Monday, 31 December 2007

Time Keeps on Slipping...Into the Future

There were a lot of things I meant to do in 2007 that I can't quite recall just now. I'm sure some of them involved writing best-selling non-fiction books or critically-acclaimed novels. Perhaps I was going to pen a screenplay ("It's 'Stars Wars' meets 'Sense and Sensibility'--in the Wild West!").

Alas, unless I was hit on the head and suffer from memory loss, I didn't do any of those things. But we can't live our lives full of regret. Whatever excess energy I had this year was funneled into the Kellys' Grand Adventure: uprooting the family and moving them to this scepter'd isle. If there was an element of "Now what?" after we'd unpacked, well that's to be expected, right?

I don't like making New Year's resolutions for myself. I much prefer making them for other people. Making a New Year's resolution is too much like buying a diary at the stationery store: You get it, you dutifully make a few entries, then you taper off and stop, and for the rest of the year the damn book is staring back at you, a reminder of your inadequacies. Still, I'd like to learn Spanish this year. I mean, in between the non-fiction/novel/screenplay writing.

As for you, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed your 2007 and that your 2008 is as good as it can be.

In Other News
Months and months ago I blogged about how 2007 was seeming like something out of a bad movie, how the war and global warming and the mortgage crisis were coming together in an apocalyptic sort of way. I keep waiting to be disabused of that notion. The latest uncomfortable harbinger is the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, an event that is hardly surprising but tragic nonetheless.

Murdering people hardly seems the way to run a democracy. Of course, the murderers--whoever they are--don't want a democracy. But I'm not sure if the edifice that Bhutto's supporters are building is a democracy, either. It's a political dynasty, one that assumes it's the birthright of a Bhutto to have a hand in running Pakistan. One could argue that it's no different from the Kennedys (or Clintons or Bushes) in America, but if one of those U.S. politicians should be murdered, the Democratic or Republican parties wouldn't be torn asunder or face extinction. The parties--and the impulses they represent--exist outside of specific personalities.

That doesn't seem to be the case in Pakistan. I saw a quote recently from a PPP member who said that after Bhutto's death, "We are all orphans now." And now Benazir's son, Bilawal, is pegged to lead his mother's party. He is 19, a student at Oxford. Can anyone believe he has the skills for a such an important role? His father will keep the seat warm for him, but this is what royalty does.

Of course, I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of that troubled region and I admit it's not particularly incisive to point out that democracy as it exists over there isn't very recognizable.

In Sports News
The Redskins beat the Cowboys yesterday. I didn't see the game, though I followed along online during the first half. When I was in college, the Redskins were actually good. They'd make the playoffs and even win the Super Bowl occasionally. Since Dan Snyder (boo, hiss) bought them they've stunk, and there seemed some karmic justification for this, since Snyder is so disagreeable a character. I even felt a frisson of pleasure when they went down, if only to see Snyder sour-faced in the owner's box.

But this has been a particularly bad year, what with the murder of Sean Taylor. I don't buy into all those sports cliches about grit and determination, and I'm particularly immune to coach Joe Gibbs's brand of Christian pap (gee, God helped you win? really? isn't He kinda busy?), but it is nice to see the team in the playoffs. And the Skins can lose every other game of the season as long as they beat the Cowboys.

Duck, Duck, Goose Fat
We held an informal taste test during our Christmas dinner. Actually, it was during our Boxing Day dinner. (We traveled to my sister's in St. Albans on the day; My Lovely Wife made another meal at home for her sister and company the day after.) Half the roast potatoes were made with olive oil, Ruth's traditional method. The other half were made with the goose fat I purchased at Alcock's Family Butchers.

The winner? A few people preferred the olive oil. And both sets of potatoes were delish. But those we spooned from the goose fat tray had a crisper exterior and a creamier interior.

Of course, our arteries probably have a creamier interior after eating them. Add to New Year's resolutions: Start jogging.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Xmas Marks the Spot

Sorry if you're sick of Christmas already. I mean, why shouldn't you be, given that we've been celebrating it since September or so. I'm taking it easy for a few days while we host My Lovely Wife's sister (My Lovely Sister-in-Law?) but I will offer this image for those who think the holiday season is downright dangerous:

This decorated evergreen is in the center of Oxford, at St. Giles, near St. John's College. I wonder, is the chain link fence around it to keep passersby from attacking it? Or to keep it from attacking passersby?

Monday, 24 December 2007

Alcock's Family Butchers

The line to Alcock's Family Butchers, on the Banbury Road in Summertown, was out the door yesterday morning. They'd opened at 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve to deal with the holiday crush. Baskets of root vegetables and other fresh produce were arranged on the sidewalk in front of the shop window. A woman holding a fidgety 4-year-old in her arms started scooping chestnuts onto a scale, trying to entertain the boy as his father waited in line.

"Tell me when we have enough," she said in a chirpy, let's-make-this-a-game voice. The kid had already recognized her idea for what it was: a trick. Well two could play at that....

"Enough!" he said after a single scoop.

His mother frowned. "Do you really think that's enough," she asked, weighing her options: Dump in another scoop or two and risk the kid exploding or not have enough chestnuts for her stuffing needs. I turned my attention to the scene inside the butcher's, beyond the plate glass window.

Three butchers--in identical blue smocks--were going about their tasks in an unhurried way: consulting order sheets, disappearing to the back then reappearing holding turkeys, pulling fistfuls of sausage from the refrigerated case, bagging little plastic cartons of what looked like mashed potatoes. (Mashed potatoes?)

