the thought of actually buying a ticket and going to see it never sufficiently penetrated my thick skull.

Then here I was on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Darlinghurst, finding myself sitting next to a friend from London (people from London seem to keep popping up here as though Sydney were merely an extension of Greater Soho). I ask him - as you do - what he's doing here, and it turns out that not only is he appearing in The History Boys, but that he's been a part of the cast since it opened, and that he was also in the film of it, which will open sometime this (Northern) autumn. Well, I didn't say he was a close friend - I typically run into him in London about once every six months or year - but still, it seems as though I should have had some idea.

I mean, I'd known he was an actor, but I guess I'd sort of assumed he was like so many actors I knew, kind of struggling along from bit part to audition to bit of commercial work. And modest fellow that he is, he didn't do much to dispel that impression on Sunday, telling me how lucky he'd been to find a steady bit of work while emphasising how fragile the actor's position - and ego - can be when a few weeks or months go by without work. He never mentioned or even suggested that he played one of the major roles in The History Boys, enthusing instead about what a great ensemble he had been privileged to work with, and it was only tonight that someone pointed out to me that he - and the rest of the cast, to be sure - had their picture hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. As someone who's spent innumerable rainy afternoons slouching around the NPG, I must colour myself impressed; offhand, I don't recall seeing any other of my acquaintances hanging there. On second thought, I've probably met a couple of the punk/pop/rock type personalities, but that's hardly as impressive; I mean, how many lines do they have to memorise?

Well, enough rambling; it's time for me to go to bed and (sigh) sleep my last night in Sydney. For those of you in New York, I highly recommend you see The History Boys when it turns up there in mid-April. Anyone else, watch for the film. During set changes snippets of video were played which may or may not have been from the film; most of it was in black and white and looked rather like a Smiths album cover, an impression heightened by the frequent use of "The Headmaster's Ritual" as background music. Even if I'm not nearly the Smiths geek I once was, it looks promising for that alone, and if it comes near to capturing the spirit of the play, it should be an outstanding film. Anyway, so long to a great day and a great summer in Sydney; next time you hear from me it will be either from cold and nasty Berkeley or even colder and nastier London. Lucky I've got my love to keep me warm. Or so I keep telling myself.

08 March 2006

Not Learning From History

I'm advised that SDS, aka Students For a Democratic Society, the 1960s group who, originally founded in 1962 took only seven years to degenerate from non-violent, vaguely left-wing idealists into bomb-throwing psychopaths, is back in business.

We are activists from around the country who feel that a student movement is desperately needed to carry on the struggle for participatory democracy

is what their website says; it's might be worth bearing in mind that this is pretty much what they said the first time around, which didn't stop them from rather quickly becoming about as undemocratic a movement as you'd want to see this side of Nazi Germany.

Larry's Literary Corner

I've been fortunate enough to read two good books lately. Well, actually, I read one great book and one sort of okay book, which the way I figure averages out to two good books, right?

Both are by authors of about the same age, with roots in the punk scene, but while King Dork, by (Doctor) Frank Portman, makes little overt mention of punk rock apart from some passing references to the Ramones, it's not only a vastly better book than What We Do Is Secret, by Thorn Kief Hillsbery, it's far more punk, in the truest and best sense of the word.

Which is ironic, because Hillsbery's book is set deep in the punk underground of Los Angeles, 1981, and never strays out of that most hardcore of punk scenes, the one that grew up around the Masque and the Germs and some of the most desperate and crazed street kids you'd never want to meet. And yet, while Hillsbery has all the ingredients for a classic novel set in a milieu that few people experienced and even fewer survived with enough brain cells intact to write a sentence or two, he blows it bigtime, producing a pretty good story only to drown it in art-damage poetics that render large sections of it almost unreadable.

No such trouble with Dr Frank's work: King Dork is supremely, delightfully readable, and although it contains big words and big concepts, it never resorts to heavy-handedness or didacticism (i.e., it never tries to make a point by using words like "didactism"). Instead, it lays out a story and tells it very straightforwardly, or as straightforwardly as its rather quirky and deeply thoughtful 14 or 15 year old narrator can make it. One reader said that he kept hearing Dr Frank's voice instead of that of Tom Henderson, aka Chi-Mo, the self-proclaimed "King Dork" of the novel, but as someone who has known Dr Frank reasonably well for many years, I didn't find that true. I heard echoes of Frank's voice (and especially his philosophy), but the character he'd created had more than enough substance to stand completely on his own.

