Monthly Archives: November 2007

Malcolm cuts-and-pastes the Chicks

Malcolm has been rude about The First Post in the past, but he has to admit it musters a fine list of contributors. It doesn’t give them much space in which to develop an argument, but let’s be grateful for small mercies.

Today’s was the headline piece by Charles Laurence, From Red State to Gap Red. This took precedence even over the ritual evisceration of Harriet Harman.

Laurence comments upon the way the Dixie Chicks moved from C&W fluffiness to being the darlings of liberals, on the back of one sentence by Natalie Maines:

“Just so you know, we’re ashamed that President Bush is from Texas.”

Whoaa! The Dixie Chicks were famously banned from the airwaves, concerts were cancelled, and death threats were taken absolutely seriously as Maines and her partners — ‘six strong hands on the steering wheel’, as she sings — retreated to their Texas ranches and their husbands in cowboy hats got ready to pull out the Winchester rifles.

And now — onward and upward! —

Maines is among the latest celebs to be featured in the Gap Red ‘You can Change the World’ campaign. The ads appear in glossy magazines from People to Vanity Fair, arbiter of the New Establishment, which would have been unthinkable back when the Dixie Chicks were good ole girls pandering to the Country and Western mainstream.

As well as all that, there’s a link to the trailer for last year’s documentary, Shut Up and Sing.

Malcolm confesses to being a long-time fan, and has the Dixie Chicks recordings, from Thank Heavens for Dale Evans (1990) to Taking the Long Way (2007). The former of those, by the way, is off-the-catalogue and originals are changing hands at $100 a time. The album-covers alone tell a story:

  • from the down-the-bill, support-act saccharine and kitsch of 1990 to
  • Clinton’s first (of, surely, at least three) Presidential Inaugural (they also did the Texas Governor Inaugural Gala in 1995 — Yup, that’s Dubya)
  • the commercial success of signing with Sony and Wide Open Spaces,
  • the gritty urban sophistication and realism of their latest stuff.

Nobody outside the hard-core Texan country-music community took a great deal of interest in the Chicks before they signed for Sony (which would come back to haunt them); what interest there was focused on their dress sense, which amounted to a pastiche of the rodeo gal.

Malcolm digs out a well-thumbed copy of the 1997 MusicHound Country Album Guide, to see what the opinion was then, and finds it worth quoting at length:

The original concept for Dallas’ Dixie Chicks was a stroke of genius — four female singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists with a penchant for conveying the peaceful yet picturesque quality of the Old West. It worked swingingly for the quartet’s first tow locally produced CDs, 1990’s Thank Heavens for Dale Evans and 1992’s Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Working from its bluegrass base — banjo and mandolin figured prominently on those albums — the Dixie Chicks recorded Western songs, country classics and a few revamped pop and soul nuggets. Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is a totally different song on Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Patsy Montana’s “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” is a wonderful part of Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. A few originals — particularly the haunting “Aunt Mattie’s Quilt” and the sassy “Pink Toenails” — helped make them more than just a covers band. The package, though, was the Chicks’ most irresistible selling point: picture four attractive women dressed in frilly Western gear, singing flawless four-part harmony and playing their fingers numb. Also, internal strife took its toll on the ensemble by the middle of 1992. Robin Macy, who had done the bulk of the song-writing, rejected the new, slicker, country-pop direction and exited in August. Down to a trio, the Chicks recorded another album, 1993’s Shouldn’t a Told You That, which presented a more commercial version of the original sound; essentially, the Chicks were trying to attract major label interest in Nashville. By the end of 1995 lead vocalist Laura Lynch was also gone, her departure shrouded in a myriad of rumors that she was booted out. Enter fresh-faced singer Natalie Maines, who radically changed the image of the group. Now, the Dixie Chicks is a trio of fresh-faced blondes dressed in 1990s clothing.

The result was a 12m seller: Wide Open Spaces. Eric O’Shea continues the narrative for rhapsody.com:

They went through a succession of lead singers before settling on Natalie Maines in the late-1990s. Maines’ country pedigree is impressive, beginning with her father Lloyd Maines, a legendary pedal steel guitarist and studio luminary who has produced and played with Uncle Tupelo, Richard Buckner and Joe Ely, among others. With Maines in place, the Chicks dropped some of their bluegrass trappings in favor of a more conventional New Country sound. The fine-tuning paid off. Wide Open Spaces rocketed to the top of the charts, as did its follow-up Fly. But 2002’s aptly titled Home found the girls returning to their bluegrass roots (despite the pop-friendly cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide”), which was a well-timed choice considering that by then, country music fans were caught up in old-timey fever thanks to the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon. Top of the World Tour: Live was released in November of 2003, perfectly capturing the unstoppable energy and undying love for country music the Dixie Chicks exude on the live stage. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed and even boycotted by many media outlets after Maines test-drove the First Amendment on a London stage when she stated: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” Following the short-lived Dixie Chicks boycott, the band released “I Hope” in 2005, a hit single recorded to garner charity funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Their seventh studio album, Taking the Long Way, was released in late May of 2006.