There was room for only about 10 customers at a time inside; the line didn't look like it was getting any shorter. Finally a man emerged clutching his meat and we all shuffled forward one place. In a voice that was more matter-of-fact than annoyed, the woman behind me said, "That's the first one I've seen come out since I've been here."

"It always worries me when people go into a butcher's and don't come out," I said. "I've seen that movie before."

"Sweeney Todd," agreed the woman.

Though the air was cold--shot through with the freezing fog we'd had the week before--none of us were in much of a hurry. We didn't mind waiting, for as we stood there we thought about our Christmas meals: ones from our pasts and ones in our future. We thought of the meal we'd enjoy two days hence. Somewhere in Alcock's Family Butchers was a turkey with our name on it, an unsullied bird with, if not its whole life ahead of it, at least the promise of a mouth-watering dinner.

Finally I was inside. I grabbed some cheeses--a Jarlsberg, some brie, a wedge of Stilton and a hunk of Oxford blue--and waited my turn. Some people were getting a goose; one man was getting a capon. When customers gave their names, the butchers fetched the bird then read the address back: "Squitchey Lane?" "Hawkswell Gardens?" "Cavendish Court?" It was as if the butchers wanted to make sure the birds were going to good homes.

Most of the customers, I noticed, asked for some goose fat. After I'd gotten to the head of the line and seen my personal turkey set down on the counter--its breast bristling with a few unplucked feathers, as if it had shaved too quickly that morning and missed a few spots--I asked why so many people were getting goose fat.

"Roast potatoes," explained the butcher. "It's really good for them."

Except for perhaps a morphine drip and a hot oil rub-down from a Swedish masseuse, there is nothing more pleasurable than a mouthful of English roasted potatoes. I asked for a helping of goose fat, not knowing what he would pull from the case. It was the stuff I'd earlier thought was mashed potatoes: a tub of fluffy white lard.

The butcher patted my bird through its clear plastic wrapper, then assured me it would rise to the occasion this holiday. He put the turkey and the giblets in one carrier bag, placed the cheese in another, and after the handover of a not inconsiderable amount of cash (no credit cards accepted at Alcock's Family Butchers) I was on my way, taking care not to slip on the ice and thinking of Christmas.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Friday Grab Bag

It was cold yesterday. I know that's hardly news in England in December, but it was a particular kind of cold, a noteworthy cold, one I'm happy to have experienced. It was chilly in Prague, of course--finger-numbingly so--but it was a boring, dry cold. The cold that we walked into after leaving Gatwick was a foggy, icy cold. Yesterday it gripped Oxford, coating everything in a scrim of ice crystals. Visibility was a few hundred yards and trees and buildings in the distance looked like indistinct phantasms.

It was a day to stay inside, but I got a lift from a neighbor to University Parks so we could each walk our dogs, his a greyhound named Becks, mine a goofy black Lab named Charlie. I'm glad I did, since it was an otherworldly kind of weather, a sentient weather that frosted everything it touched, like a painter applying frigid highlights.

Today we're back to unremarkable temperatures and humidity. And no prospects of a white Christmas.

BritNews RoundUp
The Mirror goes in search of Britain's biggest Grinch then tries to reform him. But Bill Shail, a retired wages clerk from the Southampton docks, is having none of it. "Blow Christmas," he says. "Wharra load of silly old b******s." But surely he likes mistletoe? "I'd rather hang it from my pants so people can kiss my a***," Bill says. God bless us everyone!

Damn the Daily Mail. It seems to have given its women's breasts editor the week off. Luckily, the Mail is among the tabloids that are fixated with celebrity skin care so I can offer this riveting story about Kate Moss's pimples. I love the way they circle her pimples then enlarge them. I feel like I'm looking at aerial photos of Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba. Shouldn't the president blockade Kate Moss to keep her from eating unhealthy foods?

I know this is the BritNews RoundUp, but I'm making an exception for our next story, which comes from America. I'm afraid it may not have been covered adequately in The Washington Post and I wouldn't want you to miss it. A surgeon in Arizona was suspended after taking a photo of a patient's penis during a medical procedure. According to the BBC Web site, "The patient is a strip club owner, Sean Dubowik, whose penis is...." Whose penis is what? Well, you'll just have to click to find out.

In other penis-related news, an English driving instructor has been sentenced to 18 months in jail for putting a carrot in his trousers and pretending it was his turgid member: "The court heard how [Stephen] Cooney put the 12-inch carrot down his trousers and told a pupil in her 40s that a perfectly executed maneuver was so good it had given him an erection."

Gargoyle of the Week

This fellow helps shed water from St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. But what I really wanted to show you was:

Dog Poop Bag Dispenser of the Week

These nifty little dispensers dot the streets of Prague. Oddly, the dog in the drawing looks like he's filled with shame at what is a natural, healthy process. (My older daughter says it looks as if he's pooping in a golf hole.) The bag itself is made of paper, which is kind of gross. But each bag does come with a little cardboard scoop. And it features an illustration of a different dog, one who doesn't suffer from an anal fixation. It's a far-sighted pooch sitting on a toilet, reading the paper while wearing slippers:

Of course, if a dog really could do that, we wouldn't need the poop bags.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Making Prague-ress

One of the benefits of living on Airstrip One is that it's an, um, airstrip. Jet planes are leaving constantly from every corner of the country for exotic European destinations. We're determined to take advantage of that. And so on Saturday the Kellys winged it to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. I was going to bring my laptop and blog from there, but the hotel didn't have wi-fi and in any case I didn't feel like lugging the MacBook around.

