Friday, 31 October 2008

All aboard the atheist bus

Who’d have thought that a campaign to raise a few thousand pounds to pay for some atheist adverts on London buses would have turned into one of the fundraising success stories of 2008, credit crunch or not?

By 4pm today, the Atheist Bus Campaign had topped its original target of £5,500, set only ten days ago, twenty times over. That’s £109,540.60 raised online, plus £5,500 promised by Richard Dawkins to match what was raised up to the original target, plus £23,750.47 Gift Aid. (Watch out for the scandalised god-followers, who’ll be quick with their complaints that you shouldn’t get Gift Aid on this sort of thing.)

There’s an entertaining few minutes to be had reading through the comments by donors on the campaign's Justgiving page. I was particularly taken by the extra £5 donated by Perry Goldberg ‘for my Catholic work colleague, who is angered by this "childish" appeal. Nah nah nah nah!’

Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Fiennes howl

In the days before the internet I could have lived my entire life without experiencing the musical charms of Eydie Gormé. Now, thanks to the web, I know more than I could ever have imagined about her ‘musical journey that spans over 40 years’ (actually that should probably read ‘nearly 50 years’ but Eydie’s website isn’t updated as often as it might be).

Among this minefield of information is the fact that one half of the West End Whingers theatre blogging partnership (mission statement: ‘We cut into our wine time to tell you whether it’s worth missing the Merlot for the Marlowe’) has a cat who he named Eydie after the great Gormé.

I know this because the Whingers told me so in their review of the current production of Oedipus at the National, where Ralph Fiennes is howling the house down in what a number of critics have seen as an over-hammy interpretation of the title role. Eydie the cat may be named after Eydie the singer, but that doesn’t stop her being referred to at home as ‘EydiePuss’ – the thought of which is somewhat distracting, to both the Whingers and, as a result of reading their review, to me, when you’re trying to focus on Sophocles.

It’s also hard, as the Whingers point out, to remove your mind entirely from the fact that even by Greek-god story standards this is a gloriously implausible storyline. Even if you didn’t know the outcome in advance, it surely wouldn’t take you as long as Oedipus to wake up to the fact that Jocasta is the mother whose bed it was foretold he would defile. When the character you’re playing is so slow on the uptake, it difficult to imagine how you can be other than hammy (dictionary definition: ‘marked by exaggerated and usually self-conscious theatricality’) in playing him.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Media storm on the mountains

It’s not often that my favourite sport (okay, after football, but that doesn’t really count) leads the news headlines for most of the weekend. But I must admit that live accounts of several thousand fell runners swept away by floods in the Lake District, with anything up to 1,700 of them unaccounted for overnight, did make a change from the non-story of Oleg the Oligarch. (Politicians like spending time with the rich and powerful, and sometimes they try to tap them for money? You don’t say!)

Most of the early reports about the Original Mountain Marathon on Saturday talked about 2,000 ‘charity runners’ being trapped on the mountains after reckless organisers had ignored advice to call off the event – as though this was some sort of fun run in which participants dressed as Batman had been led into mortal danger by over-enthusiastic fundraisers from the local playgroup. The reality was that both the numbers and the risks were exaggerated, the main problems were caused by flooding in the valleys closing roads and cutting off the race HQ. Most of the participants described as ‘missing’ were only aware that they had been at the centre of a media frenzy when they cam back down from the hills again the next morning.

The weather may have been a bit extreme, but the OMM is an extreme sport. It consists of navigating your own route around a course that involves an overnight camp. Entrants are screened, you’re only allowed to do it in pairs and you’re required to carry full survival kit and rations for 36 hours. Batman wouldn’t get in, no matter what charity he was seeking sponsorship for.

Of course, there is risk involved. But you train and prepare for it and as far as I know the OMM’s safety record is impeccable. No one was actually ‘lost’ on the mountains over the weekend. Everyone who camped out overnight – as they had expected (and gone equipped) to do – returned safely on the Sunday. There are more casualties in the Lake District on an average calm, summer’s weekend (not that there have been many of them this summer), when thousands of far less well-prepared walkers head into the hills, than there have ever been on an OMM event.

My extreme sports participation at the weekend was limited to a muddy ‘multi-mile marathon’ circuit around the Weald Country Park in Essex – and a trip to Barking. (‘Do you know anywhere worth visiting round here?’ ‘Have you tried the industrial estate round the corner?’ ‘Are you taking the piss?’ ‘Well you started it.’)