This is unfortunately not the case with Hillsbery's lead character, a 13 year old worshipper (and alleged lover) of the recently deceased Darby Crash. He's a picturesque character, all right; every scene used to have one: the mouthy, small-for-his-age but brashly cute kid who everyone kind of adopts as a pet and gives drugs to and encourages him to do crazy things that make everyone laugh and say, "Man, he's so cool." Until, of course, he reaches puberty and isn't cute anymore and becomes just another junkie or ripoff merchant and ends up ODing or getting stabbed in some back alley.

Well, fortunately that didn't happen to Hillsbery's hero, partly because all the action takes place in one day, partly because by the end of the book Hillsbery has veered so far off into I-wish-I-was-Rimbaud word riffage that it's hard to tell what if anything has happened.

Hillsbery obviously knows something about the LA scene; either he was there or is a top-notch researcher. He weaves real people into the action as though they were fictional characters, too; something I've always thought was a good idea, especially if you can avoid being sued. My own experience of the LA punk and hardcore scene is pretty limited, but I did spend a little time there and actually know some of the people described or at least name-checked here. And when it comes to capturing the sheer squalidness and desperation of disillusioned punks turning into desperate junkies, which was what was happening when I was down there in late 1980, he's got it going on.

Pity then, that he couldn't stick to telling what started as a great story, but instead went sailing off into wilder and wilder free association wordplay that - to me at least - sounded a lot more like acid-tripping hippies in the early 70s than Hollywood punks in the the early 80s. And the more frantically he grasps for images, the more he forgets time and place and slips into mood-shattering anachronisms. He refers to "screeching weasel wheels," for example, and "Ritual de lo habitual," neither of which would have had any meaning in 1981, and constantly slips in lines from Bob Dylan and occasionally the Beatles, neither of which 13 year old Hollywood punks would have been too familiar with, or even if they were, certainly wouldn't have admitted it. Eventually I had to just skip a couple whole chapters near the middle of the book, where apparently Hillsbery was trying to demonstrate that the characters were on drugs. Or that he was, which come to think of it, sounds more likely.

Dr Frank, on the other hand, by avoiding the confines of the punk scene altogether, makes it possible for his preternaturally intelligent protagonist to say and think just about anything and have it sound plausible. You may never have personally met a kid this bright (or wise-assed), but you know he probably exists or existed somewhere, and even if he didn't he's entertaining and endearing enough that you're willing to believe in him. Or as Oscar Wilde put it:

The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies.

Hillsbery, on the other hand, has said that his work is largely autobiographical, and as a result sets himself a test that he's almost sure to fail. In fact, he comes off more than a little J.T. Leroyish, both in his carefully controlled and almost certainly fudged bio, and in his often over-the-top efforts to use his character(s) (but really there's only one, his alter ego) for maximum shock value.

It's a pity, really, because that whole LA scene is just crying out for a good novel. For that matter, so is the punk scene in general, but I certainly haven't seen one yet. But even though Dr Frank has assiduously avoided, at least with this book, tackling the punk scene head on, by reading it you're far more likely to get an idea of how and why a kid becomes a punk, an idea which is far more subtle and thought-provoking than Hillsbery's explanation, which isn't bad either:
Why am I a punk? Because I wasn't anything before, except different. And now it's like I'm different, but with a vengeance.
Of course maybe we're talking about two very different kinds of punks here: the nihilistic, self-destructive ones of the Darby Crash era, and the thoughtful, creative ones who grow up to write what may turn out to be one of the more important novels of the early 21st century. Well, not just maybe; we are. It just occurred to me that Frank would have been just about the right age to run away to Hollywood and hang out with Darby Crash and do drugs and make a total mess of his life by the time he was 16. Read King Dork, though, and not only will you be glad he didn't; you'll have a much better understanding of why he didn't.

As for What We Do Is Secret, despite my criticisms and regrets that it didn't live up to its potential, I'm not panning it completely. I can't wholeheartedly recommend buying it, but I'd certainly suggest hanging out at your local book store and devoting an hour or two to skimming through all the best bits, possibly with your iPod blasting a good selection of Germs and other circa 79-81 SoCal hardcore. Then maybe go write your own book and see if you can do better.

Smokers, Bloody Smokers

Yes, apparently there are a few things getting on my nerves today, and I don't even have time to mention the three jam-packed buses that drove by without picking up passengers, meaning that the dozen or so people waiting (not so) patiently had to sit (or stand, since there were nowhere near enough seats) there for 45 minutes before a bus finally came along with room for them. By that time, I'd already walked most of the way home, and contented myself with giving the driver the finger, for which I felt bad, since it's not really his fault that the management of the bus company and the government who's responsible for it are completely corrupt and stupid.

