28 September 2006

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

Do we? When I was a more devout Morrissey-listener, I tended to take on faith whatever the man said, and since being envious of our friends' success and morose about our own lack thereof seemed intrinsic to the Mozzer's miserabilist and misanthropic world view, I assumed that was the natural state of affairs.

But now that I've had a few friends become successful, some very successful indeed, I've found it's a bit more complex than that. I think it would be a denial of human nature- well, my nature, anyway - to claim that thoughts like, "If only it could have been me," never crossed my mind. And there's another aspect, too: once friends become famous, it's almost as though they've acquired thousands - or millions - of new friends with whom you have to compete for attention. Someone who once had endless amounts of time to lounge about the café or the bar having free-ranging discussions about the nature of everything suddenly has a personal assistant shepherding him or her through a demanding and never-ending series of appointments with, if you're lucky, "friend time" pencilled in from 3:45 to 4:15 two Saturdays from now.

Of course a miniature version of this takes place even if your friends are neither rich nor famous, if they've done nothing more "successful" than grow up, get jobs and maybe serious relationships or marriages. But it's multiplied many times over when the kind of work they do makes them more or less public property. I've often said how it felt the last time Green Day played at Gilman before setting off on their first major label tour, the one that would launch Dookie: that the once "little" band that had been at the heart of our happy scene was ours no more, that now they belonged to the world.

What brought this on, by the way? Why, simply the news that Dr Frank's (aka Frank Portman) brilliant and best-selling novel King Dork may be about to become a major motion picture. Well, the rights have been purchased, anyway. It's no guarantee that the film will actually be made, as the scriptwriter in the family constantly reminds me; e's been making a very good living since 1995 writing and rewriting film scripts, exactly none of which have ended up being made. Well, one was, but only for television, which apparently doesn't count.

But there seems to be a shining star above, guiding and illuminating the progress of King Dork, so my bet is that not only will the film be made, but that it will be hugely successful. Epoch-making, even. But the funny thing is, I wasn't nearly so envious of Frank's upcoming foray into Tinseltown (my own very limited experiences in Hollywood have led me to believe it might not be exactly my ideal milieu) so much as I was of this account of his rather triumphant appearance at a high school near where he grew up. Maybe it's just me, but I suspect anyone who was more or less a geek or loser in high school days harbours fantasies of coming back as a conquering hero. Not to imply that Frank was a geek or loser in high school - though perusing the pages of King Dork would indicate he certainly knows the territory - but I sure was.

Anyway, congratulations to Frank, who's now hard at work on his second novel, Andromeda Klein, and if you want to join in the Pop Punk Bored discussion of who should star in King Dork: The Movie, go here. I'm sure Hollywood's movers and shakers will be watching with bated breath.Link

27 September 2006

His Aura Smiles And Never Frowns

You'd think, wouldn't you, that if your city were experiencing a spectacular climb in murders and other crimes of violence, that the mayor would have something to say about it? In fact, any half-decent mayor would not just be saying something, he'd be out there mounting the barricades, flooding the streets with cops, demanding that everyone involved with the local justice system pull their finger out and do something, anything, to stop the carnage.

Not, however, if your city is Oakland and your mayor is Jerry Brown. As two more seemingly innocent bystanders are gunned down, keeping Oakland on course toward its highest murder rate since 1995, and within striking distance of its highest murder rate ever, Brown, who once bragged about revitalising and transforming Oakland, has been strangely MIA.

Well, it's actually only within Oakland itself that the mayor is nowhere to be seen; you can find him almost anywhere else in California campaigning to be State Attorney General. His platform? Tough on crime, natch.

Either Jerry Brown is deserving of the chutzpah award originally given to the boy who killed his parents before pleading for mercy on grounds that he was an orphan, or Californians have the attention span of gnats - okay, I know, both are true - but it looks pretty likely that come November the man who has presided over Oakland's worst crime wave in over a decade will be elected as California's top crime fighter.

It doesn't help any that Brown's Republican opponent, apart from being saddled with the extremely unfortunate name of "Poochigian" (the torment he must have received in his school days must have been enough to scar any normal human being for life), is also a right wing gun nut who's made himself very unpopular with the state's law enforcement community by crusading in favour of keeping armour-piercing "cop killer" bullets legal. As a result, most of the state's police organisations are backing Brown. One is tempted to suspect they're hoping Brown will carry out his state law enforcement duties much as he did in Oakland, i.e., barely or not at all, which will free up cops everywhere from the dangerous and unpleasant task of chasing criminals.

I was once a big supporter of Jerry Brown, so much so that I couldn't understand why the Dead Kennedys were saying such mean things about him in their classic "California Über Alles." Kicking around somewhere is the "Brown For President" button I wore proudly in 1976, and I've often maintained that if he'd followed my advice (sent to him by letter in 1975) to enter the early primaries before Jimmy Carter built up too big a lead, he would have been President.

I was still enthusiastic about him when he took on the thankless task of leading Oakland out of the mire in which it had wallowed since the 1960s, but I've now lost all respect for the man. Once he'd secured a second term as mayor, it was if Oakland and its problems ceased to exist; all that mattered was what was best for Jerry Brown and his political career. That, apparently, will be to treat all troubling questions about his failed (or nonexistent) law enforcement policy with the stock answer of, "I never had mayoral relations with that city, Oakland."

Is Queens The New Brooklyn?

And Astoria the new Williamsburg? Given that half the people I know in New York City either live in or are planning to move somewhere out along the ass-end of the N line, I've long suspected that I too might end up in one of those cute row houses in Archie Bunker and George Costanza-land.

I actually find it painful to employ the "new Williamsburg" cliché, aware as I am that it's already been bandied about for a couple years now, but I'm at a loss for another way to express it. The parallels are unavoidable: tantalizingly near, with Manhattan's spires looming as a spectacular backdrop to what might otherwise look like the mundane streets of a forgotten outer borough; frustratingly far, in that both neighbourhoods are dependent on a single, notoriously unreliable subway line. Most importantly, Astoria still has what Williamsburg once did: rents cheap enough (by New York standards, anyway) to lure ambitious young musicians and artists desperate to perform on the biggest stage of all but hopelessly unable to afford any of the city's more traditional hipster districts.

Add to that a core of homegrown hipsters (calm down, kids, I mean the word in the nicest possible way) who actually grew up in Astoria and whose bands and shows have started to attract like-minded individuals from around the country, and you've got the same formula that's transformed one neighbourhood after another in New York City. But because Astoria was never as decrepit or crime-ridden as the East Village or Williamsburg (or most of Brooklyn, for that matter), it's possible the transformation might happen far more rapidly.

Latest harbinger of Astoria's encroaching hipness: this new film, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, which, if this review is to be believed, promises to do for Queens what Saturday Night Fever did for Brooklyn. Well, in a low-key, indie arthouse sort of way, but still... I'm starting to get the feeling that by the time I finally get around to moving to Astoria, I'll no longer be able to afford it.

26 September 2006

Shirtless Glowering Enraged White Guys Whipping The Bejesus Out Of One Another

That's Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla's take on American Hardcore, the new documentary on... well, Harvilla's synopsis pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

"American Hardcore is one of those Dude That Music Scene We Had Was Totally Sweet, Dude docs designed to make said music scene's principals feel important and you personally feel lousy for having missed it," Harvilla writes, but at the same time acknowledges, "This all can feel oddly and sweetly romantic."

I haven't seen the film (not on release in the UK yet), but I saw a fair bit of the subject matter during that bleak period in the 1980s when the original punk scene had pretty much faded away and the East Bay pop-punk explosion hadn't yet got underway. True, the music was more to my liking than some other post-punk trends like drug-soaked speedmetal or atonal anarchist dirges (hello Crass!). But the difficulty of going to a hardcore show without coming soaked in blood (whether your own or someone else's didn't seem to matter, but actually it sort of did to me) took much of the shine off the scene for me. Maybe it was just a case of my not having been at the right shows; I'll see American Hardcore when I get the chance and report back if I have a change of heart.

But before I forget, despite all the moaning from those who would have preferred to see the Voice stuck forever in its 70s dinosaur rut (à la San Francisco's Bay Guardian), the new owners seem to be making some good staff and editorial decisions. Getting rid of the ancient hippies who were beginning to fossilise before our eyes was obviously an important step, and new hires like Harvilla show great promise. The guy can write well, and has a real knowledge of and passion for the material he covers, something that's been lacking from the Voice since, oh, around the time of the last Central Park love-in.

A Tough Act To Follow

So the ITV commentator said of Tony Blair's valedictory address to the Labour Party Conference, and illustrated his point with a camera shot of Gordon Brown grinning feebly as the soon-to-be former Prime Minister wowed the masses with a masterful blend of sop and sentiment that seemed to to leave many of the party faithful wondering just why they wanted to get rid of this guy in the first place.

Blair's going will leave a large vacuum in the Labour Party, much as Thatcher's did to the Conservatives. The difference is that Blair, who I'm beginning to think is even a sharper politician than Lady T, has managed to get the crowds missing him before he's even gone. While Thatcher pretty much had to be bludgeoned and dragged away from the seat of power, and to brood in exile for a good while before the Tories realised that bumbling along under John Major or William Hague or Ian Duncan-Smith was never going to be quite the same, Blair has pulled the plug on his own Premiership before it could be done for him.

