walking west iv
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Friday, 28 September 2001

So much for September at Walking West. And to think I was planning several glorious furniture-shopping and box-unpacking anecdotes, along with the usual cross-cultural observations and ironic asides.

There's nothing much to say without seeming too trivial or too serious, so I'm giving up on words for a while. Next week, some pictures.

Thursday, 27 September 2001

I can't do it any more. I can't look at MetaFilter. I can hardly look at a single news site or weblog. I haven't bought a newspaper all week. I find myself wanting to switch the radio off. I'm actually glad we don't have a TV at the moment. The endless repetition of scenes like these seems to be hardening people's minds to the point where they can only think in black and white: you're for US or agin US, and God help you if you're agin, whether you're Bin Laden or the Guardian—as if the two are interchangeable. Careful articles warning against 'war without end' are sweepingly labelled 'reflexive blame-the-U.S. pacifism', as if not wanting the world to slide into World War III is anti-American, hypocritical, or a sign of self-loathing. Infinite shades of grey are boiled down to two, making any attempt to question a mark of weakness or treason:

Pay no heed to the voices of the poor, misguided souls, in this country and overseas, who claim that America brought these atrocities on herself. They are deluded, and their hearts are cramped by hatred and fear. [Senator John McCain.]

Some may have been too blunt in their analyses of the attacks, but this blurs all boundaries between cause, provocation and blame. To argue that the cause of the attacks was that those responsible felt provoked by America, whether by its actions in the Middle East or by its very existence as the leading example of capitalist democracy, is not an attempt to condone their actions, it's an attempt to explain them, in order to find ways to prevent them from ever happening again.

Nothing can categorically prevent such attacks from ever recurring. That, surely, is the awful lesson of all this: there are no guarantees; there are only reasonable steps, like tighter security on aircraft and in airports; questionable steps, like restricting civil liberties (how many freedoms do we give up in the defence of freedom?); and unquestionably unreasonable steps, like carpet-bombing the entire Middle East in a genocidal retributive strike.

The more difficult question is whether an initially 'focussed' and 'limited' military strike will lead to future battles that are anything but. To ask that question is not 'reflexive blame-the-U.S. pacifism'; it is a simple acknowledgement that wars have a way of getting out of hand, and that reasonable people can be led by circumstances to do unreasonable things. Those who would 'pay no heed' to such questions should ask themselves exactly whose 'hearts are cramped by hatred', and exactly who they should hate.

As for 'hearts cramped by fear', I see no shame in being fearful: I fear that unless we in the West are extremely careful, we will become everything we hate.

Just finished reading Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures in Extremism, which I can highly recommend in these paranoid times. (I've previously linked to some of it here.) A fascinating stew of global conspiracy theorists, actual global conspiracies, and owl burning ceremonies, written with a light touch. This review by Brian Appleyard sums up not only the book but some of the quandaries facing Western liberals at this very moment.

An update to Friday's entry: 'The BBC got a bit tetchy about the spoof using their look', so the author has changed it. The BBC has just gone down several points in my estimation.

Wednesday, 26 September 2001

Scrawling 'I Love You' = Terrorism [via Ed]. It's certainly reassuring to know that one of the first congressional responses to 9-11 is to crack down on electronic graffiti. (I wonder where that leaves Smart Tags.) Note the retrospective angle; always a sign of thoughtful, fair-minded legislation.

Meanwhile, The Onion gives the last word on all things 9-11.

Tuesday, 25 September 2001

Once again I'm glad of the expectation-lowering effect of bad reviews, because Steven Spielberg's A.I. is wonderful. True, it has its flaws—it's a little drawn-out in spots and under-developed in others, and as usual he overdoes the John Williams soundtrack—but these are more than outweighed by moments of sheer brilliance. Haley Joel Osment continues to astound, and a supporting performance from Jude Law is also well worth seeing. And this is one of the most visually compelling SF films in years: the scenes of a drowned New York and those that follow are breathtaking.