But I digress: probably the reason I was already in a bad mood was having to put up with gross, disgusting, selfish people who can't spend ten minutes at the beach without lighting up a cigarette (or cigar) and stinking up the fresh air for everyone around them. Not to mention using the beach sand (or even the water) as an ashtray. It's almost always an annoyance, but today I got it especially bad: on one side of me was a corpulent businessman who spend his whole afternoon conducting business from a beach chair while waving around an enormous, smelly cigar, and on the other side were three doofy men of a certain age, i.e., the age where they acquire bellies almost identical to those sported by pregnant women, and feel an even greater compulsion to display them publicly.

This particular crew got through an entire pack of cigarettes in an hour, and then switched to rolling their own. They did no swimming, no sunbathing, nothing you would normally associate with going to the beach. It was almost as though one of them had phoned up the others and said, "Hey, whaddya doing this afternoon? Wanna go down to the beach and smoke a whole bunch of cigarettes?"

I take that back. On a couple of occasions, one of the men did wade out into the water until it was knee-deep, and stood there smoking a cigarette and flicking the ashes into the surf. Very in touch with nature, it was.

It's not just the beach, though; in recent months I've developed a new hatred for smokers, and I say that with full knowledge that some of my best friends, etc. etc. Although that's becoming less true, too. Fewer and fewer people smoke these days, and those that persist in clinging to the habit tend to be those with particularly weak wills or low self-esteem. They're either teens or twenty-somethings desperate to fit in and look "cool," or they're pathetic old addicts too beaten down by life to think about doing something so rudimentarily sensible as to stop poisoning themselves. And, of course, others.

I've always tried to avoid going too much on a rampage against smokers. After all, I once was one myself, and it's such a pernicious habit that if I'm not careful, I could always slip back into it again (though please take me out and shoot me if I ever show any signs of actually doing so). Plus I wanted to avoid the stereotype of the ex-smoker who becomes messianically opposed to others doing what he used to do. But what's weird is that it's been a long time since I smoked, and yet my antipathy for smokers is getting more, not less intense.

I think it might be because I've finally begun to get a taste for a world in which people are no longer allowed to randomly poison anyone else in the room: in New York, California, Ireland, Canada, and many other sane places, smoking has been completely banned in buildings open to the public. England and Australia will be following suit soon. And now that I know that breathing fresh air has become a right rather than a privilege, I want more! I want people banned from smoking on the beaches, on the streets, in the parks, anywhere, in fact, except within the foul confines of their own smelly houses and cars (with the windows rolled up, natch). The yappy girl across the street comes out on her porch to have a cigarette and the smoke comes drifting up to my window. It's all I can do to refrain from yelling, "Oi! Get back inside and stink up your own house!"

Do I sound uncharitable? Probably. I know in my heart that smoking is a terrible addiction, just like drugs or alcohol, and that many people will die because they're unable to kick it. I try to adopt a similar attitude toward the drunks and junkies passed out in the streets around King's Cross: while they're unpleasant to look at (and sometimes to smell), they're also deeply troubled human beings who are wrestling with a life-threatening condition. Some of them will recover, some won't, but they're all human beings and deserve at least some sympathy.

But at the same time, they don't deserve (or benefit from) indulgence. To free them completely from the consequences of their actions only makes it easier to keep on killing themselves, and the same goes for smokers. There's a limit to how many laws we can pass regulating drug, alcohol or tobacco use, but there should be no limit to other means of persuasion, such as ridicule and social ostracism.

If you think about how most people start smoking - the teenager who's trying to impress her friends or is so bored or insecure that she needs something to do with her hands - or about why they continue - the 20-something Williamsburg hipster sucking down on his fag as frantically as any 12 year old who saw a movie where it looked "cool" - you'll quickly see how nearly every smoker, at least in the early years, does it mainly for the image. And if we go along with it, i.e., refrain from pointing out how ridiculous and pathetic they look, then we're essentially saying, "Sure, go ahead and kill yourself and poison everyone else around you while you're at it. It's just one of many equally valid lifestyle choices."

If you still smoke, and are still reading this, you might be getting pretty mad at me by now. Mainly because you know everything I'm saying is true. So do yourself a favour and quit before it gets too hard and you're too old and life is too shitty. And then you can start nagging the rest of your friends and save me the trouble.