Or rather, he promised he would do it at some unspecified date, and then set about saying his long, agonised goodbye-in-advance that had many pundits tonight wondering if perhaps Labour might reverse itself and decide that it's better off with its charismatic incumbent than his competent but drab challenger. "How can I miss you if you won't go away?" the old saying (or was it a song) went, but Blair seems to have reversed that equation: where only a few weeks ago demands that he leave sooner rather than later were reaching a crescendo, he's now in a position where the more he promises to go away, the more likely it becomes that he'll be asked to stay.

Will he? Probably not, though I'm sure he'd get a good laugh out of the look on Gordon Brown's face if the prize were snatched away from him yet one more time (and probably for the final time; if Blair were to manage to wriggle out of this one and hang onto power for another year or three, Brown would be finished, or at least reduced to a laughingstock). And while I, like most people, have grown weary of Blair, the contrast between his speech and Brown's on the previous day was dramatic. While Brown plodded through a formless mush of clichés and catch phrases, Blair was positively electrifying. I was going to call him Kennedyesque, but he was more statesmanlike that that. Not quite Churchillian, perhaps, but in the ballpark, with a dash of General MacArthur's "Old soldiers never die" farewell thrown in for good measure. Both Brown and Tory leader David Cameron come across as pygmies by comparison.


To those of you who've read one or more drafts of my memoir, or spent any significant amount of time sitting around with me in the pub: you've probably already heard some version of the story that appeared in this space yesterday. Sorry about that, but I figured it was appropriate to tell i again on several grounds: 1) to balance out my lack of sympathy for the Haight Street denizens with the recognition that I've been known to behave just as badly; 2) because there are many readers who wouldn't have heard it before; 3) because I like hearing myself tell stories; and 4) I want to get them straight in my mind before my memory starts to go.

25 September 2006

My Own Days As A Pigeon

The first time I remember hearing Rod Stewart's song "Maggie May" was while I was cutting across the Cadillac dealer's lot on E. Huron Street in Ann Arbor in - when else? - late September of 1971. Which of course doesn't make much sense; how could I have heard a song playing out in the middle of a car lot?

So it must have been playing in my head, and it couldn't have been the first time, either, because I already knew most of the lyrics, including the line about, "It's late September and I really should be back in school." It was nagging at my conscience, that line was. It had been a couple years since I'd set foot in anything resembling a school - assuming jail doesn't count - and many years before I would again, and I was feeling antsy.

Ann Arbor being first and foremost a college town, the sight of thousands of fresh - and not so fresh - faced U of M students flooding back to classes was as sure a sign of autumn as the football crowds and the bright yellow tinge creeping onto the edges of the mostly still green leaves overhead. The night had been chilly, but now, in mid-morning, the sunlight was pounding down from a crisp and deep blue sky; it was going to be a hot day, almost like midsummer.

But I'd lived in Michigan long enough to know that weather like this was deceptively, heartbreakingly fleeting. Some years it might linger on into October, most years not, but either way, it was only a matter of days, or a week or two at most, before the winds would come howling down from Canada, freezing life in its tracks and putting a swift clampdown on my mostly carefree life on the streets.

Winter's not such a big deal if you've got someplace warm to curl up with a big pile of books, which was partly why the life of a student looked better than it had in a while. But by now I'd been kicked out of college three times and flunked out another, so even my fairly thick head had finally gotten itself around the idea that I might not be cut out for academic life. The last time I'd been in a classroom was 1969, and that was as a janitor at U of M, which also happened to be the last job I'd had.

Which might help explain why I had no place to live, not a good situation to be in with winter drawing near. So far I hadn't had to spend any nights on the streets - if I did, it was because I was too drunk or high to bother going in - but I was completely reliant on the generosity of friends, random acquaintances, and sometimes outright strangers. At the beginning of summer there'd been 12 of us piled into a two-bedroom apartment over by Campus Corners, an apartment that had technically belonged to... well, since nobody was paying rent, I guess nobody.

But that was gone now, and the same crowd, minus one guy who'd OD'd, were now crammed into a one-bedroom basement apartment at the other end of the block. Somebody actually was paying rent here, and regularly let it be known that people couldn't expect to keep crashing there all winter. It was too claustrophobic anyway, so I spent as much time as possible anywhere else I could. This particular morning I was tearing across town in pursuit of some minor-league dope deal that I hoped might net me 10 or 15 bucks, of which I'd volunteer to kick in maybe half toward expenses back at the crash pad and thus maybe buy myself a few more days or weeks.

I can't remember if the dope deal ever worked out - there'd been an incredible dry spell that year, which was why most of us were so broke - but I do remember spending the next few days brooding about where my life was going. That was something I hadn't been giving much thought to for the past couple years; I'd just sort of figured things would always work out somehow. But watching the students go back to class, and realizing that they'd have college diplomas before they were as old as I was, made me wonder, in a very scary way, if I'd taken a wrong turn.

Well, I knew I had, actually; as near as I could tell, my whole life thus far had been a series of wrong turns. But suddenly it felt a lot more out of control, and a bit more threatening than it ever had before. Not knowing what else to do, I decided it was time to get out of town, and hitchhiked down to Kent, Ohio, where I'd spent some time hiding out from the law back in 1968, and where I still knew a couple people.

They took me in, gave me a soft spot on their basement floor, and fed me breakfast, lunch and dinner; hippies no longer, they'd taken jobs and ate on a schedule like normal working people. It was more food than I'd eaten in years, and I was soon growing as fat as them. Fat, and sickly. It might have been all the drugs I was taking, but I was convinced I was coming down with scurvy from a lack of fresh vegetables, and took to digging up dandelion greens from the yard. Which kept me going until the first real snow and ice storm blew in around the first of November.

At that point, it finally sunk in that I might have to do something to look after myself, that I couldn't rely forever on handouts and the kindness of others. I stayed up all night high on speed, wrote a several-pages-long epic poem in iambic pentameter, and just before dawn had a blinding revelation. I was finally going to take responsibility for myself. Too impatient to wait for the others to wake up, I went barging into the upstairs bedroom at about 6 am and announced, "I figured out what I'm going to do with my life. I'm going to apply for welfare."

23 September 2006

Feeding The Pigeons

London Mayor Ken Livingstone is a funny guy. Confessed newt-fancier, coddler of Muslim queerbashers and South American dictators, he's also done much to jolt London out of the stodgy rut in which it wallowed for many of the post-war years. These days exciting new buildings are sprouting all over the city and miserable traffic islands like Trafalgar Square have been partially pedestrianised and turned into urban oases. Ken's crusade against the private automobile, typified by his £8 ($15) daily congestion charge for driving into Central London has cut traffic by 20 or 30%, and public transport use has steadily increased.

True, he keeps raising fares, already the highest in the world, but that's only aimed at the handful of middle-class suckers who still pay (okay, I'm exaggerating; maybe as many as half the passengers buy tickets) in order to subsidise free or dirt-cheap travel for teenage muggers and dole recipients, but at least he's buying new buses, tarting up the Underground, and, albeit in fits and starts, genuinely improving a transport system which had been in decline for decades.

So for me, Ken is a mixed bag. As wacky and unpleasant as he can be on some subjects, I can't deny he's done a lot for London. And there's one thing on which he and I agree: the Mayor hates pigeons. If he gets his way, they'll be banished from the city, starting with the above-mentioned Trafalgar Square, where he's slapped a ban on the popular tourist practice of feeding the "feathered rats," as he's fond of calling them.

It seems to be working, too; though there is still no pigeon shortage, numbers do seem to be way down. This being England, of course, there is a significant but vocal minority of pigeon fanciers who are outraged over the Mayor's crusade and have declared themselves ready to go to prison if need be to defend their favourite fowl's right to continue fouling the statuary and insufficiently nimble pedestrians.

The pigeons still reign unchallenged out in the obscure precincts of Zone 2 where I make my home. They've driven off pretty most other forms of bird life from the little park where I do my morning t'ai chi, and, confirming the Mayor's characterisation of them, I've seen them foraging in the undergrowth, side by side with some fairly prodigious rats. Their only avian - or should that be amphibian? - competition for the local food supply, i.e., rubbish left behind by the park's numerous tramps and gangbangers - are the ducks and swans that roam the adjacent canal.

Several times a week an old lady or man will stroll down to the park with a sack of bread crumbs and empty them into the canal, which drives the pigeons mad because they can't get at them. But a few of the elderly do-gooders come specifically to feed the pigeons, and though I'd like to challenge them - "Oi, you know those filthy birds spread disease, drive out other birds, damage public monuments and will shit on your head given half a chance, don't you?" - it's hard to say boo to an 80-something old dear who may not have many other joys in her life. And, knowing my neighbourhood, many of them would clobber me with their handbags. Or send their recently-released-from-prison grandsons around to thump me with something more substantial.