A.I.'s harsher critics yearn for the Kubrick version that never was, but it seems unfair in this case to compare what we have with what might have been: Kubrick's masterpieces aren't known for their warmth, and without the Spielberg touch this could have been a bleak journey. Compare A.I. with Bicentennial Man—its closest parallel—and Spielberg's heavy hand starts to look positively light. And for all his occasional tendency towards schmaltz, Spielberg remains a technical master of film-making with few peers. Jurassic retreads aside, his films of the past ten years add up to an impressive resume, and A.I. is a worthy addition to Spielberg's list.

Monday, 24 September 2001

New by yours truly at Records Ad Nauseam: Sigur Rós—Ágætis Byrjun [mirrored here].

Friday, 21 September 2001

This is appropriate in just so many ways.

Tintin.com is a great site for fans of the tufty-haired one (and of tasteful use of Flash). I never knew that Spielberg and Polanski were once interested in making Tintin movies. Or that Tintin is 'the most translated of all comic books' (not that surprising, I suppose). Or that Captain Haddock is 'Captain Sardine' in Afrikaans. Blistering barnacles!

Israeli intelligence suspects Iraq, not Bin Laden.

So, the world's airlines are to be brought to a standstill not by hijackers but by insurance companies. (Australia leads the world once again!) I'd love to do my bit for their beleaguered coffers by taking up some of the £4 Glasgow-Paris return flights that have been advertised online in the past few days (hell, at that price, I'll take two), but unfortunately don't have the leave yet. Curse you, evil forces of global terrorism! and, um, university administration.

I've been meaning to post this for a while—a striking passage from Sweet Thames (set in London in 1849, published in 1992) by Matthew Kneale, with more than a few prescient echoes of internet boom and bust:

A harder time for engineers had not been known for two decades or more. Lines were in the process of construction up and down the country but, strange though it may seem, this did nothing to reduce the number of young engineers seeking employment. ¶ The moment when the whole land seemed to be crying out for one of our number—for any creatures who could hold a sextant, whether expert or charlatan—was not during the actual building of railways but before, during Railway Mania: a mad season of too much money, when the public jingled with sovereigns, was drunk with hope of profit, and would invest in any railway scheme, however ludicrous. Engineering companies did their best to keep up with the demand for projects into which money might be hurled, and plans for new routes were conjured up as fast as you could count—enough to link every lost and sleeping village in the land with every other—speedily attracting brigades of shareholders. ¶ For each project that might actually be completed, half a dozen sank, their engineering companies often with them, and those not lucky enough to be attached to a line actually attaining construction found themselves left high and dry. By now matters had reached such a point that one often heard of good, experienced men taking their chances with a sailing ticket, and the hope of finding livelihood on the great railways being built in Europe, Russia or America.


Thursday, 20 September 2001

Damn. A couple of weeks ago this page validated; now I get a warning that 'to assure correct validation, processing, and display, it is important that the character encoding is properly labeled'. In other words, add

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8">

to three hundred or more pages. More grepping and mass-FTPing. How will standards like XHTML 1.0 make pages readable for years to come if they tweak them every six months?

With words like these, who needs pictures.

Yesterday's news:

The vitriol hurled at Americans, even while they still wept, should be a source of shame.

The terrorists actually want to provoke attacks on Arabs or Muslims in the US, because if the American communities start going after each other, if we see America fragment, then you destroy that special thing that America stands for.

Not a single Afghan is known to be involved in Bin Laden's foreign operations. Nor, for good measure, have any Iraqis, Iranians or Libyans.

Many of those who may be hurt are unlikely to have any idea about what has been happening in America.


Wednesday, 19 September 2001

I mentioned pacifism yesterday. I'm not an unconditional pacifist: I once even worked at a military academy. (Whoops, there go my left-liberal credentials. But as a political scientist I make a distinction between defence forces and the political purposes to which they are put; and Australia's were put to good purpose in recent years as peace-keepers in Bougainville and East Timor, I would argue. Besides, if everyone on the left disclaims any involvement in defence matters it guarantees that the military is controlled by hawks on the right—and look where that gets us.)

But there are fights you can win, fights you might lose, and fights where everyone loses, and right now we're looking squarely at the latter.

Maybe I'm over-reacting in my fears of what an attack on Afghanistan might lead to. Maybe it will all be over quickly, few civilian Afghans will die, the (remaining) perpetrators of the WTC attack will be punished, and there will be minimal long-term consequences.

