Sunday, March 15

He aten't dead.

Fear is strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.

When people recount their favourite Terry Pratchett quotes, they tend to concentrate on the hilarious and sarcastic and silly. And, you know, he was good at that. But if he'd merely been one of the funniest writers on the planet, he wouldn't've been half as successful. What made him truly great — the reason he got accused of literature — was stuff like the above, from Small Gods.

I miss Terry Pratchett.

Thursday, February 19

Great moments in middle age.

It is the thirteenth of February. I am purchasing a card in WH Smith. I take my purchase to the till. The till woman looks at me and says, in borderline incredulous tones, "You do know this is a Valentine's card you're buying, yeah?"

Pretty sure that never happens to Russell Brand.

Wednesday, January 28

On the upcoming general election.

People who know me keep asking me how comes I'm not totally into the election coverage like it's the greatest thing ever; how comes I appear to hate it even more than people who aren't interested in politics. Well:

Politics is fascinating, because it's simply about people and how they can live together. What could be more interesting or important? Elections, however, are not about politics. They are about politicians.

Tuesday, January 13

Offence.

There's been a lot of this over the last few days:

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish.

....

This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do.

This is a very good point — right up till the killing starts. At that moment, the cartoon ceases merely to mean what it explicitly and literally means and takes on the extra implicit meanings of support for freedom of speech and solidarity with those who exercise it. Obviously.

(And let's just get this out of the way at the start: I'm not going to publish cartoons of Mohammed on this blog because I am frightened of violent reprisals. I hope I would be brave enough to publish them if I were single. But I'm not, and, during the Kerfuffle, I had people tracking down my family and harassing them, including poking around my back garden. If reporters can do that, so can Salafists. If it were just me, I'd risk it, but I won't risk my kids. Anyway.)

Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party.

Well. Have the NAACP stopped doing what they do? Have Americans responded to the bombing by ceasing their support for civil rights? Have non-racist Americans started being racist because the bomber wants them to? Nope. Did the AUF respond to Breivik's killing spree by disbanding? Did Norwegians respond by abandoning the Labour Party? Have sane non-racist Norwegians started being racist and embracing batshit conspiracy theories because Breivik wanted them to? Nope. Have most Western media outlets responded to the Paris shootings — and previous violent intimidations — by refusing to publish the cartoons, just as the killers want them to? Why, yes, so they have. It seems to me that that is a rather crucial distinction.

So, maybe there have been some other cases, cases where the intimidated have responded to their non-Muslim intimidators by doing exactly what they don't want them to do? Funny you should ask.

On Thursday the 11th of July 2002, Peter Tatchell, George Melly, and a crowd of like-minded lovers of freedom stood on the steps of St Martins-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square and read out James Kirkup's poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, which says that Jesus was gay. Then they challenged the police and the DPP to prosecute them for blasphemy. And that protest is the reason why blasphemy is no longer illegal in England & Wales.

So my response to those who think they shouldn't publish cartoons of Mohammed because they're offensive is to ask these two questions.

Firstly, do you think Peter Tatchell really believes that Jesus was gay?

Secondly, does that even matter?

The reason we have freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and universal suffrage in the UK is not that we sat around and waited to be given them. It is that some brave men and women quite deliberately set out to do precisely what they were told not to. I don't see that it matters whether the people telling us what not to do are intimidating us with threats of prosecution or threats of murder. Either way, we should salute those who piss them off.

Thursday, January 8

Provocation and stupidity.

On days like today, I expect hordes of bien-pensants bastards to be eagerly queuing up to blame the victims for their own murders. Give it a day, maybe two. But The Financial Times are apparently trying to set some sort of appeasement speed record, so jumped the queue and published a quite despicable piece by Tony Barber while the bodies were still warm. Publish and be damned — and they are.

This is their current version of the article, with the rather disingenuous disclaimer

This article is an expanded and updated version of an earlier blog posted on January 7

Expanded and updated? Redacted in the face of over a thousand hostile comments, more like. The particularly nasty bits of the original are preserved here:

In other words, Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark's Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.

Perhaps Tony Barber thinks that he, a man who invokes Voltaire only to undermine him, is a convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. The freedom to say whatever you want, so long as you agree only to say what the men with guns tell you to. No thanks.

Here's what the "stupid" Charb said in 2012:

"We are provocative today. We will be provocative tomorrow. I do this because it's our job to draw about actuality," he said.

He said his job was not to defend freedom of speech. "But without freedom of speech we are dead. We can't live in a country without freedom of speech. I prefer to die than live like a rat."