In case you're wondering why I'm banging on at such length about pigeons, I should tell you that I didn't set out to write about pigeons at all, but rather about feral street people in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The author of this otherwise reasonably balanced piece managed to wind me up by repeatedly referring to them as "kids" when in fact most of them seem to be (at least) in their 20s, making it sound as though they were a pack of winsome little children cast out onto the Dickensian street by a cruel, uncaring society.

In reality, the article makes it evident that they're mainly drug addicts and alcoholics of the usual sort; only the fact that they're clad in the last tattered vestiges of the Haight's hippie past differentiates them from the more conventional skid row denizens down on Market Street and in the Tenderloin. It also gains them sympathy and support from the same sort of people who would probably be out feeding pigeons if their human equivalent weren't closer at hand.

In wondering why people feed pigeons when they're clearly not very pleasant or congenial creatures, I've come to the conclusion that they see them in Magoo-like fashion: they've got feathers, they fly, therefore they must be like those lovely songbirds that used to cluster around Grandma's backyard feeder. Similarly, when the Haight Street hustlers wear a bit of paisley or tie-dye and intersperse their please for spare change with an occasional "far out," it allows nostalgic hippie-philes to delude themselves that by supplying the unfortunate derelicts with free food, booze, and syringes they're supporting 60s-style peace, love and freedom.

The SF Weekly piece is centred around one "Lilac," an ex-con, drug dealer and thief who's pushing 30 but still qualifies as a "street kid," apparently because of his blond dreadlocks and his "piercing blue eyes." Granted, we've all got our own personal prejudices; I found myself thinking I could overlook his panhandling, drug dealing, maybe even his thieving (though I'd have to draw the line at the laptop he filched from a student in Texas, which puts him into full-on scumbag territory in my book) if it weren't for those damn dreadlocks and that unfortunate nickname.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's Mayor Newsom has been hanging out in New York (I don't blame him; it's certainly a much more pleasant place), apparently trying to figure out how to run a city. He sends back this dispatch explaining how he's going to do for Golden Gate Park what New York has done for Central Park, namely turn it into an urban oasis of civility and tranquillity, but I suspect "Lilac" and his mates will have something to say about that. "This is our living space — Golden Gate Park is ours," he says, in the course of complaining about how the San Francisco Opera had ruined the atmosphere in the park by putting on a free concert when he and his friends were "sitting around smoking bowls and trying to sell some bud."

San Francisco mayors have been promising to solve the (pick one) homeless/street bum situation as far back as the 1970s, and none of them have made much progress. Gavin Newsom might as well stay in New York for all the effect his own efforts are likely to have. There are just too many Frisco folks determined to keep feeding the pigeons.

Just When I Was Beginning To Think Banksy Might Not Be Complete Rubbish

Does This Mean We Can Expect A Military Coup Against George Bush?

Beware Of Late Night Badgers

London buses and Underground carriages have been knee deep in newsprint these past few weeks as a cutthroat competition has broken out between Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and Lord Rothermere's Associated Newspapers over who can hand out the most freebies.

It's barely possible to walk into an Underground station or indeed down most high streets without being virtually assaulted by eager young (and not so young) barkers insisting that you take one of their newspapers. "It's free," they chant, mantra-like, as they attempt to stuff a paper under your arm if you're not cooperative enough to hold out your hand for one.

Often representatives of the two competing papers, London Lite (Rothermere) and The London Paper (Murdoch), will set up shop only yard away from each other, each trying to shout down their opposition if not muscle them right off the pavement. The two new evening papers join a market already cluttered with two morning freebies and nearly a dozen for-sale dailies.

And is there enough news to fill that many papers? Not a problem, apparently, though "news" might be stretching a point; much of the new papers' content involves gossip, features on where to go drinking or clubbing, slice-of-life stories about everyday Londoners (if "everyday Londoners" can be taken to mean people who are young, good-looking, and blessed with unlimited resources to spend on clothes and entertainment). And did I mention gossip? And scandal? In other words, a dumbed-down (you wouldn't have thought it possible, would you?) version of Britain's already massively successful tabloid press. The journalistic equivalent of fast food: full of empty calories and thoroughly enjoyable, even if the aftertaste contains more than a soupçon of guilt. For instance, I've been carrying a very edifying book with me on my journeys around town this week, and haven't so much as opened it once, because I've been too busy devouring the free papers that seem to accumulate in my backpack faster than I can get through them.

With free newspapers becoming almost the norm, what is likely to happen to the more traditional ones, which, even if they're charging money for their print copies, can be read for free on the internet? Some observers are speculating that all newspapers will eventually have to be free, deriving their income entirely from advertising. Which raises the further question: just as one wonders whether the volume of news and features (and aspiring freelance journalists) can expand indefinitely to fill the space available, are there enough products for sale and people with money to buy them to support an unlimited growth in advertising?

If the f0r-sale papers are running scared in the face of their free competition, they're showing little sign of it: already priced considerably higher than American papers, they've lately been raising their prices with dizzying speed. The Guardian has gone from 40p (75¢) to 70p ($1.30) within my recent memory, and the Sunday times is now £2, having doubled its price during the same period. A strange reaction in the face of declining circulation figures, but no doubt there are many things about the newspaper industry that I have yet to understand.

Oh, and lest I give the wrong impression, the new free papers are not all fluff and tittle-tattle. The other day's item about the 40-strong pack of knife and gun-wielding bicyclists was culled from the free press, as is the following, also printed in its entirety:
Beware Of Late Night Badgers

Animal welfare workers are exhausted by badger emergencies late at night. They want motorists to be more aware of the animals.

Perhaps a task force needs to be sent to Wisconsin to observe how that state deals with its own badger issue?

22 September 2006

Five Years

Today marks an anniversary of sorts: five years free from alcohol and drugs. Actually, I'd given up marijuana, the last of my drugs, quite a few years earlier, but at the Reading Festival in late August 2001, I let Tre Cool, in the name of Mendocinio homeboy-ism, talk me into taking a couple hits off what turned out to be a very poweful joint. I went into full panic attack mode, strangely enough the exact same reaction I'd had the last time I'd smoked a joint, in 1993.

That and a couple other minor irritations - somebody screwed up my backstage pass the following day and, well, I can't remember what else was bothering me, but no doubt something was - set me off on my last drinking binge, which carried on to and through September 11 and the first couple days of its aftermath. I was parked there in front of the TV with my bottle of Jameson's, blubbering like a baby as though I were somehow the principal victim - never mind the thousands who lay dead in New York, or their families and loves ones, or the brave souls who died trying to rescue them.

Suddenly one of those moments of clarity arrived: what would you do, I asked myself, if that terrorist attack were happening here in London? What if were right across the street? Would you be able to help, to be responsible, or would you be sitting on the sidelines drunk and crying and feeling sorry for yourself? I knew what the answer was, and I didn't like it. I'd been trying to quit drinking all year - too many vicious hangovers, too much morbid depression, too much of my life slipping away into a vague morass of self-indulgence and self-pity - but could never seem to stay off the stuff for more than a week or two.

And despite my best intentions, that was the way it worked out again: by September 21, I was starting to feel pretty good again, almost clear-headed, in fact, after eight or nine booze-free days, but that night an old friend was coming back to town, and I couldn't imagine meeting up with him at the pub without sinking a few pints, as we'd always done. It ended up being five pints of especially strong lager, not a lot in the scheme of things, especially considering that I'd often been getting through a bottle of whiskey a day, not to mention wine with (or without) dinner and a few pints down the pub.

But it was more than enough; I had one of the worst hangovers of my life, lasting all the way through the weekend, and by Monday I was pretty sure I never wanted to drink again. And so far, for five years now, I haven't.

It's meant a lot of changes in my life, but the ones I was most worried about - what do you do for a social life, for example, or what will your friends think? - turned out to be minor issues at best. Socially, you do anything and everything you want, apart from drinking, and as for friends, the ones who genuinely care about you are interested in you, not your potential as a drinking companion. But the real changes are mostly internal. Sometimes people will notice, and ask things like, "You seem different, have you been away on holiday/lost weight/joined a gym, etc.?"

But mostly they don't, leaving it down to me to observe and record the differences, and it's something I can safely say I've been conscious of for at least part of every day for the past five years. When you've been using alcohol - as I was - to anaesthetise your feelings for so many years, it can be unsettling, even terrifying, when some of those feelings come flooding back. I started drinking heavily as a 15 year-old, and in many ways my emotional development froze right there in mid-adolescence. As the booze-induced fog began to lift, I found that the problems, dilemmas and insecurities of that age hadn't gone away; they'd been sitting patiently waiting all those decades for me to get back to them. It's hard enough being a teenager when you're young and strong; believe me, it doesn't get any easier when you're in your 50s.

If what they say is true, though, that we begin growing again once we stop drinking alcoholically, I should have reached my early 20s now, and I can't deny that life is a lot better and easier than I ever imagined possible. It's not that anything dramatic has happened in the material world: I haven't fallen in love, got a great new job, inherited a fortune. If anything, my life would probably look rather drab to most people, especially when compared with my earlier adventures - running around with rock stars, making and squandering fortunes, being there at ground zero for so much of the hippie and punk rock revolutions - but I'm experiencing something I've really never known before: a generalised sense of well-being and peace of mind.