Or maybe it's all an example of courageous brinkmanship, Dubya's version of JFK's handling of the Cuban missile crisis, designed only to flush out Bin Laden. Or maybe it will provoke a long and bloody jihad, and Bush is playing right into the hands of people who desire exactly that.

Forgive me for not enjoying this game of Russian roulette. I'm sure that can be cathartic too, when the gun goes click instead of bang, but there must be better ways of coming to terms with last week's events.

A thought experiment: what if we knew for certain that all of the conspirators behind the attacks died in them? What if Bin Laden had been on one of the planes, or somehow we had incontrovertible proof that he was not involved? Where would we channel our need for catharsis and retribution then?

Would we declare war on the countries that spawned these criminals? So far, the evidence suggests that this would mean the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Morocco... Would we attack the places that had harboured them, as we threaten to attack Afghanistan now? That would mean Hamburg, for starters.

Such actions would be pointless; an unthinking revenge against somebody, anybody, just to make us feel better about what happened—as if anything can. Yet because the man identified as responsible for these crimes survives, we consider such collateral damage justified: the deaths of thousands of Afghans; possibly, in the months and years to come, the deaths of thousands more across the Islamic world; the deaths of many Western soldiers and even civilians.

The current mood of grief and anger has brought us dangerously close to a war in which America punishes others not because of their ideology or religion or territorial transgressions, but simply for hating Americans—and that's something we've never seen in quite the same stark relief before.


The alternative to indiscriminate retribution is to seek justice. The problem is how to get there from here: how to extract a handful of suspects from their hiding places and pass judgement on them fairly and impartially. Sometimes I read the news and feel that behind all the angry rhetoric, this is the careful approach that Bush and his allies are taking; at other times all I can see is the angry rhetoric. Unfortunately, seeking only justice seems hopeless: surely the Taliban won't surrender their ally without a fight? So we prepare to cut through a difficult extradition process with tanks and bombs, in the name of the 'civilised' world.

Right now I can't imagine how we can reach a situation where Bin Laden is taken peacefully into custody and stands trial, but in this time of surrealpolitik, maybe even this is possible. So what would justice be, if he was proven after due process to have masterminded these attacks?

I've never written about it here, but I don't support the death penalty. Not because it's cruel—I'm sure it is, but then so is life imprisonment—or unusual—because sadly it isn't. I oppose it because innocent people are sometimes its erroneous victims, because I believe it exceeds the terms of the social contract that underpins the modern democratic state (sorry, a pol sci argument for another day), and because for those truly evil criminals who supposedly deserve it, it isn't an effective punishment.

If you believe in heaven and hell, you might believe that sending murderers to 'meet their maker' will deal out a greater punishment than we ever could on earth. If you don't believe in an afterlife—as I don't—then you can't believe this. Once they're dead, their punishment ends with them; the only one they'll receive is while they're alive. Not that this justifies creating hell on earth for them by torture or other vindictive means; that would be barbaric. No, a civilised response would be more subtle.

What punishment should be dealt to someone who passionately believes that America and the West are the enemies of Islam and should be cruelly provoked into a holy war in which they will be utterly crushed? I would say, after removing him from society to a place of imprisonment so that he can no longer give effect to his evil dreams, you should keep him alive. Keep him alive to watch the West and the East live together in peace, as friends. And work as hard as possible to make sure that that peace and that friendship are real and lasting.

Give him a 'good news' report every day. He'll hate it. It will render meaningless and fruitless everything he has believed and fought for. He would rather you executed him. Hitler didn't commit suicide in his bunker because he feared death; surely he feared losing, and all its long-term repercussions for his thousand-year Reich. And the British of the early 19th century sentenced their greatest enemy, Napoleon, to exile rather than execution.

Living well is the best revenge.

Tuesday, 18 September 2001

In a way I was lucky last week. All of the other things going on in my life—moving house, attending a conference here in Edinburgh—left no time to write about my first reactions here; all I could do was talk about them with those around me. But if I don't write about it all here now, I don't know what else I can write. I can hardly write what I was planning to, as outlined in a note to myself last Tuesday morning:

The Victorian nature of the UK (population doubled to 40M in C19, buildings mostly of that age except for old centres). Cf Australia and its ancient wilderness instead of ancient monuments. Cf America, and wonder if people in 100 years will look at it and think the same of all its predominantly C20 architecture.