There are no doubt warmer places we could have gone--trading Oxford in December for Prague in December doesn't really make sense--but what a wonderful city. And kitted out for Christmas--every square bristling with red-roofed stands selling souvenirs, sausages, pastries, beer and mulled wine--made it magical.

I've never seen so many buildings designed by show-offs. Not just castles and cathedrals, but apartment buildings and office buildings, too, have an attention to detail and to decoration that I've never seen anywhere else. Many date from the Art Nouveau period, though some are centuries older. The typical Prague building is coated with a brightly painted plaster and topped by a roof line that looks like it was cut with a scroll saw or designed by a milliner. Caryatids hold up entranceways and balconies. Sculptures are set into niches or crown facades, gazing down at the cobbled squares below. Every building says "look at me," but in an elegant, middle European accent.

We spent four nights in Prague, in the Old Town, not far from the Old Town Square. It's funny how, thanks to the Web, you can almost be sick of a place before even going there. I scoured a lot of Web sites, including TripAdvisor, to get recommendations on where to stay. After a while it seemed like I'd already been to Prague. Hadn't I had a bad meal at an Italian restaurant in New Town, then been charged double what was on the menu? Wasn't I cast into the streets after the hotelier claimed he had no record of my reservation? Didn't a swarm of Gypsies rob me while I rode the subway? Hadn't I had to fight my way through Wenceslas Square, fending off the drug-dealers, pimps and confidence artists?

Well, actually, no, none of those things happened, but spend any time at all online and it seems
as if they did. Yes, there were many more reports of wonderful Prague experiences but the ones that stick out are the disasters, especially when you're traveling to a destination that's new to you. One of the forums I was visiting had a post the day before we left that was headed "I WAS MUGGED IN PRAGUE!!!" The writer was almost gleeful: All his suspicions had been confirmed.

I pondered renting a bunch of DVDs and just spending the mid-winter break holed up in our underheated (boiler still on the fritz!) Oxford house. Of course I'm glad we didn't. Oxford is a lovely ancient city, but it doesn't offer many views like this one:

Or this one:

Or this one:

Our energy flagged at times, but I'm proud of how much we packed in. Our feet ached every night from days spent walking everywhere, taking in everything from Prague Castle to the Mucha Museum to the Jewish quarter. We saw a performance of "Turandot" at the State Opera and tried not to gloat in the Museum of Communism.

The Museum of Communism was one of the most interesting sights, flawed, yes, but fascinating. The trinkets in its gift shop are among the best art-directed in Prague, especially the postcards and posters that upend the heroic language and images of Soviet socialist realism. Perhaps they are even a bit too glib. One poster bore a smiling, flag-waving young Communist and the legend "It was a time of happy shiny people. The shiniest were in the uranium mines." Later that night we had dinner with a local couple, he Czech, she Slovak. Her father had been kicked out of university for his democratic beliefs and eventually forced to work in the uranium mines. He probably wouldn't have seen the joke.

To an American who remembers the Cold War these sorts of associations are never far from the surface in Prague. It was the enemy for so long. And yet experiencing the city--its ancient, twisting lanes, its gay and exuberant architecture, its tasty and life-affirming beer--it's hard not to see the five decades of Communist rule as a hiccup. I might feel differently if I'd been mugged by Gypsies, but somehow I doubt it.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Friday Grab Bag: Dust in the Wind Edition

So we saw "The Golden Compass" last night. I was underwhelmed. Having finished re-reading the novel literally yesterday morning it was fresh in my mind and every deviation the film took was painfully obvious. For example (SPOILER ALERTS!): In the movie it isn't the Master of Jordan College who tries to poison Lord Asriel but a lackey from the Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter discovers the alethiometer earlier in the action. The chronology of the trip north is rearranged. The Experimental Station looks like something out of Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" rather than the grimmer setting Pullman describes. And there aren't nearly enough dead children, ie, there are none.

I understand that a movie is different from a novel, and that a book that takes a day and a half to read has to be compressed to two hours. Tough decisions have to be made. I just disagree with most of the ones director Chris Weitz made. Perhaps an American was a poor choice to write and direct. (Though Weitz did graduate from Cambridge and directed the lovely "About a Boy.") Most of the movie is all action and plot-goosing, without any of the heart that Pullman poured into the book.

Nicole Kidman was great as Mrs. Coulter but the girl who played Lyra, Dakota Blue Fanning, had the emotional range of a bollard. She makes Emma Watson look like Laurence Olivier.

I read Stephen Hunter's snippy review of "The Golden Compass" in The Washington Post before seeing it and was annoyed at his potshots at Dust and daemons. But having now seen the film I can see where Hunter was coming from. The movie is a bit of a mess and I don't know how much sense it would make to someone seeing it without reading the books.

Worst of all--to me, anyway--is how little you actually see the freakin' Northern Lights. Pullman describes them often in the book, as in when Lyra first glimpses them: "As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer."

What cinematographer could resist trying to recreate that? And yet in Weitz's film we get something that looks like a set of faded sepia-tone drapes.

BritNews RoundUp
The Daily Mail is again at the forefront of science news, informing readers about the latest in breakthrough technologies. Why, technologies such as "the intelligent bra." "Fitted with tiny sensors," the article explains, "the fabric will monitor and measure even the smallest movement in the breast." The story wouldn't just be an excuse to run a photo of women in their bras and women jogging on the beach, would it?