And that was about when Rolling Stone, through a piece by Christian Hoard, deigned to take note of the Chicks, and bring its readers up-to-date:

Nine-time Grammy-winners the Dixie Chicks will release their long-awaited new album, appropriately titled Taking the Long Way, on May 23rd.

“It’s more of a rock record with country leanings than a country record with rock leanings,” says Rick Rubin, who produced the Dixie Chicks’ fourth studio album. “The Byrds, Tom Petty: Those are the points of reference.”

Rubin met with the Chicks in the summer of 2004; he had seen them perform a concert that he describes as “punk-rock country.” When he first met the band, it was moving beyond the fallout over singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of President Bush, which resulted in a tide of hatred from country fans. “They had a platform to talk about important stuff,” Rubin says. “We talked about personalizing the songs.”

Rubin introduced the Dixie Chicks to a team of co-writers that included the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell. Among the new songs is the likely first single and most provocative, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a plaintive, slow-burning track in which Maines asks, “How in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody over the edge?” Other standouts include “Baby Hold On,” an acoustic rocker with John Mayer on guitar, and the roadhouse-style “Lubbock or Leave it.”

The group attributes the warm, easy feel to Rubin’s production style. “Rick’s very much about capturing the moment,” says Dixie Chick Emily Robison. “And if the moment’s not happening, you forget it and come back tomorrow.”

To complete “the story so far”, last year’s documentary by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, Shut Up and Sing, was generally well-reviewed by the liberal press (and by the cinephiles), even if most critics were at a loss to match the music and the politics. This reduced the New Times‘s Luke Thompson to cop out with:

Look, to be honest, I could watch 93 minutes of Natalie Maines doing housework. That she has fantastic vocal chops is a major bonus, and her disdain for Bush is merely icing atop a significantly layered cake.

Such a liberated new-man view from the alternative press!

Stephen Holden in the New York Times was, predictably more thoughtful and balanced, while still positive:

On the surface, “Shut Up & Sing” is a modest film with no obvious axes to grind. As it follows the Dixie Chicks around for three years, it takes Ms. Kopple’s usual route and lets events speak for themselves. No talking heads appear to debate the politics of the Bush administration…

The movie suggests how pop stars are marketed like politicians to targeted constituencies. Given the echo chamber of mass media feeding a public addiction to high drama, when an act like the Dixie Chicks goes against the beliefs of its “base” (to use a word favored by Republican strategists), reason is drowned out by noise, and there can be hell to pay.

The movie also implies that there is a double standard when it comes to celebrities’ speaking out: women are condescendingly assumed not to know their place.

Until he re-read that review, Malcolm had failed to register that the US rating of the film was 17+ “for language” (even in the UK, it was rated “15”).

One of the most polemic UK reviews was Tim Robey’s in the t style=”font-style: italic;”>Telegraph, expanding on that last point from Stephen Holden:

Shut Up and Sing is a music documentary with a difference. You don’t have to love Texas-born country three-piece the Dixie Chicks, but you’ll be in good company if you really hate them. Half of America thinks they’re in league with Satan – or at least Saddam.

They’ve been branded “Dixie Sluts” and “traitors”, boycotted on almost every country radio station across the States, and dislodged from a position of gold-star popularity – this is easily the most successful female rock band in history – to watch their ticket sales plummet…

It’s not hard to detect an undertone of misogyny in the vilification. We live in an era which fully expects male stadium acts such as U2 to mount the soapbox, but, when this unassuming fem-rock trio try and get a word in, they’re told to can it.

This a frank, and slightly scary film about one of America’s most cherished democratic privileges – freedom of speech – and how you’re more than welcome to it as long as you don’t say anything controversial. Then you’re off the air.

Malcolm makes no apology for liking the Chicks, and feels he now has the added justification that they are not just acoustic wall-paper. Now for that other non-apology:

I’m not ready to make nice.
I’m not ready to back down.
I’m still mad as hell and
I don’t have time to go round and round and round.
It’s too late to make it right,
I probably wouldn’t if I could,
Cause I’m mad as hell.
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should.

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Hoffman/Bernstein or Redford/Woodward?
Rick, Mark or Roland at Doonesbury?
A pash for
C.J.Cregg/Allison Janney?

Just what fantasy motives the best, brightest and most-paid of British political journalism to need to “star” at the PM’s regular news “briefings”? To turn the occasion into some bizarre melodrama of despair and antinomial good versus evil conflicts? In which these fine upstanding moralists, and they alone,

wield the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play… ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it.

Because it sure ain’t a pursuit of all the news that’s fit to print.

One exception: Jon Snow: but only because he’s been doing it four-nights-a-week on Channel 4 for time out of mind.
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Quite where the term “goat fuck” came from is lost in the sands of time. Seymour Hersh may have borrowed the term from the US military, where it represents a disaster worse than a FUBAR or a SNAFU (and, to the etymology of that last term, Malcolm will return). Whenever Malcolm has heard journalists using “goat fuck”, it seems to have meant a frenzy of excitement among their profession, resulting in a blind, obsessive interest in some particular story, which can only be resolved by the blood-sacrifice of an eminent public figure. In that case, we are coming decidedly close to a herd-goat-fuck, necessitating a hecatomb of politicos to be dispatched summarily.