...with follow-up musings about when the American century would actually end, in the way that the British century ended when Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo.

I hadn't expected it would be that very day.

I don't mean that America is down for the count, any more than Britain was in the second half of last century, for all of its relative decline. I'm talking about the sense of self-confidence, even invincibility, that was the hallmark of the Victorians and was lost in the trenches of World War I, the same sense that we saw until last Tuesday in America and by association the Western world. Is it completely gone? Will it return?

I admire that confidence; its infectiousness is what made me want to move to the US last year. Late Victorian Britain would doubtless have held the same attraction, and a hundred years ago I'd have been heading to London. I feel that way even though I've spent years studying the failings and legacies of British colonialism, deplore its excesses and have great sympathy for its victims. So does this make me a hypocrite?, I ask myself now.

I come from a fairly cynical country. A country that was built on irony before it became '90s chic. A country with a reasonable measure of confidence, but always believing that Murphy's Law (whatever can go wrong, will) ultimately prevails. That cynicism emerged as protection against the harsh natural and social landscape of nineteenth-century Australia. In the twentieth century, though, it meant missed opportunities: inventions and innovations taken elsewhere because we didn't seem to believe that we could develop them ourselves. Often, elsewhere was America, a place with the confidence minus the caution.

Confidence without caution, though, is over-confidence; and over-confidence leads to mistakes and excesses, as Australians (and many of the British) enjoy pointing out. We love nothing more than cutting a 'tall poppy' down to size, whether it's a failed celebrity or the Greatest Nation On Earth. Some have been indulging in such analyses even this past week, in a way that seems heartless and ill-timed to many Americans. (Which doesn't mean that there's no truth to them—just not much tact.)

But just as Americans have been forced by Tuesday's events to reassess their self-confidence and temper it with a previously unknown sense of vulnerability, the rest of us in the West are forced to reassess our cynicism.

The problem with Australian cynicism about British and American imperialism (for want of a less provocative term) is that we aren't any better. We're the product of the former, and have benefitted from the latter; and we've perpetuated our own ignomonies and inequalities—on a smaller scale only because of our smaller population—throughout the hundred years of our glorious independence. For three-quarters of the last century we were a colonial power too. We've treated indigenous peoples badly; we've treated minorities badly; a few short weeks ago we were righteously and indignantly treating refugees badly—refugees from the very same regime that we now condemn as the evil perpetrators of Tuesday's unconscionable crime. Ahh, but at least we're cynical about it.

'But that's hardly all of us,' some might respond, and of course I'd agree, because it ain't me either. Australians are a diverse people, not all of whom approve of the actions of their governments or their fellow citizens. So—Americans are a uniform breed of oppressive capitalist robots, are they? Funny, I thought bigger populations led to more diversity, not less.

Surely such stereotyping has to stop here. We've just seen its extreme: a stereotyping that allowed every American to be identified with their vast country's every failing and mistake, and indiscriminately targetted and 'punished' as a result. This was evil, we all know. And yet our more moderate cynicism has fostered stereotypes of its own, targetted just as indiscriminately; not evil, certainly, but are they even helpful?

If American confidence is completely gone in the form that we knew it, we'll all miss it, one way or another. It may have led to mistakes, but it was a powerful source of energy and a force for change, much of it good, much of it positive. Who wants to live in a cautious, nervous age?


Stepping back, taking stock.

I went through the same emotions as everyone, I suppose: disbelief, amazement, shock, fear. The same feelings being rehearsed in a thousand newspapers and a thousand weblogs.

It's been a slightly different process for me, though, in that I haven't had a television while this has happened. (Funnily enough, during the last huge news story—Diana's death in 1997—I had no TV either.) No live pictures of collapsing towers, no endless reruns, no shocked newsreaders, no sounds of screaming. I just had to imagine it, in those hours on Tuesday afternoon spent reading the first news on the web.

But I'll never forget walking into the newsagent on Wednesday and seeing a dozen different piles of papers, all with full-page cover photographs in blue and orange and black. I'll never forget opening up The Guardian and seeing the cloud over New York spread over two giant wordless pages. (Now there's an effect the web can't match.) I'll never forget the photos of a crowd looking up in utter amazement, and another crowd running in horror from the collapse (and I wonder: who had the presence of mind to take those pictures, when the urge would surely be to turn and stare or run themselves?).