The British are a tenacious lot, able to survive Dunkirk, the Blitz, IRA bombings...and being stuck for four days in a locked toilet. That's what happened to David Leggat, who was stuck in the toilet of his bowling club after the handle jammed. The cleaning lady who finally rescued Leggat pointed out: "Nobody had been looking for David. A wife might have wondered where he was, but he is not married."

I thought of Sean Taylor when I read this article in the Guardian, about a Liverpool soccer player whose house was robbed while he was off playing a match. His wife and kids were home, though. He's the sixth Liverpool player to be targeted.

Poor Hugh Grant. The chap seemed to have it all: looks, smarts, a sort of stammering charm that many women--including Elizabeth Hurley--found irresistible. There was always something more going on there, I suppose, what with the $50 hooker and all. He's a pretty laughable figure in the tabloids here. A few months ago they printed a photo of him draped with American co-eds whom he was chatting up in a Scottish golf club. And now comes this story about how all the women he was hitting on in a Spanish night club just happened to be, um, prostitutes. Great photos, though.

I'm a hat man, rarely venturing outdoors without some sort of chapeau screwed tightly to my head. That's been hard to do here, though, since I cycle everywhere. I've traded my fedora for a bicycle helmet. Geoffrey Wheatcroft had a nice story about the importance of hats, especially in the winter. I liked it most for learning that the word "titfer" is a synonym for "hat." Where did it come from? It's Cockney rhyming slam: "tit for tat" = "hat," the way "trouble and strife" = "wife."

Flash alert! A dog almost ruined a pie-eating competition by wolfing down 20 pies before the humans had a chance to tuck in after his owner was distracted by a pigeon flying in his chimney. Makes perfect sense to me.

Gargoyle of the Week

This little fellow, snapped by My Lovely Wife, adorns the outside of the Bodleian Library.

I think I might be able to work on a book about the shortcomings of English service providers. The boiler's still on the fritz in our house here, though we have it on good authority that our Silver Spring house is nice and cozy. We'll just have to bundle up this weekend.

I hope you enjoy yours wherever you are. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

School Daze

Just a short post this morning since I have to clear my mind for a presentation I'm giving to a bunch of 6th-formers at a nearby school. These are basically high-school seniors, 17- and 18-year-olds who I'm sure are like kids that age everywhere: happy to get out of whatever regularly-scheduled class they would be in and bored by the prospect of having to feign attention while some ancient hack talks to them about his job.
I'll probably start off with an anecdote about how I covered the Watergate break-in, then segue into the time I interviewed Pol Pot, and end with some gonzo stories about when I rode with the Hell's Angels. Oh, wait, that was Woodward & Bernstein, Nate Thayer and Hunter S. Thompson. Maybe I'll just talk about my boiler not working.

I'll figure something out. The key thing is not to show fear. Teenagers can smell it a mile away. And when they do, they pounce: sarcasm, snarkiness, smirks, deep sighing.... If only I was a genetically modified mouse. Did you see the story about the mouse created by a Japanese scientist that shows no fear of cats? The video is amazing.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Daemon Lover

We haven't yet seen "The Golden Compass," though it's on our list of Things To Do Soon. For some reason we've been too busy, odd when you think about it, given that I don't actually have a job or many responsibilities. Perhaps it's the lack of sunlight that has us holed up in our house after about 4:30 or so, by which time it's dark and unwelcoming outside. Since we're closer to the Arctic Circle here than in Washington, the sun gives us illumination only grudgingly. We're far from the frozen north that figures so prominently in Philip Pullman's book but it's unsettling nonetheless.

I'm a hundred or so pages into a re-read of "Northern Lights," the first book in his Dark Materials trilogy, jotting down Oxford references in the margins. I think this might be the perfect way to connect with a book set in a place you've come to know: Read it before you move there; move there; then read it again.

"Northern Lights" ("The Golden Compass" in the U.S.) starts out in an alternate Oxford, a sort of quasi-Victorian city where zeppelins run daily to London, streets are lit by "anbaric" lights and street urchins scrap in roiling packs. The heroine, Lyra, is raised by the dons of Jordan College, "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford."

Pullman went to Exeter College. I get a little frisson of excitement when I pick up parallels between his Oxford and my Oxford. If you've seen the Harry Potter movies you've already seen the sumptuous dining halls and how college Fellows and distinguished guests sit at "high table"--literally a table that's raised above the rest. I've never seen any poppies smoked after dinner, as in "Northern Lights," but Pullman revels in the luxuriousness of the Oxford college experience, the fine crystal, the bottomless glasses of wine, even the awkwardness of conversation when you must calibrate the attention you pay to the guests seated on either side of you.

Lyra and her friends play on Port Meadow. (Our dog's eaten cow poop there!) She visits the Covered Market. (I can't afford to buy meat or cheese there!) The Oxford Canal and the Jericho neighborhood are important settings. In our world, Pullman has been among those protesting a planned development on the canal. His side was victorious last night, as the city council rejected the plan. (Pullman the wordsmith has a great quote in today's Oxford Mail: The monstrous design of the project, he said, is "like finding a bird's nest and throwing a brick into it." If you've ever wondered what Pullman is like, the Oxford Mail has a video interview with him about the movie.)