The scalp-hunting always starts with the Top. Now, one suspects that, out of group loyalty, a number of journos are there to revenge themselves for poor sad and hard-done-by Rod Liddle and Andrew Gilligan. Others just want a hairpiece for their belts and a line on the CV. Then, because the trivialisers have reduced realpolitik to a soap-opera, it’s merely a plot-device to change the cast list, and bring on fresh meat: today’s hero is, inevitably, tomorrow’s carrion.

And, in this case, wherefore? Well, because members of the Cabinet seem to have had more important things to be concerned with than filthy lucre. Has there been a Labour PM since Attlee who did not regard attendance at the National Executive, at best, as a chore? And Malcolm seriously doubts that Ramsay Mac got much out of it either towards the end. So why was he not astounded by Mr Brown admitting he gave his Leader’s report and scarpered?

Then, clearly, it has to be Harriet next for the tumbril. Sigh…
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A SNAFU originated before Pearl Harbor, apparently in the Spring of 1941. In that moment of increased tension, two members of the California National Guard in Los Angeles, Don Taylor and John Paup, had been conscripted to active duty. Training at Camp San Luis Obispo involved spending time out in the hills, sending practice radio messages to each other. Long distance communication was by morse code. Encryption was achieved by an M-209 converter, which reduced a message to five-character coded blocks. Out of boredom, they started to imagine these meaningless five-letter blocks as acronyms ….

If that is, indeed, the history of the term , it achieved amazingly rapid currency. Time magazine used it as header for an article on 15th June, 1942:

The Army has a laconic term for chronic befuddlement: snafu.* Last week U.S. citizens knew that gasoline rationing and rubber requisitioning were snafu. For months the people and their leaders had pussyfooted around the twin horrors. There were orders and counter-orders. All were different. The people, numb with bewilderment, choked with wrath, gave up.

Being a respectable publication, the * adds, as a footnote, “Situation normal; all fouled up”.

The early computer phreaks could leave nothing linguistic alone, and adopted SNAFU as a credo. This was celebrated in a well-known parable of the early 1960s:

In the beginning was the plan, and then the specification;
And the plan was without form, and the specification was void.
And darkness was on the faces of the implementors thereof; and they spake unto their leader, saying: “It is a crock of shit, and smells as of a sewer.”
And the leader took pity on them, and spoke to the project leader: “It is a crock of excrement, and none may abide the odor thereof.”
And the project leader spake unto his section head, saying: “It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide it.”
The section head then hurried to his department manager, and informed him thus: “It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength.”
The department manager carried these words to his general manager, and spoke unto him saying: “It containeth that which aideth the growth of plants, and it is very strong.”
And so it was that the general manager rejoiced and delivered the good news unto the Vice President. “It promoteth growth, and it is very powerful.”
The Vice President rushed to the President’s side, and joyously exclaimed: “This powerful new software product will promote the growth of the company!”
And the President looked upon the product, and saw that it was very good.

Thus the dangers of mealy-mouthed meiosis are as great as those of the political journalist’s hypertonic hyperbole.

Hypertonic? Well, OK, just this once, Malcolm relaxes his rule on “look it up yourself” (and adds his own highlight):

A hypertonic solution contains a higher concentration of electrolytes than that found in body cells. If such a solution is allowed to enter the blood stream, the osmotic pressure difference between the blood and the cells will cause water to flow out of the cells, which will then shrink. This may cause serious harm, or even be fatal. Consequently, it is essential when blood transfusions are given, or blood replacement products are used, that the electrolyte concentration in the material to be given to a patient matches that of the body.

____________________________________________________
Hail Eris!
All hail, Discordia!

The sheer and unremitting negativism of the UK political press leads Malcolm back to one last thought, again derived from those early computerfolk.

Another of the metaphysical gems of the period was the discordianism evolved at great length by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in the Illuminatus! trilogy:

This work of alleged fiction is an incredible berserko-surrealist rollercoaster of world-girdling conspiracies, intelligent dolphins, the fall of Atlantis, who really killed JFK, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and the Cosmic Giggle Factor. First published in three volumes, but there is now a one-volume trade paperback, carried by most chain bookstores under SF.

Illuminatus! seems almost to explain much of the paranoia and the theatrical rhodomontade exhibited by British political journalists, those devout followers of Eris, the Greek goddess of Chaos, Discord, Confusion, and Things You Know Not Of.

Or, in another acronym, FUD: the deliberate propagation of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The only devices that keep such snake-oil salesmen in jobs.

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Some commercially-minded war-lords?

Malcolm was hardly surprised that many “independent-minded” journalists accepted the views of their gallant and opinionated lordships, without reference to page 29 of the current issue of Private Eye.

This piece points to the commercial interests of these unretiring former war-lords.

It specifically mentions Lord Guthrie’s position as a director of Colt Defense. That’s for starters.

Lord Boyce is a director of the VT Group and WS Atkins. The Eye is fully entitled to make play of the VT Group’s involvement in the Air Tanker consortium (first projected in 2000, costs escalating, no aircraft in sight yet) and the T45 Destroyer project (two years late and £635m over budget) and the Future Aircraft Carrier (£302m to date: not even at the drawing-board).

