Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category
Monday, April 15th, 2013
I once did a bookshop event with Michael Burleigh. He was ‘in conversation’ with me about The Brain is Wider than the Sky. He opened by saying he had noticed that, at such events, non-fiction writers were always asked about the content of their books whereas fiction writers – and, I assume, poets, but there are so few of them – are always asked variations of ‘How do you write?’ So he asked me how I wrote and I was floored, the only honest answer to the question being ‘Pretty much like everybody else, but, perhaps, earlier and with more panic.’
The point is, I suppose, that creative writing has a privileged mystique, a sense that it emerges from some higher realm than mere fact and analysis. The obvious mistake is to assume that ‘creative’ encompasses only fiction, poetry, theatre and cinema; there are countless great factual works of literature. Nevertheless, people see creation de novo as the summum bonum of writing (and are also easily-impressed by ill-digested Latin tags).
I have now been repeatedly asked about the initial ‘inspiration’ – important word – for Bedford Park. Most seasoned novelists have a neatly packaged answer to this one; I don’t because I can’t remember. It was at least five or six years ago because that’s how long the book has been hanging around, but it could have been eight or nine years or even decades ago when I first realised how moved I was by architecture or by my dawning sense that the period of the book – 1888-1912 – was even more moving, a high point, perhaps the high point, of British civilisation. (This is the English period of the novel, there are a preceding couple of decades in Chicago.)
The latter was brought home to me when I was considering a pivotal incident in the book – the meeting of W.B.Yeats and Maud Gonne at what was then (in January 1889) the Yeats family house, 3, Blenheim Road, Bedford Park. I returned from another visit to the place and idly went to the Zoopla site to see how much it was now worth – £3.3 million. The first point here was my own depravity in using property values as some kind of way of understanding of something. The second was that big money has moved into Bedford Park. The upside of this is that it is now in better condition that at any time since it was built (from the late 1870s onwards); the downside is the decline of the middle classes. These wonderful, absurdly romantic, absurdly nostalgic houses were built for the ordinary middle class of the time. Now they are priced for the rich and super-rich and the ordinary middle classes can barely get into central London.
On top of that, this paradisal suburb was built and flourished at a time when these islands were infested with genius – Henry James, Joseph Conrad, H.G.Wells, Oscar Wilde, Edward Thomas, George Bernard Shaw, Stephen Crane, Thomas Hardy, Yeats, Ezra Pound and so on and so on. London was the cleverest and greatest city in the world. I am not nostalgic for that time – I wasn’t there – but I feel it would have given me the same sense of belonging I get when I am in Venice. It would be rather consoling to die in such a place and become a part of the story…..
London is no longer such a place. It is one among an increasing number of ‘world cities’. Indeed, it is more ‘world’ than most in that we have sold off much of the centre to dubious rich foreigners, ‘Bond villains’ as John Lanchester calls them. It is becoming like those watches and yachts advertised in glossy magazines – flavourless, pointless and the same all over the world. When my hero, Calhoun Kidd, arrived in London it was none of those things, it was, to him, ‘a centreless maze’, a place which was constantly being rebuilt and which obsessively reported itself through the media of newspapers and walls – murder stories were chalked up for those too poor to buy newspapers. This reporting obession arose because London knew everything that happened within her boundaries was more important than anything else in the world and she also knew that the world agreed.
Now, as Kazuo Ishiguru has pointed out, we are destined to live and write in a time when that moment has passed and only Americans can write in the sure knowledge that the rest of the world will be interested. This can induce rage, emigration or a rather delicious melancholoy. I’ll go for the latter. Apart from anything else, we have the luxury of looking back at our moment of greatness and, indeed, fantasising about it. I am pretty sure, for example, that Ezra Pound would, indeed, have punched the rather languid Calhoun Kidd. It was a literary-critical response to Cal’s rather offhand treatment of Yeats, who was, to Pound, the greatest poet alive. I could also give Tremlett imaginary physics and invent absurd rituals for Madame Blavatsky.
“Nabokov,” said John Updike in 1964, “writes prose the only way it should be written: ecstatically.” That should be everybody’s answer to the bookshop event question “How do you write?”. It is certainly how I wish I could write. I hope, in short, that Bedford Park is a start.