Arthur Smith was on the same bill as the Imagined Village (folk fusion that is as inspiring ideologically as it is musically in its sense of a multicultural modern Englishness tied in to its traditional roots). He told a story of taking a health and safety inspector to do a risk assessment of the Pamplona Bull Run for a TV programme. The OMM organisers actually have to do a risk assessment. From now on it should include a paragraph about dealing with disaster-chasing news organisations that haven’t a clue about what they’re supposed to be reporting on.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Earlobe creases, Hadrian, my nephew and me

I have just discovered that I have creases in my ear lobes. Big deal, you might say, except that diagonal ear-lobe creases are, to quote one recent medical study on the subject, ‘significantly associated with coronary artery disease and coronary risk factors’. How significantly? Creases in both lobes have a ‘positive predictive value’ of 89.4%, according to the study. Or, to put it another way, they mean a 77% increased risk of heart attack (33% if only in one lobe), according to another report.

I wouldn’t have known any of this if it hadn’t been for the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum, where the combination of my historical/archaeological expertise and, more importantly, museum membership (I can take a guest in free) means I’ve been acting as an unofficial guide to every friend or family member with half an interest in things Roman. My last visit before the exhibition closes tomorrow was to take my 11-year-old nephew, recently back from a holiday in Rome and interested enough in Hadrian to know that he built the Pantheon and that his mausoleum is now the Castel Sant’Angelo.

For the umpteenth time, I did my by-now pat routine about Hadrian and his empire, Hadrian and his architecture, Hadrian and his statues, Hadrian and his wall. I curtailed my usual extensive discourse about Hadrian and his sex life, and opted against pointing out all the detail of the homoerotic sex scenes on the Warren Cup. (‘£1.8 million for a mug?’ ‘Bugger me!’ as the Private Eye cover had it when the silver goblet became the museum’s most expensive acquisition a decade ago.)

But I got enough interest from the nephew to keep me going with the Vindolanda tablets (two-millenia-old letters dealing with everything from requests for clean underwear to complaints about the ‘wretched little Brits’), the keys that the Jews took into the desert in the expectation of returning home during the revolt of 132-35, the hobnailed sandal imprint of a Roman soldier preserved on an ancient paving stone – and the diagonal creases on Hadrian’s earlobes.

These were first noticed on statues of Hadrian by Nicholas L Petrakis, a San Francisco MD, who published a paper in 1980 linking the creases to classical writings suggesting that Hadrian died from congestive heart failure resulting from hypertension and coronary atherosclerosis. I pointed out the creases to my nephew on some of the busts of Hadrian in the BM exhibition and told him about the link with heart disease. ‘Are they the same as you’ve got?’ he said.

I must have told this story about Hadrian and his earlobe creases a dozen times since the exhibition opened and no one, least of all me, had ever noticed any creases in my earlobes before now. Have they only just appeared? Old photos are inconclusive. Is my nephew imagining it? The mirror says no. Should I be worried? Medical opinion seems to be divided.

Both earlobe creases and heart disease become more common with age, so the studies may simply be reflecting this fact. (I wish.) And anyway, there’s just as strong a correlation, according to one of these studies, between heart disease and hairy ears, which I don’t have (or didn’t the last time I looked), so I’m taking the usual male approach to personal health issues, putting my fingers in both ears and pretending I never heard my nephew’s question in the first place.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Never lend me your Rolex

When I was a kid I used to have a problem wearing watches. Apart from insisting on wearing them on the inside of the right-hand wrist (a five-year-old’s assertion of individualist identity that I’ve stuck with to the present day, with inconvenient consequences at the keyboard), sooner or later they’d stop working. An adult who knew about these things (people did in those days: they still made them) told me it was something to do with the electro-magnetic field around my body.

That was the best possible explanation I could have hoped for – short of being the adopted son of parents from the planet Krypton. Wind-up watches didn’t work on me because I had an invisible force surrounding me that stopped them ticking.

I’m still not entirely sure whether it was me that was being wound up, but I’ve long since fallen out of love with electro-magnetism. Part of the reason for going a little quiet on the blog recently (apart from spending a fair chunk of the time fell running in the Lake District, avoiding coming last in my category in the Northern Veterans 10-mile road championship and taking my grandson, aged one on Monday, up his first Wainwright – Loughrigg, 211th out of 214 in height order; he slept through most of it) has been a kind of reverse Midas touch, whereby everything electronic I come into contact with stops operating.

The car, computer and even the kettle have all given up the ghost in quick succession – so quick that I’ve almost convinced myself that my electro-magnetic field has gone into overdrive again. Losing your computer hard drive when you’re 300 miles from anything resembling a back up is bad enough, but have you ever tried to organise an auto-electronics spare parts delivery when you’re halfway along Striding Edge? Not helped by the fact that while there are scores, probably hundreds, of companies with variations on the name ‘Ford Electronics’, hardly any of them appear to be a) in this country or b) in the business of electronics for Ford cars.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How to solve the banking crisis

It is essential that industry has the finance it needs to support our plans for increased investment. Our proposals are set out in full in our Conference statement, The Financial Institutions. We will:

• Establish a National Investment Bank to put new resources from private institutions and from the government - including North Sea oil revenues - on a large scale into our industrial priorities. The bank will attract and channel savings, by agreement, in a way that guarantees these savings and improves the quality of investment in the UK.