The Eye does not mention Lord Inge, who is on the Board of ICx Technologies, which “develops advanced technologies for effective security solutions”.

Lord Bramall, who at least had been a real soldier with an MC for WW2 service to prove it, has previous form. Is Malcolm alone in remembering him taking on (with considerable good justification) Michael Heseltine in the ’80s? And, of course, there is the famous thump he landed on septuagenarian Lord Janner over matters military and Israeli. Nor should we forget he signed the letter criticising William Hague’s rubbishing the EU defence force. However, unlike either Front Bench, he got the Iraqi mess right from the beginning.

All in all, a formidable bunch. Even so, Malcolm will be reading the Lords Reports to see which of them declared their outside interests before speaking.

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X324FEV

That could be a State secret.

Malcolm, at home base after a time in Yorkshire, watched Cameron 4 News … sorry, simple mistake: Channel 4 News.

As usual Jon Snow was in the bricks-without-straw game, making “news” out of something recycled. Inevitably, it was the great “missing data disks” saga. This revealed … precisely nothing that hadn’t been in the papers already. (Malcolm’s recent reading has been the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and–drum roll–the Yorkshire Post.)

It was cross-cut with a YouGov poll (as in “What do you want us to find, Guv?”). Well, inevitably there was a blurring of who did the polling, because one minute it’s YouGov, but the next it’s Cathy Newman insisting (on behalf of C4 News, presumably) that “We asked 1,600 people …”

Who asked, Cathy? Was it you and C4, or an “independent” polling organisation? The confusion must be deliberate, because you are then saying the Tories now enjoy “the biggest lead Channel 4 pollsters have given” them. So, again, one must ask: are these figures reliable and independent, or are they what you contracted them to find?

But that isn’t Malcolm’s gripe.

This was an item appended to a major issue of data security. So, why, twice (once at the 7pm showing, then again at the hour-later repeat just to make sure), did Channnel 4 publicise the registration number of the Prime Minister’s official car? Al-Qaeda operatives, please note: Channel 4 News need a headline story for next week.

All passion spent

The best piece on the “missing disks” yet is from Anatole Kaletsky in today’s Times.

It is good because it is the first successful attempt to keep a cool head, be objective, and dispassionately apportion responsibility. Unlike Channel 4 News and the thundering herd of the Tory press, Kaletsky isn’t just making hay.

He starts by setting out his stall:

What lessons should be drawn from the string of disasters suddenly befalling Gordon Brown and his unlucky successor as Chancellor, disasters that have demolished in two months the reputation for economic competence that the previous Blair-Brown Government took ten years to build up? I can think of four. The first is about proportionality. The second is about responsibility. The third is about focus and priorities. The fourth is about politics and a fatal flaw in Gordon Brown’s personality that many people suspected all along.

The proportionality bit is a simple comparison; does the ordinary gal or guy get better service from an official or a commercial source. His opinion is that the UK Government’s:

bureaucracies are now working more smoothly and dealing with customers more quickly than in the days before computerisation. They are generally more efficient and easier to deal with than similar agencies in America, Germany or France.

Moreover, they now compare quite well with comparable private sector bureaucracies such as telephone companies, utilities, banks or airlines. A phone call to the HMRC or the Passport Agency is probably as likely to be answered promptly — and by an employee who is both courteous and can offer a useful answer — as a similar call to a utility or bank.

Malcolm, with some scars to show for it, would wholly concur. He would also add that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to deal with Government than with the premium rate numbers used by business and commerce. Or those wicked 0844 numbers one now needs to telephone for a GP’s appointment.

Kaletsky’s second point is:

responsibility. A junior official at HMRC may have been directly culpable in the case of the missing discs, but true responsibility is clearly located farther up the hierarchy. What ought to be challenged is not the principle of computerising information, nor the decision to merge Revenue and Customs, nor the cuts in staff. The obvious problem lay in the way that HMRC computers were designed and managed, which would seem to pin the blame primarily on the computer boffins, many of them working for private consultants, rather than civil servants themselves.

The sad truth is that is a chronic failure, and one on which the columnists of Private Eye have been dining out for years (in the current issue, number 1198, four paragraphs on the NHS’s IT on page 12, and a half-a-dozen on EDS and the NAO on page 27). Kaletsky’s valid point is that the heads on the block should be the Civil Service’s advisers on IT, and the contractors themselves.

He expands on the theme of responsibility, and makes it his third point “focus”, with one of the most pertinent observations Malcolm has seen in a long while:

people and social institutions, including even bureaucracies such as the HMRC or the FSA, will only accept a certain amount of regulation and government interference. If attempts to interfere with everyday life pass beyond this threshold, then intelligent regulation can quickly degenerate into mindless box-ticking, which only distracts attention from real dangers.

This reminded Malcolm of a time, perhaps thirty years back, witnessing two older heads discussing a work problem. She explained to him how to circumvent a fire-wall in the organisation’s computer system. They were both of mature years, nearing retirement. They were both employed by … the Ministry of Defence. So the quotation immediately above should be enshrined as “Kaletsky’s Law”, for it explains all that is wrong with the National Curriculum, among much else.