You might not think it to read some of the diatribes I unleash here, but very little really bothers me these days. Yes, I have a strongly developed sense of what is right and wrong, and perhaps am too ready too speak out about it at times, but ultimately I can usually accept that there will always be people who will think and act in ways very different to what I think is appropriate. And that it's all right. I can't control the world - if anything, I can have only the tiniest effect on the little corner of it that I inhabit - but neither can the world control me.

And that's the truly vital change: for most of my life, I saw myself as a constant victim of circumstance and luck. Sometimes the luck went my way; sometimes I tried to twist or bend it in my direction, but in the final analysis, I always felt as though life was something happening to me rather than through me and in me. That gave rise to a lot of my bad attitudes - I was like the little kid always whining, "It's not FAIR!" - and also handed me a built-in excuse for my failures and my inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility for my actions.

Enough self-analysis: let's just say things are a lot better for me now. As you will have noticed, I can still find plenty to complain about, but my predominant toward life and the world is now one of hope and quiet optimism. To anyone who knew me in my darker years, that's got to come across as no less than a straight-up miracle. I know that's what it is to me, and not a day goes by now where I don't take at least a few minutes to reflect on that miracle, and how incredibly grateful I am to be alive and well and living the life I live today.

P.S. In honour of this special occasion, we'll now pause for a couple hours before resuming normal service. Then, never fear, I'll get back to griping about anything and everything, and you can get back to thinking what a grumpy old bastard I am.

Mea Culpa

I'd no sooner posted that last piece questioning the moral character and/or the intelligence of bicyclists than I went out and did the sort of blithely oblivious thing which probably helps convince bicyclists that pedestrians and motorists alike are out to get them.

I was crossing Westbourne Park Road, the curvy, more scenic bit that's more residential drive than thoroughfare. I was nowhere near a traffic signal or a zebra crossing (crosswalk, Americans), but of course I didn't need one, because after all, I'm a pedestrian and we can go wherever we want. I waited for one car to pass, saw that the next car was still some way up the street, and casually strolled right into the path of an oncoming bicycle.

The thing was, I could see him coming, could see that he was headed directly toward the point where I was crossing, knew that he unassailably had the right of way, and yet I walked in front of him as though he wasn't there. Or as if he were just another pedestrian, albeit one travelling at about 20 mph. I don't know what, or if I was thinking.

He hit the brakes, I jumped back on the kerb, calling out in the same instant, "Sorry!" in a rather quavery voice. It's the all-purpose English social lubricant; I'll say the same thing if you step on my toe, implying that it was dreadfully clumsy of me to have put it under your foot in the first place. In that light, "Sorry" seemed a little inadequate, given that if I'd been just a bit slower to react or he'd been riding just a wee bit faster, he almost certainly would have skidded out of control on the wet surface and very possibly gone under the wheels of the speeding white Mercedes that had by then overtaken us.

Oh well, no harm done, I suppose, except that one more bicyclist has had his worst suspicions about idiotic pedestrians confirmed. On the other hand, on my way home about an hour later, I was happily strolling along the footpath, nowhere near the street, contemplating whatever once contemplates on a quiet, drizzly London morning, when bang, a speeding bicycle swept up from behind and nearly took my arm off. To the man's credit, he did say something as he passed; it sounded like a grunted amalgam of "Sorry" and "Get out of the way!"

21 September 2006

Bicycles? Love Them. Bicyclists? Let Me Get Back To You On That One...

I haven't done much bike-riding in London, partly because I have an aversion to activities likely to result in death or serious bodily injury, and partly because when I did buy a bike, it was no more than three or four weeks before the thing got stolen, U-lock, cable-lock, and all. Vanished without a trace, on Christmas night, no less. The one night of the year, as non-Londoners might not know, that there is absolutely no public transport in the capital (or the country, for that matter).

Seriously, London's a lousy bike-riding town. It should be great; mostly flat, lots of parks and tree-lined streets, amazing sights to be seen, and spread out so as to make a travelling speed somewhere between that of a pedestrian and that of a car seem just about right.

But the streets are too narrow and traffic-clogged, and car drivers are already in a homicidal rage from crawling across London at an average speed somewhat lower than that of a horse and buggy 150 years ago and having to pay an £8 ($15) congestion charge for the privilege of doing so (lest I be misunderstood, I fully support the congestion charge, think it should be even higher, and would like to see large parts of Central London made completely off limits to private automobiles).

Until that happy day, bicyclists will have a rough time of it. As do, of course, pedestrians. But perhaps because they are constantly under siege hereabouts, bicyclists aren't nearly as aggressive as they are in certain American cities, New York and Berkeley being the first two to come to mind. I narrowly escaped being run down by speeding bicycles twice this summer, both times while I was crossing the street, in a crosswalk, with a green light, and said bicycles were of course running a red light without even slowing down, let alone ringing a bell or shouting a warning.

I kept a bike for many years in Berkeley, and so I'm not unfamiliar with the notion that bicycles are somehow exempt from all traffic laws because they are morally superior to all other forms of transportation. Actually, I thought maybe I had made up that idea in one of my marijuana-inspired brainstorms of the 60s or 70s, but apparently it's achieved some currency even among largely respectable bike fanatics like Dave 327.

It's got to the point now in Berkeley where car drivers expect bikes to ignore all traffic lights and signs and behave accordingly. As I got older and more civic-minded, I began doing ludicrous things (by Berkeley standards, anyway) like stopping at red lights and stop signs (when there was traffic, anyway; I haven't fully gone over to the law'n'order side). But all it did was screw up traffic even more, because drivers, even when they had the right of way, would sit there patiently waiting for me to blow through the stop sign, and getting increasingly frustrated when I didn't. "What is the matter with this @#%#&#?" I could practically hear them thinking.

I used to be so pro-bicyclist that I went on some of the early Critical Mass rides. I thought it was an absolutely brilliant concept: a couple hundred bikes take to the streets at rush hour - as is their legal right - and by scrupulously obeying every law and every sign, create a nightmarish traffic jam, thus demonstrating the point that when large numbers of people - like, say, automobile drivers - all simultaneously choose to exercise their God-given right to drive anywhere and any time they damn well please, grave social consequences can ensue.

But the brilliant concept didn't last long; soon Critical Mass degenerated into group therapy for angry hippies whose idea of protest was more along the lines of picking fights with car drivers, ignoring all traffic laws, and trying to create chaos and misery just for the hell of it. I never went over to the side of the cars, but if the cops came out and hauled away a few of the more obnoxious bikers, well, I wasn't especially bothered. I'd be even less bothered - in fact I'd be downright enthusiastic - if they started rounding up stroppy or dangerous drivers and summarily crushing their cars into a two-cubic-inch square of scrap metal on the side of the road, but I fear I've got a while to wait before that blissful day arrives.

Meanwhile, returning to the subject of difficult bicyclists, one of the London free papers ran this item which I quote in its entirety:
Police Hunt Bicycle Killers

South London detectives are appealing for witnesses after a 40-strong bicycle gang brandishing knives and guns left one man dead and another in hospital in Grove Street, New Cross, on Sunday.

Is it just me, or does the idea of 40 bicyclists "brandishing knives and guns" and leaving "one man dead and another in hospital" seem like it merits more than one sentence buried in the back pages of a throwaway paper? I never heard a word about this on radio or TV or in any of the major papers. I know violent bike gangs exist; there are many reports of people being robbed or assaulted by five or six hoodies on bikes. But 40 of them? With guns and knives? And it's barely even news? That's London. But hey, as long as it was south of the river, why should we worry?

P.S. I'm in no way trying to imply that disrespect for the law on the part of cyclists is the first step on a slippery slope that ends with them being transformed into Mad Max-style raiders preying on the putrescent corpse of civilised society. Though you never know, do you...?

19 September 2006

Dingbat Or Dementor?

There's a certain type of white chick that I first started seeing in the late 60s/early 70s, middle class to upper middle class, reasonably educated, semi-good looking, but maybe just a little vacant. They'd hang around the hippie or whatever other boho scene was on offer, but though they wore the right clothes and mouthed the right slogans, they never completely fit in. It was as though they were looking for something more. More what, you ask? Well, ideally something that would really put the boot in to Daddy. When it became clear that the old duffer wouldn't be suitably rattled by marijuana, unkempt hair, and warbly acid rock, the next step was often to turn up with a black boyfriend.

When I say "black boyfriend," I'm not referring to a romantic partner who happens to be of African descent. I'm talking about the kind of guy generally known, especially among other streetwise black guys, by words we no longer repeat in polite company. The kind of guy prone to hanging about on street corners and, in between drug deals or panhandling, hissing lascivious suggestions at anything resembling a female passerby. If anyone - especially Daddy - suggests that he's less than ideal boyfriend material, she responds with accusations of racism and passionate declarations that the bf in question is a "lovely" person whose only problem is having been misunderstood by society.