Thursday, February 28th, 2013
At least three (possibly more, one tries to forget) of my worst nights in the theatre have involved musicals. The absolute worst was Starlight Express followed, not far behind, by Phantom of the Opera and then there was a show of Sondheim songs, full of arch over-acting and glutinous attempts at ‘sophistication’, which I left at the interval. I did see half of Cats but the second half never happened because of a bomb scare – it wasn’t me, honest, guv.
As intellectually challenging as a Moonpig card and as aesthetically satisfying as cat litter, these shows left me baffled. Why would anybody want to see such nonsense? In the case of Sondheim – the easily shocked should look away now – I concluded he wasn’t very good.
In the end, I suppose, musicals are, to some, restful. They provide – sometimes – nice tunes and consoling sentiments as well as lots of expensive stage effects. Fair enough. I suppose.
None of which stopped me grabbing a seat at the first preview of The Book of Mormon, a musical. (There’s a convention of not reviewing previews. I shall adhere to this by discussing the show in general – its content is well known from the New York run – rather than this production.)
The Book of Mormon revels in its musicalness. The style of the songs, dancing and acting is bog standard Broadway/West End/coach party. This is necessary to draw attention to the oddity of the content. Any fool could make an experimental musical about Mormons, only Trey Parker and Matt Stone could make a mainstream musical about them – and, incidentally, about baby rape, Aids, book buggery etc.
The further point is that Mormons themselves are mainstream, in America at least. They make a fetish of respectability as well as of being the true native faith, yet they aim at universality as if American respectability was the proper condition of all mankind. This is funny in itself and it clears up a point about what is being satirised here. Neither Mormonism nor religion is the prime target, parochialism is the heart of the matter. Most of the show takes place in Uganda where Mormonism is as meaningless as Luganda or Swahili would be in Utah.
Stone and Parker have always been too smart – and have too much of a sense of humour – to come down on one side of an argument. In Team America, for example, they lampooned liberal doves and conservative hawks equally. They assume – rightly – that the world is underdetermined by any one opinion and that reality is adrift and unachorable. They do not, however, resort to the helpless, postmodern shrug; rather, they draw consolation from the fact that, adrift we may be, but at least we are all in the same boat. And what do we do to pass the time? We tell stories.
The Book of Mormon is, in fact, very close in conception to John Ford’s great movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (I can’t be too specific here as it would be a spoiler.) The crucial line in that film is: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. What matters is the sustaining story, the yarn that gets you through. What further matters, of course, is that the story is benign, but, since every aspect of this show exudes benignity, I think we can take that as read.
What, you might ask, of the truth? The answer is that the truth may be out there but our accounts of it are buried beneath our inevitable parochialism. Our best bet is to accept the most benign fictions, funny and absurd as they may be. This is always the West, sir.
Musicals have, at last, spawned a masterpiece.
Saturday, February 23rd, 2013
I am listening to a radio discussion of the movie American Beauty (1999). The general tone is that this was a masterpiece. I see why they are saying this, it was very accomplished but I disliked it, not intensely but with a bored so whattish feeling. It is, in short, an example of bad-good art.
Two other examples have been in my life recently – the block of flats known as One Hyde Park and Harold Pinter’s Old Times. I used the first as an example of the ‘dark wealth’ that is ruining London. It is, in detail, a very good building, beautifully finished and full of ingenious devices. But its overall effect is sinister, over-scaled and thuggish. Old Times, like much of Pinter, is a brilliant surface stretched over a vacuum. The play is designed to make us feel there is great significance to these twists and mysteries but there is none.
Bad-good art of this kind is a trick. Contrast Pinter with Beckett. There is no vacuum in Beckett, he addresses human life full-on, the theatrical devices are not arbitrary, they arise from the necessity of how Beckett feels and, consequently, they make us feel the same way. There is no trickery – or, if you insist there is, then you must admit that it has a point beyond itself.
There is another category I call good-bad art. This is technically dubious art that is, in fact, good. Look at Bob Dylan – he can’t sing, isn’t a very good musician and he absolutely cannot play the harmonica and yet he has produced more works of genius than anybody else in folk – in which I include jazz, rock, pop etc – music. Which means, of course, that he has become a very good singer etc because he has redefined the values involved. Al Kooper said, wisely, that he was the best bad piano player in the world. Dylan is just the most obvious example of good-bad art, there are many cases of technical deficiencies becoming artistic assets. Terence Davies, for example, does not know one end of a lens from the other but he makes superb movies.