Finally, Kaletsky turns to the politics of the whole caboodle, and addresses what he sees as:

Gordon Brown’s fatal flaw. Instead of making big decisions about the essential functions of government — foreign policy, law and order, energy and environment — Mr Brown seems to have an irresistible urge for fidgety interventions in every aspect of everyday life — banning plastic bags, creating tax subsidies for cycle commuters, introducing identity cards, saving jobs at Northern Rock.

The more Mr Brown engages in such micro-management, the more he will be sucked into one fiasco after another. That way lies ridicule and political defeat.

That seems to Malcolm to cover much of the ground. The pity is that the media want a scapegoat for every eventuality. And it is clear whom, for the time being, they have nominated for the position. That is, until, the great soap-opera of British politics moves on …

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Malcolm goes off the rails

Irish trains have added significantly to general happiness, nowhere more so than with that incredibly well-kept (and fashionably three-hours late) train in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (a film which, in and around Cong, has become a major tourist industry in its own right).

The two railway scenes (Seán Thornton’s arrival, and his hauling the former Mary Kate Danagher off the Dublin train) were filmed at Ballyglunin (a.k.a. “Castletown”) station. When that was put on film, CIE was recently nationalised: even so, Engine 59 and a couple of vintage carriages were rounded up, and very fine they look. Malcolm is delighted to see Ballyglunin station is being brought back to life, in part because the Irish Government has an enlightened approach to reviving rail transport, in part to satisfy tourism: neither of which can be bad.

Now Iarnród Éireann are bringing new Class 22000 state-of-the-art DMU sets onto the Dublin-Sligo and other “Intercity” lines (and, in view of later events in this posting, long overdue). On looks alone, they are gorgeous: grey, Harrod’s green with gold.
________________________________________________________

Malcolm will contend (and frequently has done) that the finest piece of writing about Irish railways is by Flann O’Brien, doing a casual piece of Joycean criticism, and showing just how it should be done, in A Bash in the Tunnel (available on line).

O’Brien meets a suspected “toucher” (a cadger of drinks) in the Scotch House (which Malcolm is convinced he remembers, but of which there seems no relic). This stranger then narrates how:

his father had a pub and grocery business, situated near a large Dublin railway terminus. Every year the railway company invited tenders for the provisioning of its dining cars, and every year the father got the contract. (The narrator said he thought this was due to the territorial proximity of the house, with diminished handling and cartage charges.)

The dining cars (hereinafter known as ‘the cars’) were customarily parked in remote sidings. It was the father’s job to load them from time to time with costly victuals–eggs, rashers, cold turkey and whiskey. These cars, bulging in their lonely sidings, with such fabulous fare, had special locks. The father had the key, and nobody else in the world had authority to open the doors until the car was part of a train. But my informant had made it his business, he told me, to have a key, too.

‘At that time,’ he told me, ‘I had a bash once a week in the cars.’ …

When the urge for a ‘bash’ came upon him his routine was simple. Using his secret key, he secretly got into a parked and laden car very early in the morning, penetrated to the pantry, grabbed a jug of water, a glass and a bottle of whiskey and, with this assortment of material and utensil, locked himself in the lavatory…

‘How long does a bash in the cars last?’ I asked him.

‘Ah, that depends on a lot of things,’ he said. ‘As you know, I never carry a watch.’ (Exhibits cuffless, hairy wrist in proof.) ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I had a bash in the tunnel?’

He has not–for the good reason that I had never met him before.

‘I seen meself,’ he said, ‘once upon a time on a three-day bash. The bastards took me out of Liffey Junction down to Hazelhatch. Another crowd shifted me into Harcourt Street yards. I was having a good bash at this time, but I always try to see, for the good of me health, that a bash doesn’t last more than a day and a night. I know it’s night outside when it’s dark. If it’s bright, it’s day. Do you follow me?’

‘I think I do.’

‘Well, I was about on the third bottle when this other shunter crowd come along–it was dark, about eight in the evening–and nothing would do them only bring me into the Liffey Tunnel under the Phoenix Park and park me there. As you know I never use a watch. If it’s bright, it’s day. If it’s dark, it’s night. Here was meself parked in the tunnel, opening bottle after bottle in the dark, thinking the night was a very long one, stuck there, in the tunnel. I was three-quarters way into the jigs when they pulled me out of the tunnel into Kingsbridge. I was in bed for a week. Did you ever in your life hear of a greater crowd of bastards?’

‘Never,’

‘That was the first and last time I ever had a bash in the tunnel.’

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Probably the most widely-known railway journey in Irish literature is Percy French’s trip on the West Clare Railway. This took place in the summer of 1896. French was to give a performance at Kilkeel, but the West Clare Railway failed to get him there in time (explanation: “weeds in the boiler”). Out of that came French’s ballad:

You may talk of Columbus’s sailing
Across the Atlantical Sea
But he never tried to go railing
From Ennis as far as Kilkee
You run for the train in the morning,
The excursion train starting at eight
You’re there when the clock gives the warnin’
And there for an hour you’ll wait
And as you’re waiting in the train,
You’ll hear the guard sing this refrain:

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’,
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael,
So ye might!