Barber is apparently too fucking thick to appreciate that the staff of Charlie-Hebdo were bravely fighting for exactly what makes his own job possible. They weren't stupid; their latest publication wasn't a fuck-up. They knew the risks, and took them anyway — including publishing the Danish cartoons back when every newspaper in the UK bravely declined to do so. I appreciate why an editor might choose not to publish such things, but I wish they'd be honest about it: just admit they're frightened. A lot of us are, and that's understandable — and worth talking about. Instead, time and time again, we have to put up with this mealy-mouthed smug bollocks about how "We're not frightened, oh no, and we're still staunch supporters of the freedom of the press, but the thing is, we're just far more intelligent and sensitive than those crass cartoonists. Sensitive to the people who are threatening to kill us if we don't do what they want. But we're not frightened. Honestly, what a preposterous notion."

Even redacted, Barber's piece is still awful. He wants to talk about the real threat facing France: the possibility that Le Front National might get more votes.

Surveys show that a majority of French people rejects racism and dislikes extremism

he helpfully informs us, referring not to the extremism of the Al Qaeda cell who gunned down twelve innocent people in cold blood today but to the extremism of people who might restrict immigration.

Look, I have no particular love for France's (or any country's) National Front, but, whatever we might think of their manifesto, can we at least agree that they don't commit mass murder? And that, therefore, while the bodybags are still being wheeled out of the building, the Real Problem That Needs To Be Addressed is not that someone somewhere might consider voting for them? The real problem is the mass murder. The real problem is the assault on freedom of speech. If you're a journalist and that assault has worked on you, that is understandable and I sympathise, I really do. But what you need to do is shut up. Ignore the subject. Go write a piece about trout fishing. Don't try to pretend you're supporting the cause you have so readily abandoned by pissing on the graves of those who died for it.

As an antidote to Barber's despicable swill, I recommend reading Claire Berlinski's visceral reaction. She was there. And she has something more accurate and more distressing to say about freedom of speech:

President François Hollande said the trivial: “No barbaric act will ever extinguish the freedom of the press.” That the statement is self-falsifying seemed to bother him little: That barbaric act literally extinguished the press. Literally. They are dead. Their freedom is thus of little relevance.

Charb, Cabu, Tignous, Honoré, Wolinski, Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Frédéric Boisseau, Michel Renaud, Moustapha Ourad, Merabet Ahmed, Franck Brinsolaro: Rest in peace.

Philippe Lancon, Fabrice Nicolino, Laurent Sourisseau, and the unnamed police officers: Get well soon.

Tony Barber: Go to hell.

Thursday, December 18

The aftermath.

Back in the day, I used to blog quite a lot. I built up a regular readership, until I could rely on around 800 hits a day. Wow, 800 hits, I thought. That's impressive, I thought. Some days, it was 1000. Amazing.

I don't blog much any more, don't have the same sort of following. I mean, I blog like four times a year now. The other day, I thought, hey, this post's actually pretty good. Might get a bit of attention. It might even get really big — like, 1000 hits. Maybe even 2000.

Then Tim Worstall blogged it. Then he Tweeted it. Several thousand people read it. SEVERAL THOUSAND. It was amazing. Then Marc Andreessen Tweeted it.

And then all hell broke loose.

It's been the weirdest day of my life. Which sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? If you'd suggested to me a week ago that having a blog post go viral could result in the weirdest day of my life, I'd've thought you were deranged. It's just a load of people reading some of my writing. How weird could it be? And, you know, I've had some pretty weird days. But — trust me on this — going unexpectedly viral is seriously bloody weird.

The post's been reproduced in so many places, it's no longer possible to track how much it's being read. Looks like at least a quarter of a million people. It's in the papers — not just online, but in print. I am famous. For fifteen minutes, at least.

Everything I wanted to say about Brand and RBS, I said. I won't be revisiting the topic. My apologies to those of you who are apparently gagging for more. I find it bizarre that anyone might think that that piece constituted insufficient writing, but hey. My favourite comment I've seen on the Interwebs so far:

Maybe book 2 will come out soon.

To those journalists wanting interviews: Sorry, but no. It's not my forte. If you want to discuss this further, please contact RBS's press office. They're very nice people.

To those journalists who have decided to harass my family: Please stop it. Sneaking around people's back gardens is not exactly classy. And I can save you some time anyway: you're not going to find any dirt on me. Not because I'm wonderful, but because I'm dull. I literally cannot think of anything someone might say about me that would be worth the expense of tracking it down. "Sometimes he wears a silly hat." "He claims to prefer Elementary to Sherlock." "When he gets proper drunk, he can be a bit of a hugger."