I suppose the point is that mere talent is not enough, it may not even be necessary. On the other hand, knowledge of what talent can do is necessary – you can’t even become a good-bad artist from a condition of ignorance about your predecessors and contemporaries. Immersion is essential. You must work to produce art, but, in the end, it just happens, like it or not.
Monday, February 4th, 2013
I commented on Twitter ‘What’s wrong with politics is not the sins of Chris Huhne, it’s the gloating and sneering that will ensue.’ The gloating and sneering ensued and I was criticised for suggesting Huhne did not deserve this treatment. That’s not quite what I said, but we’ll let that pass. Either way, what I meant was not that Huhne was not culpable but that the g & s had certain effects which I shall come to in a moment.
The first and most obvious point to make is that justice will be adequately served without the sniping of the Twitter tricoteuses who, let’s face it, were only piling in either for traffic or, priggishly, to feel good about themselves by agreeing with what the mob was saying. The second point is that, foolish as Huhne may have been, the disaster that has overwhelmed him should inspire a degree of compassion. That, I know, in the present climate is laughable.
But it’s the third point about the wider effects of gloating and sneering which is the most important. Such is the savage attention now devoted to politicians that no wise person would think of entering that profession. This has been true for twenty years or more and, as a result, we now suffer under the leadership of mediocrities. There is no Gladstone or Disraeli among the present crop, no Thatcher or Churchill, and there never will be again if we go on like this. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps we just need bloodless, pale-faced party managers who think it’s all about competitive g & s. One of the most disturbing things Peter Mandelson ever said to me was that Westminster was “exactly” like The Thick of It. So Mandy, apparently, was intensely relaxed not just about people getting rich but also about a political class that cared only for self-advancement and for whom the good of the country was nothing more than press release boiler plate.
Maybe, just maybe, if we started treating these people with respect we might, in, say, twenty years, acquire people of substance at the top. It has to be worth a try.
There was a further twist to the attack on my position. @CharlesCrawford said g & s “send a vital market signal to all politicians not to cheat and lie”. This draws attention to one of the prime superstitions of our age. It is always handy to impose an ideological reductionism on debate – handy and harmless so long as we remember the reduced term is a metaphor. So, for example, Heraclitus may well have literally believed that nature was an ‘ever-living fire’ but that becomes, on examination, absurd. But Buddha, in the Fire Sermon, said the world of desire and suffering was fire, which was a great truth precisely because it was a metaphor.
Fire, in our time, is the market. Everything, we are told, is reducible to a market. This, in part, arises from a very strange reading of Darwin but also from the triumph of neo-liberalism in the seventies and eighties. It can be made to work as an idea if you stretch the meaning of ‘market’ to the point where it becomes, in fact, meaningless. This is fine as long as you remember it’s a metaphor with certain very limited explanatory powers. It obviously isn’t literally true that natural selection works like a market and it certainly isn’t meaningful to see human behaviour as a market – unless you’re a psychopath and, admittedly, there are more of them than one would like. In this context the use of gloating and sneering can be seen as a prime example of market failure. We’ve been doing it for twenty or more years and out politicos are more badly behaved and less competent than ever. Again, being nice to them might be worth a try……
Monday, December 24th, 2012
Jim Al-Khalili in the Guardian explains why, as an atheist, he celebrates Christmas. Fair enough, except he is celebrating no such thing. Like many atheists – especially when they are scientists – he treats religion as a simple entity, an atomic unit of human experience. Religion, in this view, performs certain obvious functions – consoles with thoughts of an afterlife, sustains social homogeneity and so on – and, therefore, it is a resilient ‘meme’, a cultural version of a gene. (It might be helpful to remember that the scientific method is also a meme, but I don’t believe in memes so it probably doesn’t matter.)
This is not necessarily wrong, it is just hopelessly shallow because it fails to address the vital particularities of religion. Imagine talking about art in such terms. If, standing in front of Titian’s Assumption or listening to Bach’s Mass in B, you held forth on the evolved functionality of art, those around you would rightly dismiss you as an unfeeling lunatic. What counts is the thing itself and what is happening in your imagination, the rest is babble. The same is true of religion. To sit through a mass in Westminster Cathedral in an anthropological frame of mind is to embrace ignorance.