This is one of those stories where the facts should not get in the way of the myth. And according to the myth, French sued the Railway for loss of earnings and was awarded £10 compensation. The Railway appealed the judgment (and seem to have have counter-sued for libel). The legend has it that French arrived late for this hearing, and was taken to task by the judge. French gave his apologies with the excuse he had travelled by the West Clare Railway. Various accounts have “case dismissed” and an award of one penny damages. Malcolm cannot find a totally reliable source for this part of the story; and and has always suspected French himself improved on the facts considerably. However, there is a “transcript” of the trial on line.

French studied engineering at TCD, and spent rather more time in the music-halls than the lecture theatre. Eventually he took his degree and went to work for the Midland Railway. Later he became the drains-inspector for the County Cavan.

Malcolm feels he spends an unhealthy amount of his recent literary life reading about and writing about drains-inspectors. “Captain” W.E. Johns of “Biggles” fame was in the same trade, in Norfolk; and Terry Jones maintains that Chaucer’s role as Clerk of Works qualified him, too, as an “inspector of drains”.

It was while French was nosying down Cavan sewers he wrote the Mountains of Mourne, and his career took off. It also provided him with the material for the Song of William, Inspector of Drains (which featured in the King William College quiz last Christmas.

Now, every parade (including one of Malcolm’s useless knowledge) runs the risk of rain. Today’s comes courtesy of Frank McNally doing An Irishman’s Diary for the day’s Irish Times. McNally had been relating the problems suffered last Sunday by the 5.05pm from Dublin, Connolly, which took seven hours to reach Sligo. He suggests this endurance trial might also provide:

excellent material for a simple, 36-verse ballad.

As I envisage it, the song would begin optimistically, with the train racing towards Kilcock, full of high spirits (if not water). A note of concern might creep in at Enfield, where the engine would be making strange noises. Then the breakdown would occur and it would be a low descent into horror: from the depletion of tbe tea trolley, to the passengers’ desperate but vain sortie out into Apache country—Westmeath, as it’s known locally—to the terrible moment when the passengers first contemplate cannibalism.

That thought would quickly turn into action (“.. .and before we left Killucan/The poor trolley boy was cookin’’, etc); so that when the train finally limped into Sligo, the surviving passengers would disembark sadder, wiser, and united by a dark secret.

To Malcolm, this sounds a direct steal from W.S.Gilbert’s Yarn of the Nancy Brig.

Unfortunately, in his piece, McNally also dismantles the Percy French story:

The Irish Times archive’s last word on the subject is from April 1961, when the newspaper’s radio reviewer tracked the myth back to a documentary of a few years before, which had attributed such a sweet resolution of the dispute to the imagination of the composer himself.

The documentary had made clear that “no action came into court”. Nevertheless. the event had entered folklore. Our radio reviewer noted that a Sunday newspaper had since found at least one elderly Clare man who remembered seeing French board the train in Ennis en route to attend the case.

Earlier the same year, on February 1st, 1961. this newspaper also recorded the tearful closure of the railway. Even this event was mishandled by CIE. To prevent embarrassing scenes, the company cancelled the final scheduled service out of Ennis, so that what was supposed to be the penultimate train was in fact the last.

Such a dastardly ploy had been foreseen, however. The earlier train was packed and hundreds lined the route to watch it pass. The final passengers drank bottle of stout when the engine pulled into Kilkee for the last time, a large crowd serenaded it with French’s song, proving that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

Malcolm’s view on the West Clare Railway is that, like the old adage, if he wanted to get there, he wouldn’t start from here.

A three-foot gauge railway, with authentic vintage steam traction, from Ennis to Kilrush, would be a modern promoter’s dream to rival any other Oirish attraction. William Percy French would be vindicated, particularly if (inevitably) the journey ran late.

That closure in 1961 now seems very short-sighted.
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Malcolm gets spooky, and economical … about Dolly?

Long years ago, Malcolm found he had to leave University, and go out and get a job. He tried to postpone the inevitable by applying for a British Council scholarship to Eastern Europe. Somewhat to his surprise, he was summoned to an interview in London, at their expense.

Now, it was somewhat traditional for Trinity students to take the Mail-boat and the Irish Mail, but charge for the return air-ticket (which is why used ticket stubs were worth a round of drinks). The differential would cover beer-money for more than a week. One diligent soul (about to take a First in Maths) stacked up interviews with all the London insurance brokers and agencies, charged each one for Aer Lingus and a night in a hôtel, but slept on a friend’s couch. That was regarded as a coup, particularly when he then opted for a higher degree. It doesn’t work that way anymore, which is another strike against Ryanair.

A London day, circa 1965

So, a younger and greener Malcolm (What has changed?) headed off to the Smoke.

And found Davies Street. An imposing and very-official red brick and Portland stone building. He was escorted through the corridors and staircases by a uniformed functionary. And was subjected to a quite extraordinary interview.