To everyone who's contacted me: Thank you so much, and I'm sorry I can't reply to you all.

To the multitudes who are sending me social media connection requests: If I don't know you in a face-to-face sort of a way, I'll be ignoring you. Sorry. I'm sure most of you are lovely, but I'm equally sure some of you aren't, and I can't tell which. Social media just turned into a minefield for me, so I'm throwing away the rollerblades. I'm sure you understand.

Finally, I would like to say that the news sites that have made "Bloke writes about his lunch" their third or fourth top story, considering that the first two right now are Pakistan and Sydney, should be ashamed of themselves.

Anyway, my next plan is to slag off 1 Direction. What could go wrong?

Tuesday, December 16

An open letter to Russell Brand.

Dear Russell,

Hi. I'm Jo. You may remember me. You may even have filmed me. On Friday, you staged a publicity stunt at an RBS office, inconveniencing a hundred or so people. I was the lanky slouched guy with a lot less hair than you but (I flatter myself) a slightly better beard who complained to you that you, a multimillionaire, had caused my lunch to get cold. You started going on at me about public money and bankers' bonuses, but look, Russell, anyone who knows me will tell you that my food is important to me, and I hadn't had breakfast that morning, and I'd been standing in the freezing cold for half an hour on your whim. What mattered to me at the time wasn't bonuses; it was my lunch, so I said so.

Which is a great shame, because I'd usually be well up for a proper barney with you, and the points you made do actually deserve answers. Although not — and I really can't emphasise this enough, Russell — not as much as I deserve lunch.

Before I go any further, I should stress that I don't speak for RBS. I'm not even an RBS employee, though I do currently work for them. What follows is not any sort of official statement from RBS, or even from the wider banking industry. It is merely the voice of a man whose lunch on Friday was unfairly delayed and too damn cold.

So, firstly, for the people who weren't there, let's describe the kerfuffle. I didn't see your arrival; I just got back from buying my lunch to discover the building's doors were locked, a film crew were racing around outside trying to find a good angle to point their camera through the windows, and you were in reception, poncing around like you were Russell bleeding Brand. From what I can gather, you'd gone in and security had locked the doors to stop your film crew following you. Which left us — the people who were supposed to be in the building, who had work to do — standing around in the cold.

My first question is, what were you hoping to achieve? Did you think a pack of traders might gallop through reception, laughing maniacally as they threw burning banknotes in the air, quaffing champagne, and brutally thrashing the ornamental paupers that they keep on diamante leashes — and you, Russell, would damningly catch them in the act? But that's on Tuesdays. I get it, Russell, I do: footage of being asked to leave by security is good footage. It looks like you're challenging the system and the powers that be want your voice suppressed. Or something. But all it really means, behind the manipulative media bullshit, is that you don't have an appointment.

Of course, Russell, I have no idea whether you could get an appointment. Maybe RBS top brass would rather not talk to you. That's their call — and, you know, some of your behaviour might make them a tad wary. Reputations are very important in banking, and, reputation-wise, hanging out with a guy who was once fired for broadcasting hardcore pornography while off his head on crack is not ideal. But surely a man who can get invited onto Question Time to discuss the issues of the day with our Lords & Masters is establishment enough to talk to a mere banker. And it would be great if you could. Have you tried, Russell? Maybe you could do an interview with one of them. An expert could answer your questions and rebut your points, and you could rebut right back at them. I might even watch that. (By the way, Russell, if you do, and it makes money, I would like a cut for the idea, please. And I'm sure it would. Most things you do make money.)

But instead of doing something potentially educational, Russell, you staged a completely futile publicity stunt. You turned up and weren't allowed in. Big wow. You know what would have happened if a rabid capitalist had just turned up unannounced? They wouldn't have been allowed in either. You know what I have in my pocket? A security pass. Unauthorised people aren't allowed in. Obviously. That's not a global conspiracy, Russell; it's basic security. Breweries have security too, and that's not because they're conspiring to steal beer from the poor. And security really matters: banks are simply crawling with highly sensitive information. Letting you in because you're a celebrity and You Demand Answers could in fact see the bank hauled in front of the FCA. That would be a scandal. Turning you away is not. I'm sorry, Russell, but it's just not.