It would be wiser for even atheists to contemplate and investigate the wonder of religion as a primary feature – perhaps the primary feature – of our species. Then you can start asking why and how and you will get away from banal issues of historical truth or otherwise and begin to understand the fundamental power of metaphor.
“For heaven’s sake,’ Marilynne Robinson once said to me, “the idea that the dome is the sky is the skull of a murdered god. What is being described there? A very great deal. The idea that that is the kind of statement that could be displaced by something aboout gravity or the atmopshere – that’s a bizarre assumption to make.”
Humans, even or specially those who claim to be ‘hard-headed’, live by and through metaphors. These are the only way of describing the immaterial realm which consciousness has created or to which it has access. The stories, ideas, images, sounds and structures of this realm are as real and as factual as the periodic table or the inverse square law of gravitation. Theology describes this realm as do philosophy, art and literature. Or, put it this way, to be aggressively anti-religious is to be anti-imagination.
Christmas works for all kind of reasons, not because it is simply the festival of peace and togetherness of which Al-Khalili dreams, but because it is so much more than that. It should be considered, for example, as the first scene in a tragedy that ends on the cross. In Journey of the Magi, this is how Eliot wrote of the first Christmas as ‘hard and bitter agony’ and most , if not all, Renaissace images of the Virgin and Child contain some visual mention of the cross. Then there is the difficulty of the birth, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents. This is not a story of peace and harmony, it is a story about the grievous lack of those things and, in that, it reflects the world as it is. Christmas only survives and Christianity only grips the imagination because it is not a fantasy, it is a truth that can only be apprended through a story. Invent a secular equivalent and it will not last twenty years, never mind two thousand.
Or, to put it another way, happy Christmas.
Friday, December 14th, 2012
After the school slaughter in Connecticut I saw on Twitter the usual argument, in various forms, that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Notably one @Old_Holborn remarked ‘I own a spoon. I am to blame for obesity’.
This argument is a)obvious and b)irrelevant. Guns, of course, do not kill people. They are not possessed of what philosophers would call ‘agency’. All one need say about guns is that they make it very easy to kill people, much easier than, for example, strangulation or stabbing. This needs to be taken into account but it is not, of itself, an argument for gun control.
Nor is the mere ubiquity of guns an argument for control. Other countries – Switzerland and Canada, I believe – have as many guns as the USA. The difference is, of course, that citizens of those countries do not shoot to kill and wound their citizens on anything like the scale of the Americans. Look up the figures, they are horrific.
That, in a nutshell, is the argument for gun control in American. This is a nation that makes a habit of killing large numbers of its citizens with guns. What, confronted with the slaughter in Connecticut, would the NRA have to say if you asked them what you would they do about these persistent massacres? Clearly it is a reasonable question and one that any individual or organisation wishing to take part in a reasonable debate would have to answer.
But the NRA, combined with the now hopelessly depraved Republican Party, has nothing to say on this. Their only position is to oppose gun control. In fact, they have nothing to say because there is nothing TO say except that Americans, uniquely among civilised societies, like to kill each other with guns. Not to do anything about this is not a serious option in a democratic society. So @Old_Holborn is, as I tweeted, a fool.
In fact the only thing the NFA could possibly offer as an alternative would be mass psychological surveillance of a kind unthinkable in a free society. Otherwise you just shrug your shoulders and hope for the best, clinging to your gun nostalgia, sentimentality and superstition.
Obama’s tears, I suspect, were not just of grief for the children but of rage at the idiocy of the forces ranged against him on gun control. Loving, as I do, America, I wept with him.
Sunday, December 9th, 2012
Some years ago while promoting my book Aliens I appeared on a TV morning show ‘hosted’ by Fern Britton and Phillip Schofield. On the sofa with me was a woman who claimed she had been abducted by aliens. She was pleasant, nervous and obviously disturbed. (I should say I don’t for a moment believe she had been abducted.) Schofield gave her a hard time, playing bad cop while Fern, the good cop, smiled sweetly. The woman was suffering and confused. It was horrible and, to this day, I hate myself for not shouting Schofield down and walking out. He, I concluded, was a grade A jerk, an impression lately reinforced by his trashy little scam when he handed Cameron a list of supposed paedophiles, picked up from internet rumours.