Five minutes in, Malcolm realised there was a certain amount of cross-purposes here. He hadn’t taken the whole thing at all seriously (Indeed, how little has changed!). The panel included a ferretty person, seated to one side. He, rather pointedly, had not been introduced by name, but from the nature of his questions, was no mere ancillary. Malcolm sensed that the chairman of the panel, an avuncular headmasterly sort of person, seemed to be deferring to this one.

Nobody, except Malcolm, seemed greatly interested in what further studies he might be proposing: which, probably was just as well. Far more significant, it seemed, was Malcolm’s political attitudes and activities, with whom he consorted in Dublin (especially his political connections), and … his leisure reading.

Ferret probed hard on this one.
What newspapers did Malcolm read? The Irish Times and The Guardian.
And on a Sunday? The Sunday Times and The Observer.
Did he read any weeklies? Yes, New Statesman and Tribune.
A heart-beat’s pause at this. A slight furrowing of the ferret’s brow.
And did Malcolm take the Economist? Curious phrasing that: all the ferretty rest had been, “Do you read?”, but now “Do you take?”
Malcolm was rather tired of the whole thing by now, and came close to an expostulation: no, on a student’s income it was beyond his means. He tried to look at the magazine, “occasionally, when he could”.

What could all this mean?

Perspiring, perturbed and puzzled, somewhat shaken (if not stirred) Malcolm was delivered back to the street, again by the same closely-attending functionary.

In those benighted days, it would be the rest of the afternoon before the pubs opened, so Malcolm wandered the West End.

Economist with the verité

On reflection, then and later, Malcolm came to conclude the Economist was somehow the reason why he failed the interview. So the magazine became talismanic for him.

In his political years, Malcolm came to realise that the Economist was sound on facts, and consistent on opinions (which could always be spiced up from a quick scan of the leftist propaganda-sheets anyway). The admixture of the two threads served Malcolm well. And so Malcolm found he had gained a small reputation as an orator at Labour Party dos.

In his declining years, Malcolm still reads the Economist, more for delight than edification. The current issue, for instance, has a very nice opinion piece under the Lexington banner: Dollywood values.

One might expect a dour view of Ms Dolly Parton and her do-it-yourself theme park in the wilds of Tennessee. That, though, is not the Economist way:

Sophisticates sneer at Ms Parton’s theme park. The Daily Express, a British paper owned by a man who also peddles pornography, calls it “tacky”. But the values it represents are as American as a 3lb-pound slice of apple pie. Dollywood’s calorific abundance is quite healthy compared with Hershey Chocolate World in Pennsylvania. Its patriotism seems restrained next to the nearby Patriot Park, with its annual Patriot Festival. Its brand of Christianity is less in-your-face than, say, the Holy Land Experience in Florida. It is tolerant, too. Ms Parton has many gay fans, who hold unofficial get-togethers at her park. Her grandfather was a hellfire preacher, but Ms Parton has an empathy for sinners. As a girl, she thought the town hooker in her make-up and stilettos was the prettiest thing she had ever seen. “She was trash,” Ms Parton tells interviewers, “And I thought: That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”

So, Mr Ferret at the British Council (or whatever you really were), Malcolm owes you a debt. The experience of being taken apart by an interviewer was salutary and cathartic. You turned Malcolm on to a continuing lesson in English prose style, in weekly instalments, which has proved more pleasurably relevant, of greater durability, and extensive than any university course.

Now, if only Malcolm could emulate that model.

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Malcolm’s political incorrectness shows

By courtesy of makethemaccountable and a chain e-mail comes this:

A little jello wrestling, a little cheesecake, and, voila! Problem solved

By way of Amanda at Pandagon, who learned of it from Echidne, comes the news that Atrios was on C-SPAN the other night and he got asked the question.

You know THE Question.

“Where are all the women bloggers?”

Sigh.

As I wrote in Amanda’s comments, “That question, ‘Where are all the women bloggers?’ a babelfish would translate as ‘I only know the names of four or five bloggers. You, the guy I’m interviewing right now, and I just learned your name from my producer. Matt Drudge, Glenn Reynolds, and Mickey Kaus. Frankly, that’s more names than my head can hold and I’m really not interested in reading any blogs. Can you please say something that will stir up a little controversy on the subject and help keep me awake through the rest of this interview?'”

But I think another way to translate it is, “Hey, fella, how come I have to sit here with you, a boring, pasty-faced white guy, instead of some hot chick in a mini-skirt, and, by the way, do you have Wonkette’s phone number?”

There are plenty of women blogging, of course. What there are not are any who are regularly linked to by the top five or six male bloggers (Wonkette is a special case), who are the only ones the producers who book slots for talk shows care about.

I don’t think the reason for this is sexism, although sexism always seems to come into play when those top male bloggers try to explain why they don’t link to more female bloggers.

I think the reason is an extreme narrow-mindedness—or, to put it more flatteringly, a laser-like focus on a single aspect of human behavior. The top dog bloggers are almost autistically obsessed with politics as it’s practiced in Washington D.C.

A good thought, says Malcolm. Put aside the insistence on life inside the Beltway, and the same could be said of our local scene.