Your response to my complaint that a multimillionaire was causing my lunch to get cold was... well, frankly, it was to completely miss the point, choosing to talk about your millions instead of addressing the real issue, namely my fucking lunch. But that's a forgivable mistake. We all have our priorities, Russell, and I can understand why a man as obsessed with money as I am with food would assume that's what every conversation is about. Anyway, you said that all your money has been made privately, not through taxation. Now, that, Russell, is actually a fair point. Well done.

Although I can't help but notice that you have no qualms about appearing on the BBC in return for money raised through one of the most regressive taxes in the country, a tax which leads to crippling fines and even jail time for thousands of poor people and zero rich people. But never mind. I appreciate that it's difficult for a celeb to avoid the BBC, even if they're already a multimillionaire and can totally afford to turn the work down. Ah, the sacrifices we make to our principles for filthy lucre, eh, Russell? The condoms and hairspray won't buy themselves. Or, in my case, the pasta.

And then there is that film you're working on, isn't there, for which I understand your production company is benefitting from the Enterprise Investment Scheme, allowing the City investors funding your film to avoid tax. Was that the film you were making on Friday, Russell, when you indignantly pointed out to me that none of your money comes from the taxpayer? Perhaps it had slipped your mind.

And, of course, you've been in a few Hollywood films now, haven't you, Russell? I take it you've heard of Hollywood Accounting? Of course you have, Russell; you produced Arthur. So you are well aware that Hollywood studios routinely cook their books to make sure their films never go into taxable profit — for instance, Return Of The Jedi has never, on paper, made a profit. Return Of The fucking Jedi, Russell. As an actor, and even more so as the producer of a (officially) loss-making film, you've taken part in that, you've benefitted from it. (While we're on the subject, I hear great things about Hollywood's catering. I hope you enjoyed it. Expensive, delicious, and served (at least when I dream about it) nice and hot.)

But still, you're broadly right. Leaving aside the money you make from one of the most regressive of the UK's taxes, and the tax exemptions your company uses to encourage rich City investors to give you more money, and the huge fees you've accepted from one of the planet's most notorious and successful tax avoidance schemes, you, Russell, have come by your riches without any effect on taxpayers. Whereas RBS got bailed out. Fair point.

Here's the thing about the bailout of RBS, Russell: it's temporary. The plan was never to bail out a bank so that it could then go bust anyway. That would be too asinine even for Gordon Brown. The idea was to buy the bank with public money, wait until it became profitable again, then resell it, as Alastair Darling clearly explained at the time. And that is still the plan, and it does appear to be on course. Not only that, but it looks as if the government will eventually sell RBS for more than they bought it for. In other words, the taxpayer will make a profit on this deal.

Of all the profligate pissing away of public money that goes on in this country, the only instance where the public are actually going to get their money back seems an odd target for your ire. What other government spending can you say that about, Russell? What other schemes do they sink taxpayers' money into and get it all back, with interest? And how many people have you met who have actually been right in the middle of working to make a profit for the taxpayer when you've interrupted them to cause their lunch to get cold?

As for bonuses, well, I'll be honest: I get an annual bonus. I'm not allowed to tell you exactly how much it is, but I will say it's four or five orders of magnitude smaller than the ones that make the headlines. It's very nice — helps pay off a bit of credit card debt (remember debt, Russell?) — but, to put it in terms you can understand, I'd need to work for several tens of thousands of years before my bonuses added up to close to what you're worth.

But here's the key thing you need to know about bonuses, Russell: they come with conditions attached. My salary is mine to do with as I will (I like to spend a chunk of it on good hot food). My bonus my employer can take back off me under certain conditions. Again, I do not speak for RBS, so cannot say anything about the recent FX trading scandal or PPI or any of that shit. But, in general terms, bonuses have conditions attached, such as "And we'll claw back every penny if we discover you were breaking the rules." And yes, it does happen. The only bonuses that make the news are the ones that get paid. But, every year, bonuses either don't get paid or are even taken back off staff for various reasons, including misconduct. I'd've thought, Russell, that anyone who wanted bankers to be accountable would approve of the scheme.

And now, if I may, a word about your manner.

Much as I disagree with most of your politics, I've always rather liked you. You do a good job of coming across as someone who might be fun to be around. Turns out, that's an illusion.