I'm prepared to be disappointed by the film (Hanna Rosin has a telling story in the Atlantic about how Hollywood excised much of the stuff that makes the book so interesting) but I'll see it nonetheless, peeling my eyes for glimpses of Oxford. Even the "real" Oxford, unimproved by a novelist's imagination and devoid of a moviemaker's special effects, is a magical place.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Fiery Furnaces, or 'On the Boil'

Who said God doesn't have a sense of humo[u]r? One look at the recently discovered jerboa rat and you know He cracks Himself up all the time. I'm convinced, though, that what He really has is a great sense of irony.

Example: We've been having trouble keeping our Oxford house warm. This isn't due to an overarching British design problem (though these exist; more on that later). It's a specific issue with a part in our boiler, the machine that heats the water that runs through the pipes that sluices through our radiators that keep us warm.

In the midst of our back-and-forthing with the plumber here we received a call from the couple who are renting our house back in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. The furnace man had come for his annual inspection. He'd discovered a cracked heat exchanger and had "red flagged" the unit. Carbon monoxide was leaking into the house, which is not the sort of thing that encourages renters to pay their rent on time, since if undiscovered it can, um, kill them. Just try collecting the rent then, what with all the inquests and lawsuits.

Ironic, huh? Our heat goes on the fritz at the same time their heat goes on the fritz. Of course, it isn't that cold here. You folks in Silver Spring, on the other hand, just had snow. The plumber is scheduled to replace our old gas furnace today, so I hope lovely warm air will soon be pumped through our house. Hang in there, Gordon and Leslie! Good thing you brought your dog!

Meanwhile, on our side of the Atlantic, we're waiting for a new part for the boiler. The problem has been this: The radiators go cool but can be coaxed back to life by pressing a red, glowing button on the boiler, a contraption about the size of a mini-fridge that hangs on the wall in a back room. The radiators heat up, but then the boiler stops and the button glows red again:

This has been going on for over a week. Like the characters in "Lost" we are conditioned to push the button repeatedly throughout the day. It may very well be that we are the only things keeping the world from ending.

Every memoir I've read by an American living in the U.K. has included a section on how cold the author found the houses. This is not necessarily our case. Though we're currently having technical difficulties, most of the house is warm enough most of the time. I say "most of the house" because apparently there's a law in England that one bathroom must be kept at a near-freezing temperature. I said "bathroom" but I meant "toilet." British houses invariably have one tiny, stall-like room that has only a toilet. (A toilet that is flushed by pulling a chain that hangs from a tank mounted high on the wall. I think this design is to allow every Englishman to fantasize that he's summoning the butler.)

Our arctic toilet is just across from the boiler, but gets not a BTU of heat from it. If we ever needed a place to hang meat, that's the room. Every English house I've ever been in has a subzero bathroom. We had lunch with some friends last week and I could see my breath in their downstairs loo. It was the same at another friend's house in Oxford's Jericho neighborhood. It takes a brave man to lower his buttocks onto that gelid seat when he expects to see Walt Disney's frozen head leering back at him from a beaker on a shelf.

It isn't just basement toilets that have been reclaimed from disused coal sheds that set the teeth a-chattering. The house I lived in as a teenager, outside Cambridge, had an upstairs loo that you could carve ice in, as if the house's architect had specified it not be insulated.

Why? I can only imagine it's to remind the English of their Druidical past, of how their forebears had to move their bowels while seated on a hollowed out tree stump in a raging gale. All I know is, it's quite bracing.

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Darwin Awards: Can You Canoe?

I usually save my BritNews RoundUp for Fridays, but the case of John Darwin, the amnesiac canoeist/insurance fraudster, has taken too many twists and turns for me to wait. I love this story for what it says about human nature, the English psyche and the British press.

You'll recall that earlier this month Darwin walked into a police station and announced "I think I am a missing person." He had disappeared five years ago while paddling a boat in the North Sea. (A kayak, not a canoe, as the Guardian's Tim Dowling points out in a delightful story today.) His wife, Anne, and their two sons grieved for him, then she cashed in his life insurance. A month and a half ago she sold her property in the north of England and moved to Panama.

The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror have had the best--by which I mean the most obsessive-- coverage of the case, which appears to have been hatched by Darwin at a time when he was distraught about financial troubles. Both papers have been utilizing a reporter named David Leigh, who works in Miami for a news agency called Splash. The case turned when a curious "single mum" (as the tabs here called her) typed "John," "Anne" and "Panama" into Google and found a photo of the Darwins posing in Panama just last year. The police say they've been suspicious for a while.

John Darwin has been arrested and faces two charges, including giving false information for a passport. (He obtained one under the name of "John Jones." How's that for imagination?) And Anne Darwin was detained even before getting off the plane that took her from Atlanta to Manchester yesterday. Police boarded it and a flight attendant made an announcement requesting Darwin to please come forward.

The Mirror has a great video today of Anne Darwin's final flight. Here's Anne pacing at the airport. Here's Anne looking out the window of the plane. Here's Anne being led away by police. It's a combination of the banal (the flat announcement of the Delta pilot after landing in the U.K.) and the bizarre (the heavily-armed police escort).

The Mail has been especially proprietary about the story, headlining its article today: "It's All Over: The Moment the Mail Handed Mrs. Darwin Over to Armed Police." Thank you, Daily Mail, for keeping us safe from mousy, gray-haired, insurance-scamming former doctor's receptionists.

The Mail also ended its story with this tag: "Mrs Darwin did not seek, or receive, any payment for her interviews with the Daily Mail." The fact they printed that shows just how common the practice is in Britain. If the Darwins are smart, though (and, given the evidence, there's no reason to think they are), they'll figure out a way to parlay this into some money later on.