Fast forward a couple years and you'll see her, purse-lipped and pinch-faced, a kid or three in tow, and the misunderstood man of her dreams nowhere in sight unless, of course, it's welfare cheque day, and/or he's in jail waiting for her to go his bail.

This phenomenon seems just as common in the UK as it was in the USA, but here in Britain there seems to be a new variation on the theme, wherein instead of taking up with a ghetto hustler, the angst-ridden female rebel finds herself smitten with a Muslim fundamentalist, converts to his religion, and soon can be seen, similarly purse-lipped and pinch-faced, sporting a hijab or modified burkha, trailing a few respectful paces behind hubby as they head down to the Post Office on giro day. Raise so much as an eyebrow at her and bang, you're a hatemongering Islamophobe.

I know nothing about Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting apart from her writing, but I've often thought she represents the intellectual equivalent of the dingbat described above. In Bunting's fantasy world, there was never a street thug or an Islamist bombthrower who wasn't at heart as cuddly as a kitten and gentle as a little lamb. And if either of these characters ever did indulge in a little murder or mayhem that wasn't quite acceptable in civilised society, it certainly wasn't their fault. No, they were obviously driven to it, forced and manipulated, I say, by the diabolical machinations of the white, patriarchal, Christian, imperialist male hierarchy.

Her latest upwelling of indignation is directed at the Pope. As I noted the other day, I've never been a big fan of the guy, but when it comes down to it, at worst he was making the kind of statement you'd expect of any religious or political leader, i.e., my gang's better than yours, and at best, raising a very valid question about whether it is ever appropriate to use violence in pursuit of one's religious beliefs.

But not according to Bunting. No, in her view, the man is dangerous. She talks about an elderly nun being shot to death in Somalia, about churches being firebombed in the West Bank, and makes it sound as though it was the Pope himself who did it. She buys, hook, line and sinker, into the notion that Muslims have no choice but to throw themselves into an orgy of violence every time somebody expresses an opinion that they don't like. "Islam is a peaceful religion," they cry, "and if you say it isn't, we'll kill you."

"Reverence for the Prophet is a non-negotiable," Bunting bleats, "What unites all Muslims is a passionate devotion and commitment to protecting the honour of Muhammad." Hang on just a minute here: unless Bunting is herself a Muslim, which I'm pretty sure she isn't, why is Muhammad being referred to as "the Prophet" as though it were a fact rather than the opinion of a religious sect? And if he's anywhere near as holy or as powerful as his followers suppose, why on earth would his "honour" need protecting by hordes of half-crazed individuals working themselves into a frenzy in the streets?

I've never once seen Bunting refer to Jesus Christ as "the Son of God," even though his status as such is every bit as much an article of faith with Christians as Muhammad's standing as "Prophet" is with Muslims. Not that she should, but why does she pander to the superstitions/beliefs (take your pick) of one religion while completely ignoring or dismissing those of another? Because she's a dingbat, has always been my pat answer, but of late a darker suspicion has entered my mind.

Could it be that her coddling and cultivation of clearly evil men and values mark her out as one of the Dementors? Readers of the Harry Potter series will recognise them, described by Remus Lupin as "the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can't see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

Too harsh? Bear in mind that the Pope never so much as hinted that violence directed at Islam would ever be appropriate. On the contrary, he unequivocally stated the opposite. Yet when fanatics scream that the Pope must be executed, that those who insult Islam should be "subject to capital punishment," do we hear a word of protest or concern from Bunting? No, somehow it is the Pope and the Pope alone who is responsible. Sticks and stones, anyone?

It would be one thing if Bunting were the product of some backward culture or country, if she'd been denied an education and fed a steady diet of the sort of superstitious nonsense that persuades people that their "God" wants nothing more than for them to die in the act of slaughtering others. But she's a child of the Enlightenment, the beneficiary of an advanced liberal education, holder of a highly privileged position in a highly privileged society, yet she squanders that inheritance on defending the indefensible and cherishing precisely those men who, given half a chance, would have her shrouded in a burkha and locked away in a medieval harem.

So: is she just plain dumb? Or is something more invidious at work here? A well-intentioned dingbat or a just-plain-evil Dementor? My generous view of human nature would prefer the former, but the feeling of peace, hope, and happiness being drained out of me every time I read a Bunting column leads me reluctantly to suspect otherwise.

17 September 2006

Times "Select"

I just picked up the Sunday papers, the Times (of London) and the Observer this week, which caused me to reflect on the other (New York) Times, and how it compares to my favourite English broadsheets.

And I decided that while it comes off as bit more drab - probably because it doesn't use as much colour and is more sparing with the gossipy feature articles - it's probably a more solid newspaper in strictly journalistic terms, i.e., placing more emphasis on accuracy and in-depth investigative reporting. So although I don't buy it very often, even when I'm in New York, I unfailingly peruse its website.

Which is where I run into this conundrum: why does the Times give away all that excellent writing for free, and then try to sell (via subscription to its "Times Select" feature) the right to read columnists like Dowd and Krugman (there's a name for a Dickensian law firm), both of whom would be more at home in the pages of the student newspaper at some mid-level state university?

16 September 2006

A Neo-Neocon?

That's what I've become, at least according to David over at 327 Words. He draws this conclusion from my increasingly militant stance on crime and antisocial behaviour, and contrast my views with his own more traditionally liberal and tolerant ones.

There was a time - albeit some decades ago - when David and I agreed on nearly everything, which does beg the question of why we argued incessantly. I suspect it was mostly a matter of semantics. Or possibly testosterone. Now we agree on very little and argue hardly at all. I'd prefer to think this indicates the deeper, more thoughtful maturity we've arrived at. Only the rude and vulgar among you will suggest it has more to do with declining testosterone levels.

People are correct when they suggest that I've become more conservative, though considering the out-on-the-outermost fringe loony-tunes leftist I once was, I don't think my rightward drift has taken me any further than the centre. I've still never voted for a Republican (though I will give careful consideration to Giuliani if he runs for President), I still believe in a much higher minimum wage, national health care, stricter environmental standards, massively improved public transport, and a host of other liberal pet causes. And in terms of Big Picture issues, my ultimate goal remains a free, peaceful and just society. Where I've changed is in the means I see most likely as being able to achieve that end.

Like most people of my generation, at least those who gravitated toward the hippie, New Left end of the spectrum, it became an article of faith with me that criminals were seldom to blame for their actions, that they themselves were victims of society, of poverty, poor education, unfair drug laws - you know the drill. The results of this attitude and the social policies which grew out of it are dismal to behold: an almost exponential increase in crime beginning with the 1960s and continuing until the 1990s, when politicians began reacting to public disquietude with lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key campaigns like California's Three Strikes initiative.

While I support strict enforcement of the law - within reason - I don't see this as a vengeful or hateful stance. In fact, I'm deeply disappointed that we don't offer more opportunities for education and rehabilitation to those we imprison. Not doing so seems not only inhuman and insensitive, but just plain bad business as well.

But just because our prisons are run badly, and just because many criminals end up serving longer and more onerous terms than might be appropriate doesn't mean I'm going to turn around and advocate that we tolerate the intolerable. And to me the intolerable means allowing a relative handful - perhaps no more than 1 or 2% of the population - to hold whole communities hostage.

Anyone who's lived in a large apartment building knows how one neighbour from hell can singlehandedly remove most of the joy of living from what otherwise might be a very pleasant home. And I'm not talking about major criminal activity; all it takes is one person or family who make noise all night, scatter rubbish in the halls, allow their kids to vandalise the premises and terrorise everyone else's children. The same principle holds true when it comes to neighbourhoods: one gang of petty thieves or dope dealers hanging out at the corner store casts a pall for blocks around. It causes established businesses to fail and new ones not to open, which in turn means less jobs and less money in the neighbourhood, making drug dealing and petty crime look like more attractive options, and the vicious cycle is complete.

Looking at it this way, I've come to believe that crime is responsible for poverty rather than, as the traditional liberal mantra would have it, the other way around. And I also believe we do a great disservice to the many perfectly decent poor people trapped in high-crime neighbourhoods when a misguided social conscience prompts us to allow a small number of thugs and hooligans to continue to prey upon that community.

I think an element of racism enters into it, too: liberals who have little or no real-life contact with members of minority races or cultures tend to judge the values of the whole community by its most egregiously visible members. They see the gangbangers on the corner and assume that's how all of "those people" prefer to conduct their lives, and then tacitly or explicitly urge the police to go easy on the thugs because "we don't want to criminalise minority youth."

The fact is that no one suffers from crime and disorder as much as minority communities (and I'm not talking just about race or colour here; poor and working-class whites are confronted with similar difficulties), and the ultra-tolerant attitudes of privileged elites who can afford to live in safe neighbourhoods can be seen as a brutal slap in the face to the many who aren't so fortunate.

My feelings have similarly changed about drugs and the role they play in crime. Like most liberals, I bought into the notion that it was was drug laws, not that drugs themselves that were the problem. Make drugs legal and cheaply available, I argued, and the addicts would no longer have to steal for their fix, and could begin living normal, productive lives. Well, much experience has led me to conclude that this simply isn't true. Alcohol and/or drugs play a role in the overwhelming majority of crimes committed. And not just the property crimes you'd expect a desperate addict to pull, but murders, assaults, rapes, the whole gamut, really. In my work with incarcerated alcoholics and drug addicts, I've been told time and time again how they were doing fine until they got high - crack, marijuana, heroin, booze, it doesn't really matter specifically what - and all of a sudden all their good judgement went out the window.