• Exercise, through the Bank of England, much closer direct control over bank lending. Agreed development plans will be concluded with the banks and other financial institutions.

• Create a public bank operating through post offices, by merging the National Girobank, National Savings Bank and the Paymaster General's Office.

• Set up a Securities Commission to regulate the institutions and markets of the City, including Lloyds, within a clear statutory framework.

• Introduce a new Pension Schemes Act to strengthen members' rights in occupational pension schemes, clarify the role of trustees, and give members a right to equal representation, through their trade unions, on controlling bodies of the schemes.

• Set up a tripartite investment monitoring agency to advise trustees and encourage improvements in investment practices and strategies.

We expect the major clearing banks to co operate with us fully on these reforms, in the national interest. However, should they fail to do so, we shall stand ready to take one or more of them into public ownership. This will not in any way affect the integrity of customers' deposits.

(From Labour's 1983 election manifesto, dubbed 'the longest suicide note in history' by Gerald Kaufman, with thanks to Blood and Treasure and the Red Pepper forum for pointing it out.)

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Socialist baby-killing maggots against Sarah Palin

Stand-in Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear may get hauled over the broadcasting coals for saying ‘shit’ on Football Focus in this country, but it’s a different matter in the US. There the constitutional First Amendment guarantee of free speech provides a familiar cover for all manner of expletives and hate-filled commentary by the right-wing shock jocks who dominate the radio airwaves.

So when Alaska’s Anchorage AM host Eddie Burke ranted about ‘a bunch of socialist baby-killing maggots’ organising an ‘Alaska Women Reject Palin’ rally last month, no one batted much of an eyelid. When he went on to read out the organisers’ home telephone numbers and urge listeners to call them up and give them hell, however, he went a bit beyond the Palin.

The women, whose protest has been claimed as the biggest political rally in Alaskan history (there were about 1,500 people present, so Alaska clearly lacks much of a tradition of popular mobilisation), received a series of threatening and abusive calls. Burke also got a call – from station manager Justin McDonald, telling him he’d broken station policy (by announcing the numbers, not his choice of epithets) and would be suspended without pay for a week.

Photo: Eddie Burke demonstrating his firm grasp of geography

Monday, 6 October 2008

What shall I wear for the London marathon?

My entry has been accepted for the 2009 London marathon, 26 years after I first tried to get a place (one year for each mile – there’s symmetry for you). I’d become so accustomed to failure in the annual ballot for Britain’s biggest road race/fun run (delete as applicable) that I didn’t open the blue shrink-wrapped notification missive until a couple of days after it arrived. And now, having done so, my reaction has shifted almost unblinkingly from ‘Wow, at last!’ to ‘Oh shit, now I’ve got to run it!’ to ‘Bugger, that’s really messed up my plans for next April!’

The thing is that I’ve already booked myself in for a race that I’ve been harbouring fantasies of winning on the day before the marathon. Well, maybe not winning, but, you know, doing quite well in. With 30,000 runners otherwise engaged in their pre-London preparations, there’s clearly no better time to go for gold than against the greatly-narrowed field that will turn out for the Clandon Park 10k near Guildford on 25 April. Now the day will have to be taken up with sorting out what I’m going to wear on a 26-mile jaunt around London instead. After waiting more than a quarter of a century for the opportunity it has to be something special. Any suggestions?

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Peter Mandelson and the coat off my back

Peter Mandelson once tried to buy my jacket off me at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during some Labour conference shindig or other. In doing so, he destroyed what little fashion cred I had (never much, especially in the early 1990s, when it happened) and placed a big question mark over my political orientation among the lefty conference rabble-rousers who were watching to see what I would do.

In the event, my price was too high. I might have been willing to part with a principle or two to speed up any future passport applications. But it was blowing a storm on the Brighton seafront and surrendering the coat off my back was a step too far.

The next day, in different company, Mandy denied that he’d ever made the offer. In fact, he all but denied that he knew me at all. It seemed a purposeless, straight-faced lie. Did he do it to avoid some trivial diary item, the sort of flotsam tossed around by eager hacks surfing the seaside conference gossip? Or was it, as it felt at the time and has seemed all the more so since, a simple pleasure in power: ‘I lie because I can, and there’s nothing you can do about it?’

Either way, I wouldn’t want him in my Cabinet – or leave my jacket on the back of the chair when it’s raining outside.

Cartoon by Hack, used under a Creative Commons licence from the truly wonderful