But what of the sons? Did they know? No, they said, in a statement that I love for its northern Englandness: "How could our mam continue to let us believe our dad had died when he was very much alive?" ("Our mam"--it could only have been even better if they'd said "our da.")

Even though Darwin's story was pretty preposterous from the start, didn't you for an instant wonder about it? Didn't you put yourself in his position and contemplate what it would have been like if you'd been away for five years, vanished without a trace? I know I did. In fact, I often do. My dropping-out-of-society fantasy always involves being on a tropical island of the sort Steve McQueen washed up on in that weird interlude in "Papillon," where he lives with a hot topless chick who serves him fresh mango every morning.

John Darwin's sojourn wasn't quite so scenic. He supposedly was gone for a year (the last shred of mystery to be revealed?) then moved back into his house in Hartlepool, a seaside town most famous for being the site of a bizarre monkey-hanging incident during the Napoleonic wars. He lived with his wife, scurrying into a hidden room to avoid discovery, occasionally walking on the beach disguised by a woollen hat and a fake limp. Jason Bourne this guy ain't. He allegedly had a dalliance with an American woman he met on the Internet (another knife in Anne's heart, no doubt), but the woman was from... Kansas. I don't imagine there was much topless mango-serving involved there.

Well, it's all been fun while it lasted. Too often we're bombarded by stories that don't have closure: Where's Osama bin Laden? When will the troops pull out of Iraq? Why can't our children read/jobless work/planet cool down/celebrities detoxify? But in a little under two weeks Canoe Man, Canoe Wife, the Canoe Kids and all the other Canoe characters have unspooled their tales with perfect timing. Armchair detectives such as you and I have sifted the evidence and come to our own conclusions, feeling smug and satisfied when our darkest suspicions were confirmed.

I can't wait for the movie, though perhaps on opera would be even better.

One final observation: I can't look at photos of John Darwin without being reminded of Philip Roth.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Friday Grab Bag: Xmas Wrapping Edition

I like to think that I invented the practice of newspapers giving away free wrapping paper. Back when I was editor of The Washington Post's Weekend section I was casting around for what to do as a cover story on the Friday closest to Christmas, a story no one would read anyway, so busy would they be preparing for the holiday. I decided to have an artist create a wrapping paper design which we would print in the central double-truck position. The following year, we made it a contest, inviting children to send us their designs and printing our favorite.

I thought of that this week while reading the Guardian. They asked five high-profile artists to design wrapping paper, which they've been printing all week. The first was by Mark Wallinger, who just won Britain's Turner Prize. Wallinger is one of those artists who bugs people who prefer their artists to be, like, artistic. He's best known for his work "Sleeper," which is a two-hour video of him wandering around an empty Berlin gallery dressed in a bear suit. The piece he won the Turner for was "State Britain," a painstakingly accurate re-creation of a protest camp set up outside the Houses of Parliament by a peace campaigner against the Iraq war. Wallinger and his assistants redrew every poster, banner, flier, sign, sourced every teddy bear and wooden cross. Again, the sort of thing that drives people who like their artists to have original ideas and be able to draw crazy.

But what was his wrapping paper like? It was the words "Jesus Christ" set in a sans serif typeface of about 12 points and printed hundreds of time on the sheet of white paper, alternating in red and green (detail above). At least it looks like wrapping and it coyly toys with the reason for the season. I think it's my favorite of his works and I own one of the limited-edition prints. Well, limited to 400,000.

Heavy-hitter Louise Bourgeois contributed a swirly red-and-white pattern that will at least look good around a box. Handwritten in the white bits of her design are such words as "hours," "minutes," "years" and her own signature.


Also this week was a design by R.B. Kitaj. His design was a crudely sketched face, a bit Chagall-like in its choice of colors to my untrained eye.


Then there's today's design:

It's by a collage artist named Barbara Kruger and it consists of a B&W photo of a blindfolded face imprinted with the red words "Blind idealism is reactionary." Makes me want to enjoy my Christmas pudding!

The mistake the Guardian's editors made in this project was accepting whatever the artists gave them. I'm sure they're all good artists. They obviously want to provoke thoughts. ("'Blind idealism'? Does that mean my belief in Santa Claus or my support of George Bush?") But use the medium you were given, folks. This wasn't a poster contest. Only Wallinger and Bourgeois created anything that plays with the wrapping paper form. The other two just dashed something off. (I didn't buy the Guardian yesterday so I didn't see Gary Hume's design. I had to buy the Daily Mail for its "canoe man" coverage.)

It was always hard picking the winning kid's design at Weekend, but there was always a clear winner, one that had a design that was attractive to look at in its entirety but also worked when wrapped around a bottle of perfume or a paperback book. We got our designs for free. The payment for the kids was the honor of being published. I hope the Guardian didn't pay too much for their designs.

BritNews RoundUp
I wonder what kind of wrapping paper the Daily Mail would print? Scantily-clad elves, no doubt. This week their cutting-edge journalism included a story on what sort of underwear men want their women to wear. (I'm thinking "clean," but what do I know?)

I couldn't find a good Daily Mail breast story this week, but the News of the World gamely filled in, asking the question that has occupied U.S. intelligence agencies ever since they finished their Iran nuclear weapons report: Are Victoria Beckham's boobs shrinking?

Speaking of weapons of mass destruction: A social club in Devon has reprimanded a 77-year-old member for farting too much in their midst. Said the flatulent Maurice Fox: "I sit by the door anyway and try to get out when I can. But sometimes it takes me by surprise and just pops out." I hear you, Maurice. Unfortunately, I also smell you.