At the same time, many of these guys, now that they're off booze and drugs, have said that getting arrested was the best thing that could have happened to them, because otherwise they would have carried on that way until they were dead, spreading untold misery and destruction all around them as they went. Granted, they're some of the lucky ones; many more like them are simply warehoused in prisons and never get the medical and psychological help they need. But as I've already said, the injustice of keeping someone locked up without proper treatment is far outweighed by the injustice of allowing him to roam free and prey upon the innocent and the weak. If that viewpoint makes me a conservative or a "neo-neocon," then it's a label I'll accept; to paraphrase the not particularly tolerant Che Guevara, I try to remain in all that I do and all that I advocate, guided by feelings of great love.

And Beat Them Lightly

Having first heard of this via Popbitch, I didn't know how seriously to take a report that Islamic Society of North America's recent convention in New York offered a workshop on the properly Islamic way to beat your wife. But on taking a quick look around the interweb, I discovered that this "Analysis and In-Depth Discussion of Verse 4:34" had been widely reported.

I also discovered a thoughtful commentary by one scholar, Dr Ahmad Shafaat, urging that before using physical violence to discipline recalcitrant wives, husbands first "admonish them," and then "separate them in beds." But, he goes on to say:
If even separation fails to work, then it is suggested that men use beating. To this suggestion of the Holy Qur'an there have been two extreme reactions on the part of some Muslims. The first reaction is being apologetic or ashamed of the suggestion. The second is to use it as a justification for indulging in habitual wife battering. Needless to say that both these reactions are wrong. The Quran as we believe is the word of God and is thus every word in it is full of wisdom and love. To be apologetic about any part of the Quran is to lack both knowledge and faith. As for the second response, the suggestion to use beating is made specifically to deal with nushuz on the part of the wife, that is, to deal with her deliberately nasty behaviour that poses a threat to the marriage. Beating is to be done after due admonition and separation in beds and therefore by husbands who have some moral standards and have sufficient control over their sexual passions. Moreover, this beating is not to go on and on but is to be tried as a last step to save the marriage. Once it is clear that it is not working it is to be abandoned in favour of some other steps involving relatives of the husband and the wife mentioned in the next verse (4:35). There is therefore, absolutely no license here for the type of regular and continual wife beating that goes on in some homes, where each time the husband is angry with his wife or with someone else he turns against her and beats her up. In most such cases, the husband has no moral superiority over the wife: the only rule of Shariah that he cares about is this suggestion about beating. He also does not have the kind of control over his sexual passions needed to separate the wife in bed and often beats her the day before or the day after making love to her, an action specifically condemned by the Prophet.
He also offers some helpful suggestions on proper technique, noting that:
According to some traditions the Prophet said in his famous and well-attended speech on the occasion of his farewell pilgrimage that the beating done according to the present verse should be ghayr mubarrih, i.e. in such a way that it should not cause injury, bruise or serious hurt. On this basis some scholars like Tabari and Razi say even that it should be largely symbolic and should be administered "with a folded scarf" or "with a miswak or some such thing". However, to be effective in its purpose of shaking the wife out of her nasty mood it is important that it should provide an energetic demonstration of the anger, frustration and love of the husband. In other words, it should neither seriously hurt the wife nor reduce it to a set of meaningless motions devoid of emotions.
In a perhaps unrelated, but still amusing footnote, Popbitch also reports the tale of one Mustafa Moufaden from Brentford, West London, who:
was flying from Shanghai to London when Virgin Atlantic staff refused to serve him more alcohol as he was so drunk. Mustafa did what every right thinking Muslim chap would do under the circumstances...he shouted at them that he knew Osama Bin Laden, and would tell on them if they didn't give him booze. He's now in trouble.

Fair Play For Criminals

Yes, I know the Daily Mail has a reputation for being a hotbed of xenophobic, right-wing tosh, but as someone who's faithfully imbibed the left-wing drivel of the Guardian for well-nigh 30 years now, it only seems fair to balance my intake by reading some nonsense from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Besides, say what you will about its content, the Mail frequently contains more entertainment than the dour maunderings of the Guardian or Independent can muster.

But even taken with the requisite grain of salt, this latest "PC run mad" alert from the Mail has to raise an eyebrow. Policemen are to be banned from chasing criminals if the chase might put the criminals at risk of injuring themselves. This from the same bright sparks who just awarded a lucrative promotion to the officer who oversaw the summary shooting to death of an illegal Brazilian immigrant somehow mistaken for a Middle Eastern suicide bomber.

Cressida Dick, the officer in question, narrowly escaped prosecution for her handling of that case, and may still face disciplinary proceedings within her own department. But never mind that, she's a woman, she's believes in "modernisation" of the Police, and, what hey, she's mates with the Police Commissioner, what a surprise.

Besides that, according to her official bio, "Cressida’s policing interests include public order, hostage negotiation, leadership, police ethics and diversity." Well, that's okay, then, as long as she's in favour of diversity. True, giving South Americans the same opportunity to be shot as Middle Eastern terrorists might not be some people's idea of true diversity, but perhaps Jean Charles de Menezes' mistake was in simply sitting there on the Tube while the police rushed up and pumped six bullets into him. If he'd behaved like a proper criminal and run away, ideally in a dangerous fashion, the police would have had to abandon the chase for fear of breaching Health and Safety regulations.

Body Fascism

Granted that anorexia and bulimia cause enormous misery and even death in some cases, and granted that many young women go overboard in the pursuit of perfectly fashionable thinness, does it really seem like banning skinny models is a sensible way to go about tackling the problem?

For years now, columnists of the Guardianista ilk - many of them, if the truth be told, middle-aged women who've begun to put on a little more weight than they might like - have been banging on about "stick-thin waifs" and protesting that they can no longer find fashionble clothing to fit their more "womanly" bodies. From time to time male columnists flying the PC flag will join in, protesting that they themselves prefer woman with "real curves" and "a bit of flesh on them." Underpinning all this nonsense is the implication that girls and young women are so stupid and gullible that they'll deliberately starve themselves either because of some fashion show they've seen or because men won't want to bother with them otherwise.

It seems as though society is becoming a bit schizophrenic on this subject. On one hand, we're constantly being told - legitimately, I think - that America is literally eating itself to death. Obesity is at an all time high in the USA, and the UK is fast following - well, waddling, anyway - in its footsteps. Yet simultaneously we're meant to be worried that one segment of society is entirely too thin, to the point where "liberal" politicians are seriously discussing banning the representation of women with what they deem to be too low a body mass.

Never mind that the BMI (body mass index) is a notoriously blunt instrument (it doesn't account for bone structure, metabolism and a host of other variables). And I wonder, too, why this concern is limited to young women. I can personally think of three guys I know whose body mass falls well below the 18.0 threshold considered "dangerous." All of them are perfectly healthy, and one of them completely thrashed me when we got into an ill-advised wrestling match a few years back.

Personally, as someone whose own BMI is (thankfully) near the lower end of what's considered normal for men my age, I think the great majority of people are too fat, and that given the preponderance of medical evidence, that's a far greater danger to public health than a few ultra-skinny girls. For all the whingeing by the mutton-aspiring-to-lamb generation about not being able to fit into the fashions at Top Shop (hello, it's a shop for teens and 20-somethings, what did you expect?), I could come back with just as many stories about being unable to find jeans or shirts that aren't cut for lard-arses.

Somebody once defined fascism as the imposition of aesthetic standards by political means, and I'm sorry, trying to legislate skinniness out of existence comes dangerously close to qualifying.

Big Ears And His Bentley

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Prince Charles (often referred to, lovingly or not, as "Big Ears" by some of his subjects, like Vera from Coronation Street). Maybe it's because we were born around the same time, perennially feel put upon and misunderstood, are frequently the objects of ridicule, and more often than not are the authors of our own troubles. Yep, apart from the couple billion pounds he finds himself lumbered with, Charlie and I are almost peas in a pod.

Well, maybe not. I'm so ridiculously devoted to public transport that most of the time I won't even take taxis (well, that might also be because I'm cheap), whereas the Prince, Hardcastle's column in the Daily Mail informs us, can't bear to be separated from his 10 mpg Bentley (this, let it be remembered, is the "environmentalist" prince). So much so that when his own Bentley was out of commission, he had his staff ring up the Bentley company and ask that a loaner Bentley be delivered to him (any of you Toyota/Chevy/Nissan/Ford drivers ever tried this?).

The only suitably royal Bentley available was at the other end of the country, but somebody drove all night to get it to the palace on time. Charles came down to inspect it, took one look, and sniffed, "It's black. I hate black. We'll take the Vauxhall."

Is The Pope A Dope?