Then the two Australian DJs do their prank call to the King Edward VII hospital and one of the nurses who was pranked kills herself. I know, I know, we don’t have the full facts and this has made some, understandably, reluctant to judge. But look at what we do know. The Duchess of Cambridge had a condition that could have made her miscarry, this was a hospital, a place full of very sick people and, finally, the two DJs thought it reasonable to trick nurses looking after these people for the purposes of the cheapest and nastiest imaginable entertainment. Under the circumstances, I have no choice but to add these two DJs to my list of Grade A jerks.
But I wasn’t, I confess, that shocked when I heard of the prank. Probably most people weren’t. We all know about prank calls and the way they form part of ‘pop’ culture. We’ve probably all laughed at a few in our time. When the nurse died, however, I realised I had unthinkingly accepted the idea that the media had a right to do such things and that it was funny to be cruel.
There’s a long history of this. Candid Camera made a success out of making the public look silly; in fact, it was that show that made it part of the media language. That, however, is no reason to accept, rather it is a reason to ask what is actually going on. The answer is casual cruelty perpetrated by a petty elite who regard such behaviour as an essential aspect of their own cool, hip, right-on personae.
So this is just to say: there’s a lot of it about, life is short, we’re all in the same boat and who the fuck do these people think they are? Who the fuck do we think we are?
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012
Why didn’t George Entwistle say ‘I made a mistake in not monitoring the Savile story more closely. I apologise and I will clear up this mess’? He would have been in a far stronger position and is now bound to face severe criticism later; indeed, his job is risk.
Part of the problem here is to do with BBC culture. It is a special organisation, but, fatally, it has turned this specialness into a permanent protective posture. All the statements about Savile betray this. They are issued by people whose first thought is survival and second is for the protection of the BBC from outside examination and judgment. Reith would be horrified; if he were now in charge, there would be hell fire sermons being delivered daily. Reith’s founding motto for the BBC – educate, entertain and inform – really meant ‘do good, be good’, not ‘cover thine ass’.
In a larger context, I strongly suspect they are victims of inane management culture – specifically the black art of damage limitation. Usually, as in this case, damage cannot be limited and the only sane strategy is confession of failure. In fact, confession of error, failure, incompetence should be normal in any organisation, How else can they expect to improve? Regular confessions would also get rid of the present absurd state of affairs where every slip leads to calls for ‘heads to roll’, resignation and so on.
Now, I suspect, Entwistle’s job hangs by a thread and the BBC’s self-protective culture has made it more vulnerable than ever. That’s one of the interesting things about big management ideas – they are always wrong but, by the time it becomes apparent, the kids that thought them up have moved on.
Friday, October 19th, 2012
Joe, a salesman at a respectable car dealership, is selling you a car. You drive away happy, kicking yourself gently for falling for the finance deal. But the car’s good and, for a few months, you are happy. Then, one day, Joe knocks at the door.
“Mind if I have the keys, guv?”
“Have to take back the sound system and the sun roof.”
“Because we can. It’s in the small print.”
It could never happen, could it? Yes, it happens every day – car dealers don’t do it but banks, insurance companies, telcos, ISPs, energy companies, probably most service providers, as well as a few others, do it all the time. It’s all in the small print, see?
Rewarding loyal customers? No money in it. The trick is to get them in and then rip them off.
Our bank just ripped off my wife by reducing the benefits on her credit card. I recently got a call from BT offering me a quite phenomenal deal which I was eager to accept. Then I heard the words ‘to welcome you back to BT’. It was a cockup, I’d never left. When this became clear, the offer was immediately withdrawn.
Rewarding loyal customers? No money in it. The trick is to get them in and then rip them off
Years ago I sat in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos and watched in mounting distaste as a series of sharky young men explained they would do anything - anything - to pad the bottom line. A few, possessed of the last remaining shreds of a conscience, protested weakly and were rewarded with scorn.
It all began in 1970 when Milton Friedman wrote an essay in the New York Times explaining that companies should have no social obligations. It was a nuanced essay – Friedman was not the inhuman brain that some think he was – but the big takeway message as far as the sharky types were concerned was: “We can do what the f*** we like!”
The neo-liberalism that dominated the next few decades was, first, highly successful and then a complete disaster – not only a financial disaster but a moral one.