Here are some words you never want to see in the same news story: "penis," "firefighters" and "mini hand grinder." Yes, it's this week's episode of Britain's favorite game show: Sex With Inanimate Objects. Don't worry, there's a happy ending.

Stone Carving of the Week

This gob-smacked fellow, and 11 others, gazes out from around the Sheldonian Theatre. The heads are huge, almost three feet high.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading. This is a bit of a stealth operation so links, and comments, are always appreciated.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

BuzzKill: Journalism, Schmournalism

God I pity any of you who, like me, have to read the various blogs and Web sites that dicker over the future of journalism. So much of them seem to be written by cranky, whiny babies. Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine is the worst offender, lacking even the ounce of humor that would leaven the pretentiousness or the shred of humility that might suggest Jarvis is not in possession of a crystal ball that tells him exactly what the future is going to be like.

And yet I read it every day, for despite his sour writing style, Jarvis is a mover and shaker whose blog crystallizes one school of thought. His posts draw two types of comments: those that mirror his polar thinking and those that emanate from the other end of the earth. There isn't much middle ground but it's fun to watch the fireworks.

Of course, the Bill Keller speech I praised earlier this week comes in for especial contempt. What struck me as a reasoned explanation of the importance of proper journalism (facts carefully acquired, even in dangerous settings) struck Jarvis and his crowd as a contemptuous slam on all they hold sacred. (Basically, Keller said that Jarvis said that blogging would replace the mainstream media, and Jarvis said "Oh no I di-unt." But really, Jarvis's main gripe seems to be that Keller didn't bow deeply enough in his general direction.)

It's that odd, Oedipal thing I've remarked upon before. For some reason it also reminds me of that scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where a peasant (Michael Palin) is swatted by an annoyed King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and then keeps shouting "Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!"

Keller and Jarvis have sort of made nice, in an exchange that ends with Jarvis trying to wheedle some sort of collaboration with the New York Times. I'm sure Keller would be thrilled at that.

What do I think of all this stuff? Not the petty bitching but the issues themselves? Well I'm still studying, aren't I? But so far I can see both sides of the argument. I take it as a given that the democratizing power of the Internet empowers citizens to gather more information and spread more information. I agree with Harvard's Yochai Benkler, who writes in his impressive new book "The Wealth of Networks" that "The networked public sphere, as it is currently developing, suggests that it will have no obvious point of control or exertion of influence--either by fiat or by purchase. It seems to invert the mass-media model in that it is driven heavily by what dense clusters of users find intensely interesting and engaging, rather than by what large swaths of them find mildly interesting or average."

Moreover, I'm intrigued by his argument that the mere possibility of being able to engage in communication with the public sphere reorients us: "The way we listen to what we hear changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for public communication. This changes the relative power of the media."

But I also worry about what researchers call "filtering for accreditation." In a networked world we'll have to figure out whom to trust for our information. That may not be every schmo with a blog. And I don't buy the argument that some rabid MSM-haters make that there is something inherently corrupt and untrustworthy about the press. I think many citizen journalism efforts are just crappy or weirdly self-referential. Of course, so too are plenty of newspapers, especially when you get out of the East Coast orbit. And some efforts that harness the power of the Internet and the crowd are immensely valuable. Benkler describes how a mixture of bloggers, students and freelance software experts exposed serious problems with Diebold electronic voting machines. What they did sure sounds like journalism to me, without the need for any qualifiers.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this stuff.

And Furthermore
Here's something interesting: A while back Jarvis wrote about a report issued by Britain's National Union of Journalists that was critical of Web 2.0. Jarvis was typically cutting ("whiny, territorial, ass-covering" was one descriptor he used), though the bits of the report he quoted didn't seem so outrageous to me (stories shouldn't go online without being edited, for example; untrained writers make for poor online video). I said this in a comment, noting that I hadn't read the report myself.

Now I've seen a copy of the NUJ's monthly magazine, Journalist, and I think Jarvis was probably right. The magazine has that to-the-ramparts feel. But what floored me was that they quoted from my BuzzMachine comment in their December issue. I guess the anonymity of the Web makes that easy, but is that right? Should they have contacted me (my blog was easily findable from my comment)? And do they undercut their argument against new media by employing its tools?

Most amusingly, the NUJ report included this section: "The ease of copying and pasting leads to journalists under time pressure to 'simply lump text across without proper consideration of its quality or reliability.'”

Um, isn't that what Journalist magazine did? Pot, meet kettle.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Iran, Iran So Far Away....

Imagine for a moment that you are a parent who is exasperated by the behavior of your teenager. He will not clean his room and he insists on staying out late god-knows-where and getting into god-knows-what mischief. Your escalating threats of punishment have come to naught and so you threaten the most severe sanction you can think of: He will be grounded for a month.

And then a curious thing happens. He cleans his room. Okay, it's not spotless, but for him it's pretty remarkable. He comes home at a reasonable hour too. What do you do?

If you're President Bush, you go ahead and ground him. After all, as Bush might say, "Timmy wasn't cleaning his room. Timmy is someone who doesn't like cleaning his room. And Timmy will be dangerous if he has the knowledge of knowing how not to clean his room."

I admit it's an imperfect analogy--your teenage son isn't enriching uranium in his room (though that might explain the smell); he doesn't deny the truth of the Holocaust--but it's the first thing I thought of when I learned of Bush's reaction to the National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. We would think a parent inflexible and capricious if he or she reacted the way Bush is.