Although I'm Catholic, I haven't been too impressed by the last couple of Popes, so I've largely chosen to ignore them. Sure, maybe that goes against Church doctrine - or maybe it doesn't, since the concept of Papal infallibility was invented by - guess who? - a Pope - but just as I'm not going to stop being American because we get the occasional lousy President, I'm not going to let a doofy Pope drive me away from my religion.

That being said, what in hell is the Pope up to with his "let's rile up the Muslims" remark? Even accepting that there's some truth to it - no reputable historian would deny that Islam was imposed on many countries by military conquest, but then quite a few "Christian" countries were made that way by imperial fiat as well - it seems at best impolitic of him to bring it up at a time when millions of Muslims have recently shown themselves ready to resort to murderous violence over a handful of dumb cartoons.

It seems on the surface a bit like the medieval "sport" of bear-baiting: poke a stick into the cage of a creature who's already having a bad time of it just for the amusement of hearing it roar. Is the Pope really that dumb? Or sadistic? Or is he up to something too abstruse or esoteric for us garden-variety pseudo-intellectuals to grasp?

The sentence that's got everyone up in arms - "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" - is only a tiny extract from a lengthy and erudite speech (a longer extract is available here and the whole thing here) that seems to revolve around the question of whether the will of God can run counter to reason.

It's fairly heavy going, and does seem to carry a whiff of what one of the Guardian's pet theologians called "Christian triumphalism," particularly when the Pope cites the "profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, between genuine enlightenment and religion . . . between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry" as one of the reasons Christianity has played such a decisive role in European and world history.

But most of the speech is concerned with weightier philosophical matters, which on the surface might sound like little more than a high-faluting version of the old, "Can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?" conundrum, but ultimately go right to the heart of our understanding (or lack thereof) of the interface between divine and human nature. Put as simply as possible, he questions whether irrational actions like burning witches, imposing fatwas on authors or cartoonists, or waging war to compel devotion, could be consonant with the will of any God worth worshipping.

He even brings in Socrates to defend the value of philosophy in the face of a ever-rising tide of bagglegab: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss." Clearly the Pope is no dummy - something I might have previously suspected, but hadn't given much thought to - even if he's lacking in tact and social graces. But then people of his age are - much like children - renowned for dropping the niceties and saying exactly what they think without regard for the consequences.

Apart from all the philosophical and theological ruminations, does the remark which has so many Muslims up in arms amount to anything more than a version of, "Our religion's better than yours"? No, not really, and here's where the hypocrisy sets in: is there a devout Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. who doesn't think his or her religion is superior? Why else would they bother having separate religions? Nobody thinks it even slightly remarkable when Muslim leaders or theologians state that Islam is the highest expression of God's will for humankind; why should it be so shocking that a Christian leader feels similarly about his own faith?

14 September 2006

White Riot

A nice bit of rose-coloured revisionism here, as yet another socialist "historian," one Alexander Billet, tries to turn the Clash from good, solid musicians and entertainers - which they were - into social visionaries and revolutionaries, which they most decidedly were not.

I wasn't at the Notting Hill riot of August, 1976, but I spent quite a bit of that year in Notting Hill and think it fair to say that I have a slightly more accurate picture of what it was like than Billet, who quite evidently was nowhere near the place. It's true that the Clash song "White Riot" was inspired by the largely black-led riot that erupted on the last day of that year's Carnival. It's also true that Joe Strummer, in his befuddled, trustafarian way, genuinely believed that the young black men showering the police with bricks and bottles were fighting back against oppression and in the vanguard of a revolution that whites like himself also be part of.

But that's where reality goes off a cliff and a couple generations of political fanatics and race-baiting fantasists take over. In truth, there was nothing remotely revolutionary or progressive about the Carnival riot; it could be more accurately described, like its Brixton counterpart in 1981, as a right-to-rob riot. In both cases, rioting broke out not because the police were unjustly harassing young black men - though that was not unheard of in those days - but because they were trying to stop them from engaging in rampant street robberies.

Billet writes, either naively or dishonestly, that, "The police presence [at the 1976 Carnival] was, of course, unnecessarily large." Only someone who never attended the Carnival in those days or who favours robbery as a legitimate means of income redistribution would say such a foolish thing; "steaming," where a large gang of black boys would go charging through the crowds mugging everyone in sight, was as much a part of the old-school Carnival as the costumes, the dancing and the spliffs. Olivia and her friends (all of whom loved the Carnival and hated the police) were knocked down and robbed by a marauding gang one year. I think she was about 70 at the time, and for years - hell, decades afterward, she was still describing how she tried explaining to the robbers that she wasn't like the other white people, she was on their side. And when the police came to see if she was all right, she gave them a good bollocking, insisting that any trouble at the Carnival was their fault, and that the young black men had no choice but to commit robberies because they were racially oppressed.

In other words, even though she was never much of a punk rocker (except maybe the kind with flowers in her hair), Olivia and Joe Strummer had a good deal in common: a visceral conviction than black people could do no wrong and policemen could do no right. But even today, when the Notting Hill Carnival has lost any political edge it may have once had and become little more than a drunkfest and tourist attraction, Mayor Ken - a huge supporter of Carnival himself - still finds it necessary to assign 10,000 coppers, a third of London's police force, to keep the peace. There haven't been any murders the last two Carnivals, and robberies are probably no worse than they are on a normal night in Notting Hill, so it appears to be working. Of course it's a enormous boon for criminals in the rest of London, which is left largely unpatrolled.

But I digress, and I've ranged so far afield from the topic that I might as well go even further and tell the story of the year Olivia and all her gay friends ("my lovely queens," she always called them) were partying away in the flat as Carnival raged and seethed (in a relatively benign way) on the street below. One of the queens started flirting with a copper stationed in front of our building, and wound up inviting him upstairs for a drink. To his surprise, the copper accepted, and brought along a couple of his mates. They were all hanging out on the balcony getting drunker and sillier by the minute, and inviting more and more coppers up until the whole upstairs of the flat was a sea of blue.

You might recall me saying that Olivia hated the police, but that was a general principle; as individuals - provided they weren't arresting her at the time - she got along with them just fine. So she played the gracious hostess, pointing to the fridge and telling each new arrival to help himself to whatever he could find to drink in there. Just then her son - who had a bit of history, shall we say, with the Old Bill - walked in and stood there with his mouth hanging agape.

"Mum..." he tried to say with a strangled voice, pointing at the fridge. "What's that, darling? Are we out of drinks? Be a dear and go buy some more," she said, waving some money in his direction.

"No, it's just that..." He went mute again, as three coppers rifled through the fridge in search of mixers and ice. It wasn't until the party was over that he was able to explain: aparently the fridge was where he'd been keeping his LSD stash, which was considerable. Whether or not any of it ended up in the coppers' drinks has yet to be determined. We think not, but it's not always easy to tell at Carnival time.

Anyway, to (sort of) return to my point, many crazy, beautiful and wonderful things happened during Carnival, as well as many brutal, ugly and violent things. But when sloganeers or songwriters try to turn it all into a simplistic parable of rebellion against oppression, it's a pretty safe bet they're either clueless white people slumming it, or cynical manipulators of the truth who are so desperate for a "revolution" to glom onto that they'll casually play toy soldiers with other people's lives.

12 September 2006

Islamophilia v. Islamophobia

As per my conversation with the Anonymous guy about why we do or do not need to fear the rise of aggressive, militant Islamism (what many call, and I think justifiably so, Islamofascism), here's an article by a diehard old leftist explaining why radical Muslims are actually rather cuddly and certainly much nicer than mean old George Bush and Tony Blair. The author is editor of the Socialist Worker, which, if you're not familiar with it, is that tabloid-looking newspaper with the bright red headlines that the sad-looking people with the haunted eyes are always trying to sell at demonstrations and outside various "youth culture" events.

Also, on the subject of "Islamophobia," which is supposedly running rampant in both Britain and the US, it's interesting to see that according to the New York Times, the USA is seeing a new wave of Muslim immigration. And of course Muslims continue to flock to the UK even as one of their self-appointed "leaders," Muhammad Abdul Bari warns that they are being "demonised." So much so, Dr Bari threatens, that Britain faces the prospect of two million homegrown suicide bombers.

A garden variety nutcase, you suggest? Not exactly; Bari, as head of Britain's Muslim Council, is what passes for a "moderate" these days, so much so that he has the ear of the Prime Minister and, I would be pretty certain, is the recipient of generous government grants.

Rhetoric aside, perhaps some logic would be of use here: if conditions are so bad for Muslims in Britain and the US, if those countries are, as they're frequently accused of doing, waging "war on Islam," why on earth would Muslims be immigrating en masse to such places? It would be like Jews lining up to move into Nazi Germany. Conversely, why do we so seldom hear of Muslims leaving the horrible oppression of the West and returning to one of the many countries partially or wholly dominated by Islam? Apart, of course, from the fact that it mostly sucks there?

And lastly, let's just try reversing the scenario: large numbers of immigrants of the Jewish or Christian persuasion emigrate into, say Iran or Saudi Arabia (as if they'd ever be allowed in the first place), then immediately start complaining that they're being "demonised" because of their religion and demanding that local laws and customs be changed to suit their beliefs. Can you see any other outcome apart from mass beheadings? Or maybe firing squads for greater efficiency.