Because, you see, Russell, when you accosted me, you started speaking to me with your nose about two inches from mine. That's pretty fucking aggressive, Russell. I'm sure you're aware of the effect. Putting one's face that close to someone else's and staring into their eyes is how primates square off for a fight. Regardless of our veneer of civilisation, when someone does that to us, it causes instinctive physical responses: adrenaline, nervousness... back down or lash out. (Or, apparently, in the case of the celebrity bikes you like to hang out with, swoon.) I'm sure that, like turning up with a megaphone instead of an appointment, such an aggressive invasion of personal space makes for great footage: you keep talking to someone in that chatty reasonable affable tone of yours, and they react with anger. Makes them look unreasonable. Makes it look like they're the aggressive ones. Makes it look like people get flustered in the face of your incisive argument. When in fact they're just getting flustered in the face of your face.

I've been thinking about this the last couple of days, Russell, and I can honestly say that the only other people ever to talk to me the way you did were school bullies. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since I had to deal with such bastards, so I was caught quite off my guard. Nice company you're keeping. Now I think about it, they used to ruin my lunchtimes too.

One last thing, Russell. Who did you inconvenience on Friday? Let's say that you're right, and that the likes of Fred Goodwin need to pay. OK, so how much trouble do you think Fred faced last Friday as a result of your antics? Do you think any of his food got cold, Russell? Even just his tea? I somehow doubt it. How about some of the millionaire traders you despise so much (some of whom are nearly as rich as you, Russell)? Well, no, because you got the wrong fucking building. (Might want to have a word with your researchers about that.) Which brings us back to where we came in: a bunch of admittedly fairly well paid but still quite ordinary working people, admin staff mostly, having their lives inconvenienced and, in at least one case, their lunches quite disastrously cooled, in order to accommodate the puerile self-aggrandising antics of a prancing multimillionaire. If you had any self-awareness beyond agonising over how often to straighten your fucking chest-hair, you'd be ashamed.

It was paella, by the way. From Fernando's in Devonshire Row. I highly recommend them: their food is frankly just fantastic.

When it's hot.

Friday, November 14

Genius.

The Financial Times think this is news:

Nicola Sturgeon urges SNP to win Scottish majority in general election

I bet all the other party leaders will copy her brilliant strategy. Thieves.

Blogging about blogging.

Well, it's been over ten years, so I thought I'd get around to redesigning this site. And by that I mean using a standard out-of-the-box template and tweaking it a bit.

I'm also reopening comments.

I might even do some actual blogging.

Over on the right there, you will see a couple of links to other things what I do. There's Music, which is my band Squander Pilots. We're actually making music again, which you could listen to. It's quite good. And there's Photography, which is a Tumblr of stuff I do with my Lumia 1020, which — if you were wondering — is every bit as good as the ravier reviews claim, if not better.

And that's it.

Calloo, callay, etc.

Well, I was wrong.

I made several predictions here, and I was wrong about some things and right about others. I'm obviously just trying to salvage some vestige of self-respect there. I was quite clearly very very wrong about the only thing that mattered:

There has never for one moment been any doubt in my mind that Scotland will vote to leave. ... I never trusted the opinion polls that showed that No would win, and I don't trust the latest polls that show that Yes will win, despite their happening to be right by sheer luck. Obviously Scotland will vote to be an independent country.

Ooooooops.

I'm actually less shamed by being wrong about that than I am by being right about this:

Some of you may remember the 1992 general election. I do. ... What was interesting about it was the stark difference between the predicted result and the actual result. I mean, yeah, sure, predictions are often a bit wrong. But in 1992, they were staggeringly wrong.

See, it turns out I was right to compare the Scottish Referendum to the 1992 General Election. The analogues with the results and the possible reasons for them — the infamous Shy Tory Vote — are striking. Thing is, I managed to get that bit right and then still draw completely the wrong conclusion from it. Being wrong based on just being plain old wrong is one thing. Being wrong based on making what turns out to be exactly the right insight is embarrassing.

Which is the other thing I was right about:

Course, if I'm wrong, this post is going to look as embarrassing as that celebratory Labour footage.

For an excellent post-election analysis of what happened and why, read Ray's blog, not mine:

The Yes team knew that 16.7% of the Scottish electorate was willing to vote Conservative at the last General Election. What they perhaps hadn’t considered was the fact that these people consistently voted Conservative in the full knowledge that, in a 'first-past-the-post' system, they had absolutely no chance of winning. That’s quite a significant statement to make, one that should perhaps have made the Yes team consider the possibility that even more people might have voted Conservative if they felt they had a chance of getting representation. And what the Yes team didn’t know they didn’t know was just how many of those newly-registered referendum voters might naturally be inclined to take a conservative (small c) option on such a contentious issue as the break-up of the United Kingdom.

I should have figured that out. But I didn't. What a fuckwit.