The problem, of course, is that Bush has been heating up the anti-Tehran rhetoric of late, dangling threats of World War III in front of us. The NIE report cuts him off at the knees. But rather than learn from it, he appears to be hobbling forward on his stumps. The Washington Post's editorial page has a "not so fast" editorial today. Robert Kagan thinks the administration has lost any hope of launching military action against Iran and that it's time to talk. Simon Jenkins agrees, writing in today's Guardian about why he feels the west must engage with Tehran.'s Dan Froomkin describes the president's performance at a news conference yesterday as "neck-snapping." And David Ignatius provides some background on how U.S. intelligence arrived at their startling conclusions about Iran's bomb plans.

One intelligence official told Ignatius that "Diplomacy works. That's the message."

It's too late to see if diplomacy would have worked with Iraq. Who knows, maybe it wouldn't have. But what would the world think if the U.S. went after both a country that appeared to harbor weapons of mass destruction (but didn't) and a country that dropped its efforts to acquire such weapons?

If I was a teenage kid, I know what Id do: I'd let my room go to hell and party like the world was about to end.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

What Big Teeth You Have: Photos of Oxford

I've been accumulating various snapshots I've taken over the last few weeks and today seemed as good a time as any to share them. The one above is a dinosaur skeleton framed against the greenhouse-like ceiling of the Museum of Natural History. It's a wonderful Victorian building and quite a nice museum too: not too big, not too small, you can see it without exhausting yourself.

And right behind it is the Pitt Rivers Museum, which reminds me of the old Arts & Industries Building on the Mall in Washington. You'll recall that that museum was built just after the Centennial. Until it was cleared out a few years ago, it still had a wonderfully crowded collection: early light bulbs, tools, a locomotive. The Pitt Rivers Museum is a mad jumble of pottery, reed baskets, sinew snowshoes, metal talismans, old bagpipes, stone knives--anything that can be made by human hands. Or out of human heads. They have several shrunken heads on display. (Click here for a recipe on how to make your own, human head not included.)

Oh, I snapped this at the Natural History Museum:

It made me hungry just looking at it....

My older daughter has been singing with the Oxford Girls' Choir. We went to its performance of "Dido & Aeneas" last week. It was in the Holywell Music Room, one of many places in Oxford that have been the settings for performances over the centuries. The opera was great (spoiler alert: Dido dies; I wiped away a tear) and the orchestra played period-style instruments. This was the wildest one of all:

It's like a lute on steroids. I thought it had been made out of a harpoon.

These road signs are common around England:

It means "slow down." But there's something dramatic about "Kill Your Speed." And the checkerboard border reminds me of something a ska band would put on an album cover.

Teddy Bear's Jihad

The English teacher who offended some Muslims in Sudan is back on British soil. You'll recall that Gillian Gibbons allowed her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammed." Some Sudanese called for her death, marching in the streets of Khartoum with sticks and knifes. As one British columnist wrote, if Muslims want the West to stop thinking of them as homicidal maniacs, they should stop acting like homicidal maniacs.

Of course, that tars all Muslims with the same brush. British Muslims were quick to condemn Gibbons's arrest, conviction and sentence. (At least she got a speedy trial.) And it was two Muslim peers who secured her pardon. Besides, there are rabid Christians in the United States who chafe at our secular society. "Separation of church and state," they seethe. "Who needs it?"

Well, just look at Sudan.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Lest We Forget: What Journalism's All About

Like most people in my profession, I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how journalism has changed/is changing/will change. It's hard not to. As one journalist said last week: "At places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is funereal. Editors ask one another, 'How are you?' in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce."

That journalist was Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, in London to deliver the Hugo Young Memorial Lecture. His lecture is worth reading in full, especially if you're a journalist.

Keller gave a candid, and rather scathing, assessment of the Bush presidency and the damage it's done to the United States and its standing in the world. He also devoted a large part of the lecture to analyzing where newspapers are going in this digital world. While accepting that the landscape has changed, Keller argued that newspapers must remain the great information accumulators that they have historically been.

"People crave trustworthy information about the world we live in," he said. "Some people want it because it is essential to the way they make a living. Some want it because they regard being well-informed as a condition of good citizenship. Some want it because they want something to exchange over dinner tables and water coolers. Some want it so they can get the jokes on the late-night TV shows. There is a demand, a market, for journalism." (As long as "The Daily Show" is on, that is.)

Keller made a clear distinction between journalism and citizen journalism: "What is absent from the vast array of new media outlets is, first and foremost, the great engine of newsgathering -- the people who witness events, ferret out information, supply context and explanation."

That might be a point you could argue (in some cases untrained amateurs do "beat" the big guys, especially when, for whatever reason, the big guys are blind to certain stories) but while your Googles and your Facebooks, your NowPublics and your Diggs, may all have a place in how people access, parse and understand information, newspapers--online or in hand--must continue to be the bedrock upon which these other services are built. Or the factories from which raw materials emerge, to be refined in infinite ways.

Chatham House: It Rules
Keller's remarks were delivered at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Many of the seminars I've attended here at Oxford operate under what is called the "Chatham House Rule." It's an actual edict, devised in 1927 and last revised in 2002, that basically ensures that speakers may talk in the knowledge that their comments will not end up in the next day's paper (or on a blog). Things are off the record.

Bill Keller obviously declined to lock his comments in such a straightjacket. There was nothing incendiary in his lecture, though I suppose rabid New York Times-haters might latch onto his raw view of the Bush presidency.