Fighting Crime In The Streets Of Oakland (and Frisco)

Dr. Frank, who lives in a part of Oakland that I wouldn't, and who's been attacked, oh, at least a couple times that I'm aware of, finds himself bemused by that city's latest crime-fighting tactic: authorities have somehow determined who Oakland's "top 100 violent offenders" are, and are offering them a deal: either stop misbehaving, in which case they'll get job training and "other assistance to clean up their lives," or else the city will prosecute them "to the fullest extent of the law."

Pardon me for asking, but if city officials actually know who those top 100 violent offenders are, wouldn't they be guilty of criminal negligence for continuing to let them roam the streets? And doesn't this approach sound an awful lot like a befuddled parent shouting, "This time I really mean it!" at his recalcitrant offspring?

Speaking of which, across the Bay in that other oasis of civility, San Francisco, authorities are thinking about cracking down hard on that city's murderers and robbers by - get this - enforcing a midnight curfew on children aged 13 and under. Not to dismiss the problem of juvenile crime, and not suggest that a 12 or 13 year old has any business being out on the street after 9 or 10, let alone midnight, but how many murders have been committed by the 13-and-under crowd? And at any rate, you'd think a resourceful 13-year-old could get nearly all his killing done prior to the witching hour, wouldn't you?

As an indicator of the lunacy that reigns virtually supreme in Frisco politics, there are those opposed to enforcing the curfew on grounds that it is unfair to "youths in minority neighborhoods." Were you aware that there is some gene specific to "minority" children that forces them, like so many werewolves, to haunt the streets in the post-midnight hours? No, I wasn't either.

At least while SF's cops are out combing the streets for wayward infants they'll no longer have to trouble themselves with rounding up potheads. At least not if gay hippie Supervisor (which one, you ask?) Tom Ammiano gets his way: he's introduced legislation encouraging the police to ignore dope smokers, because as we all know, man, people high on pot just wanna be groovy and love everybody, right? Or maybe it's more a case of Ammiano wanting to cover his own ass in the event a police officer should wander into City Hall while he and his fellow Supes are toking up, erm, I mean legislating for the greater good of the public.

09 September 2006

Islam Is Advancing According To A Steady Plan: America Will Be Destroyed

So says one Suleiman al-Omar, as quoted in a chilling article by David Selbourne, author of The Losing Battle With Islam. Unfortunately, I can't find that many holes in his argument. I was especially depressed by his critique of "the low level of Western leadership, in particular in the United States." For the past five years I've hoped, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, that George Bush and Co. had some kind of coherent plan, or were being advised by someone who did, or, failing that, would at least rise to the occasion in the way that apparently mediocre men sometimes do in times of great crisis. As we continue to plod through morass and quagmire to no visible end, it becomes ever more evident that this is not and will not be the case.

The closest the West has to a Churchillian figure - and that's still quite a stretch - is Tony Blair, now in the midst of being hounded from office by Britain's own gaggle of mediocrities; whatever Blair's failings, it's almost certain that whoever replaces him will have less vision, less courage, and less inclination to deal with the Islamist threat. Selbourne cites Edmund Burke, who said, "A great empire and little minds go ill together," and points out that the "little minds" include not only incompetent Presidents and military leaders, but also "hyperventilating Islamophobes as well as academic apologists for the worst that is being done in Islam’s name."

Most self-proclaimed "progressives," including most of the people I know, tend to pooh-pooh the idea of radical Islam being a serious danger to the way of life we enjoy in the Western world. I think this myopia has its origins partly in racism and partly in misplaced hostility. Racism because so many of them are unwilling or unable to believe that dark-skinned people practicing what appears to be a backward way of life could ever triumph over white secular humanism; misplaced hostility because so many of them are willing to lend at least tacit sympathy to anyone or anything that George Bush is against.

Personally, I'm less optimistic than at any time since this whole business got underway. Bush tries repeatedly to convince the public that we are engaged in a life-or-death struggle over the fundamental principles of civilisation - which I am inclined to think is true - but when continues to squander the nation's energy resources and burns through its economic capital as though we didn't have a care in the world, it makes a mockery of his rhetoric. When Hitler was gathering his forces and preparing his all-out assault on modernity and the Enlightenment, there was a similar disconnect. Let him have Europe, many Americans urged; he'll never make it across the Atlantic. Besides, he's just a funny little man with a moustache. You can't believe he'd ever be real problem to America, can you? I know, dragging Hitler into any argument is usually a cheap polemic tactic, and I'll undoubtedly be accused of just that. But nothing that's happened these past few years has made me less convinced that we're heading for very much the kind of showdown we faced in the 1930s and 40s, and that we're much less prepared for it, and even less likely to win it. My main consolation is that at my age, I'm less likely than most of you to have to live with the ultimate consequences.

Bob Dylan Approximately

Speaking of old potheads, they all seem to be raving about Bob Dylan's new album, here, for instance, and here. I actually know a few young potheads who feel similarly, and no doubt there are people out there of various ages who, despite being unimpaired by drugs, genuinely love the record.

I haven't heard it, and based on the plethora of boring, annoying and embarrassing stuff he's produced over the past 35 years, won't go out of my way to listen to it, at least not if it involves spending any of my own hard-earned (or even easily-earned) cash for the privilege. I say that as someone who virtually worshipped the man during his 1960s heyday, and who could still probably sing every single verse of "Desolation Row" from memory. And although Dylan never made a consistently good album after John Wesley Harding (I know purists will claim Blonde On Blonde marks the great dividing line, but I'm liberal - to a degree), he still managed to come up with some great songs into the 1970s. Why, just this morning I was idly strumming the guitar and found myself breaking into the first verse of "One More Cup Of Coffee For The Road," and it wasn't only because the chords closely resemble those of an unreleased Potatomen song.

And the thing is, I like many of Dylan's influences, I like his understated, wry, old-timey approach to things. The few snippets of his radio show that I've heard were brilliant. But since the 1970s he's produced so much musical crap, so much smugly self-indulgent diddling that I find it hard to give him another chance. Especially after the excruciatingly bad live concert I endured a few years ago, in which he made some sort of "artistic" point by deliberately turning nearly every one of his classic songs into a tuneless throwaway.

Hey, I'd like to think the guy can return from the wilderness and be powerful and relevant again. I'm Catholic, after all; we're all about redemption. But after three, almost four decades of critics hailing each new turkey of an album with, "Dylan is back on form, his best work since...(pick an era)," and having it never be anywhere remotely near true, do you understand why I might have my doubts?

If any of you out there are interested, tell me why I'm wrong, or am being unnecessarily closed-minded. Bear in mind that I really don't care for blues-style music, which I understand features prominently on the new album.

Old Hippies Ask: What's The Matter With Kids Today?

Fred Gardner, PR flack for the "medical" marijuana industry, worries about new data showing that pot use is declining among teenagers, and that nowadays kids are waiting until they're older (17.4 years on average) to try the drug. The only good news Gardner finds is that marijuana use is continuing to increase among over-50s, and when it comes down to it, they've got more money to spend on dope anyway.

Gardner theorizes that "the increasingly prevalent image of marijuana as medicine encourages older people to use it while making it less appealing to kids." I don't suppose it's more a case of modern teenagers finding their pothead parents and grandparents deeply, deeply embarrassing?

Update: Apparently Fred Gardner is not the only one who feels this way. My normally very sensible friend David - he's a professional philosopher, after all - shares this concern. He reckons senior citizens need to "fill up [their] retirement days somehow," and trots out the same argument that Gardner frequently makes, that teenagers are better off on pot than on Prozac. Not a very good argument, I'd suggest, considering the emerging evidence of a link between marijuana use and depression, the condition for which Prozac is most frequently prescribed.

08 September 2006

Dorks. You Are Pot-Eating Dorks.

Cloyne Court is a student co-op on the north side of the Berkeley campus that for decades now has managed to synthesize the worst aspects of a hippie commune and a punk squat into a malodorous feral brew that while not exactly lethal, still exuded enough vague, brooding awfulness to be decidely soul-sapping.

It didn't smell as foul as the now-closed Chateau on south side, and I don't recall anyone actually dying there from an overdose (like the also now-closed Barrington), but I always found it profoundly depressing. It seemed like every time I went there for a punk show, the pit would be taken over by some spastic acidheads doing the grasshopper dance or some thicknecked frat boys trying out their version of slam dancing by knocking the bejeebers out of all the skinny kids with glasses.

The thing that depressed me even more was that the Cloynies were super-privileged and in most cases, super-bright kids with the opportunity to study at one of America's best universities, and yet were being constantly pressurised into acting, as the Mr T Experience would put it, hella dumb.

So obviously this ultra-hella dumb event should have come as no surprise. But I'm sorry, kids, I can't help asking: what the hell were you thinking of? This is the 21st century, fer crissake, and you're having hippie pot parties? Kendra, who lived in Cloyne for several years and yet seemed to come out relatively unscathed, takes a slightly more moderate view of the shenanigans, but still seems to more or less agree with me: how embarrassing.