We have the Big Boys like Iain Dale, Mick Fealty, and one or two more, but where is the Irish/British blogistas? Notice that Malcolm eschews the snidery of Paul Staines (by name and by nature) posing as “Guido Fawkes“, who attempts a miscegenation of tabloidism and Matt Drudge.

In passing. Malcolm notes that Mick has de-hatted an analogous leporid today:

Lies, damned lies and…

Ireland 8th in the world for the empowerment of women? Can’t believe it? The answer’s simple: there’s not been a male President since Mary Robinson won office in 1990. IN fact the Republic comes 74th in terms of women’s representation in parliament and 28th for the number of women in Government”.

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In the minimal world of our parochial archipelagian politics there are several useful female bloggers. Louise Bagshawe (Thursdays) and Theresa May (Fridays) do regular columns for Tim Mongomerie’s ConservativeHome, which Malcolm revisits anytime he feels Tories might be encroaching into rationality. Both are outshone by the MP for Mid-Beds, Nadine Dorries, now properly acknowledged by the BCS for her presentation and content.

As for Lynne Featherstone of the LibDims, her site merely points up why Nadine Dorries’s is so good. Featherhead is the supreme egoist: any politics always seem in third place to the personality-cult and the cheapest point-scoring (in that order). And why is the site hosted off-shore?

On the other (sensible) wing of politics there is the estimable Antonia Bance blogging from Rose Hill and Iffley.
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But for the true, the blushful Hippocrene, Malcolm turns to two print-based sources which also appear on line: Tamzin Lightwater at the Spectator and Tara Hamilton-Miller at the New Statesman.

Both are, allegedly, deep inside the Tory Central beast. Tamzin twitters indiscreetly, but with delicious pertinacity, about the doings of the higher echelons of the Tory bureaucracy (including the inevitable Mrs Spelperson), while Tara tends to be a bit more cerebral (too much so to be a convincing Tory). Just when we were determining we need not concern ourselves about their doubtful femininity to enjoy their content, Malcolm, ever the butterfly mind, suddenly intrudes a recollection of Pepys diary for 22 April 1664:

to Hide Parke where great plenty of gallants, and pleasant it was, only for the dust. Here I saw Mrs Bendy, my Lady Spillman’s faire daughter that was, who continues yet very handsome.

He wonders if La Spelman can be any relation to Mrs Bendy.
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For a change, this week Tara is the outright winner in bitchery. She has a delightful piece on the Top ten Tory twits, which should be essential reading. What is more remarkable, she does so without including Boris (only a pleasure deferred, surely), except in so far as this:

“Bonkers” Tories were of much higher quality in the Eighties and Nineties. What has happened to the rogues gallery of proper scoundrels, good old-fashioned trouser-droppers such as Mellor, Archer, Edwina? Yes, there’s Boris, but even he hasn’t put a foot wrong for nearly a month. This is not to say the boy David doesn’t have to keep a watchful eye on his flock.

Over the years, the party has attracted eccentrics and surreal characters; their kind will continue to make column inches, and David will continue to be woken by many late-night phone calls.

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Further back Malcolm recalls the fruit-cake MP (1950-1964) for Kidderminster, Sir Gerald Nabarro, who achieved fame in 1963, and anticipated Enoch Powell and Nigel Hastilow, by expostulating on the BBC Any Questions programme: “How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee-coloured grandchildren?”. Nabarro’s secretary in the Commons was Christine Holman (surely a blogista manquée) later to achieve distinction in her own right by being married to Neil Hamilton of the brown-paper envelopes.

Of that same era there was, eccentric but no twit, the formidable Dame Irene Ward, 38 years an MP, mainly for Tynemouth. Let us, as we pass by, recall Alan Plater‘s description of Tynemouth: “All mink coats and no knickers”.

Irene Ward went into Parliament by defeating Margaret Bondfield, the first woman to hold Cabinet office at Westminster (but not the first woman minister in the UK: that was, of course, Con Markiewicz, Minister of Labour in the outlawed First Dáil). Irene Ward must be unique in having insulted, to their faces, both Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler (“What absolute bosh you are talking!”). Malcolm persists in believing that it was Irene Ward (not Bessie Braddock or Nancy Astor) who was involved in the exchange with Churchill:

She: Winston! You’re drunk!
He: Madam, you’re ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.

Malcolm recalls, from the mid-1960s, seeing her arrive, behatted and in full sail, for a Friday night train out of King’s Cross, as he was arriving on the opposite platform: royalty could not achieve such grandeur.
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The mystery which remains in Tara’s list is this:

A shadow secretary of state, who shall remain nameless, decided to sing and briefly weep to a Radiohead song in a northern university student union (determined, clenched, porcine fist punching the air during the rocky bit). She sang with such feeling that even the greasy left-wing undergraduates in the smoky basement were moved enough to keep the experience private.

Malcolm gathers that a small amount of serious money is on offer, from Hugo Rifkind in the Times People column, for further clarification thereof.

That, sadly, is as near as UK local politics gets to jello wrestling and cheesecake. However, if the story could be less precise, would Mary Harney (left: for the only time in her life) fit the bill?

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