Some knew this would happen. The great and cultivated Ferdinand Mount warned Thatcher that her energy privatisation plans were flawed because ‘the regulators have no teeth and the operators no conscience’. But nobody paid much attantion, least of all Blair and Brown, their grovelling to the City made them the most neo-liberal PMs we could have had (and that includes Thatcher, a very cautious and genuinely conservative PM who, I believe, would have reversed this insanely radical programme as soon as she saw where it was going).
And so, though the crash has discredited neo-liberalism, it has not yet stripped the corporate con-artists out of the system. In fact, technology has made their lives much easier. We have, unprecedentedly, created and rewarded not an amoral but an immoral class who think nothing of ripping off their most loyal customers. I’d like to say it doesn’t have to be like this, but, it seems, it does.
Thursday, October 18th, 2012
Priggishness, wrote Marilynne Robinson “is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.”
“Reassuring” is not quite strong enough. Prigs use conventional beliefs as a weapon – defensive and offensive – of self-justification. You come across it all the time on the behaviour of certain types of people. Implicitly they say: ‘I am anti-racist/anti- carbon emissions/pro-organic/anti-child abuse/anti-war, therefore I am good and cannot, in way, be accused of being bad.’ I suppose this is harmless, gently comic in fact, and the last seven hundred years of English literature would have been profoundly impoverished if all prigs had spontaneously seen the light and reformed just before Chaucer.
There is, however, the constant danger of mission creep when it comes to priggery and it is this that creates a new, more dangerous variant – the Prig Imperiale. I come across it quite frequently among people who confuse races with nations. Laughing at somebody because they are of another race is racism, no question, but laughing at the manners and mores of another country is not. I hardly need to explain to readers of this blog why, but I will briefly. To mock somebody because of their race is to suggest their inner worth, their essence if you like, is necessarily lessened by their race, to mock national characteristics is to pick out, as it were, accidental, non-essential features. All comedy on all subjects does this in one form or another. In fact, national jokes are very good things since it is difficult to go to war if both sides are creased up with laughter. (Of course, there are vicious jokes about countries but these are not bad because they attack a nation, they are bad because they are vicious.)
I suppose this is harmless, gently comic in fact, and the last seven hundred years of English literature would have been profoundly impoverished if all prigs had spontaneously seen the light and reformed just before Chaucer
The Prig Imperiale thinks otherwise. Yesterday on Twitter – sorry, but it is the source of all my blog ideas now – somebody called The Firm (@TheFirmOnline) took exception to my remark about this video – ‘Let’s be honest,’ I tweeted, “it’s funnier because he’s German.’ Obviously this it the case because certain German cadences sound funny to English ears and because of the reversal of stereotypical expectations, Here is a German who is not being efficient and humourless, here is a German who is being a clown of incompetence, like, say Tommy Cooper. Yet The Firm detected ‘The unmistakeable stench of casual racism.’
This judgment is not entirely objective. The Firm Online is a magazine for the legal profession, a trade which would benefit from billions of dollars of global revenue if imperial priggery won the the day. They would, for example, be able to act for the British government against the producers of the US comedy show Frasier which repeatedly, through the character of Daphne, mocks British cars, pubs and food. They would be called in to advise the Swedish and Danish governments on how to prevent the broadcasts of The Killing and Wallander overseas as they show their countries as eminently mockable zones of unrelieved misery and depression. Mr Bean and Fawlty Towers would have to be banned because they hold up British stereotypes for mockery. The Canadian authorities, of course, would be perpetually in the courts, taking action against jokers who suggested that they were boring and ensuring the eradication of South Park because of their song ‘Blame Canada’. Finally, lawyers could organise the burning of all P.G.Wodehouse’s books – they represent Britain as a land of ‘intellectually negligible’ toffs.
One can hardly, therefore, blame The Firm for adopting imperial priggery as a sound business strategy. For the rest of is, as so often happens with legal bright ideas, it would be a disaster. The big, serious consequence of imperial priggery would be the dilution of the good, genuine cause at the root of this mission creep. Spend your time objecting to national jokes and you will forget all about the real thing – in this case racism. I notice nobody called me a racist when I tweeted ‘What is wrong with the Serbs?” yesterday. Quite right, their current accidental characteristics are no joke.