Then: depression, fear, the sense that nothing would ever be the same.

And: sadness and pity for Arab-Americans, who would surely be caught up in a backlash. (And not only in America. Yesterday a London mini-cab driver was left paralysed after being beaten up by three drunk youths; he is Afghan; God knows what they were.)

Later, after the first 48 hours, other thoughts and sorrows. Extreme relief that my brother and sister-in-law's trip to New York wasn't for a couple more weeks. Sadness that we didn't travel here via New York as we'd been considering doing, because it will seem a very different place after this. Doubts about any travel plans or dreams: who knows how possible or easy that will be in coming months and years, with everything seemingly headed towards war; the easy international flights of the past could be a long time returning. Feelings of being stranded from home, even as we've just moved into our new one. And gladness, too, that we have seen so much of the world over the past few years, rather than putting it off.

Minor worries compared to those of thousands right now. But they're small indications of larger crises facing the world. The decline of international air travel and tourism is no small matter: whole economies hinge upon it, and even a few percentage points would create hardship for thousands the world over. Since we're almost certainly talking about more than a few percentage points, global recession seems inevitable.

That's assuming, of course, that we don't go to war.


At a time like this it's unfashionable to be a pacifist, but I've seen too much. I've seen with my own eyes the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima and the bombed-out cathedral in Coventry; I've seen the endless crosses of American WWII airmen in Cambridge, and the endless graves of POWs near the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi; I've seen Anne Frank's house, the memorial at Pearl Harbor, the bullet-scarred buildings of Berlin. I've seen the ruins of a century soaked in atrocities and murders, and I can't convince myself that these can be isolated and contained, cordoned off into 'good' murders and bad.

Yes, it is awful, awful, awful to think of those thousands dead in New York, and when I visit it again one day all my thoughts will be of last week. But: will millions of dead bring those thousands back? Will years of war undo those minutes of horror? Or will they add horror upon horror upon horror?

The Victorians who went to war over a dead Archduke at least had the excuse of ignorance about what lay ahead. We have no such excuse: we can make a pretty damned good guess. So, do we trade a century of promise for one of despair?

Some, at least, are calling for justice, not war, and perhaps there is still hope that America's leaders can keep their heads and recognise the distinction. Justice certainly does not involve bombing people for the crimes of their oppressors.

Justice means something else, I think, and if I can keep my thoughts straight (and don't get overtaken by events) I'll write about it tomorrow, in an attempt to purge all of this for a while. Right now, I'm going back to a small flat in a small city in a small country, and feeling thankful for their smallness.

Thursday, 13 September 2001

Everything else seems trivial by comparison.

All this talk of retribution is understandable. But can the US, can NATO, can the West go to war when we have spent fifty years building around us the means of our own destruction? Any Western aggression would invite retaliation, as we have now been so awfully shown.

Fifty-two years ago, the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb ushered in four decades of hostility tempered only by an acute awareness of our shared vulnerability. I never thought I would hope for another Cold War, with its atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and precariousness, but now I do. I wish for a long, uneasy stand-off that gives us all the time to go about the mundane, everyday business of life. Because uncertainty is better than horrified certainty; fearing death is better than dealing it; and a precarious peace is better than war.

And now, a word from a reader of (I assume) this flippant and somewhat out-of-date page at Speedysnail:


Well now, that sure deserves to be printed out in a size suitable for framing. 'Speedysnail: Just Another Example of the Mindless Clutter Already on the Internet.' And it's certainly reassuring to know that there are people out there who actually need to verify their own age for no obvious reason. As for having 'a whole site dedicated to nothing', how can I complain about praise that puts me in the most exalted of company?

So thanks for the kind words, 'john' of 'just hit hit reply........' (it's a cgi mail form; I don't know your email address unless you tell me). A bill for my 'services'—at the very reasonable rate of 0.00 cents per hour—is on its way.

Tuesday, 11 September 2001

So now I've got this shiny new layout and I'm hardly posting about anything except the shiny new layout. Sorry about that. I'm building up a great store of things I want to talk about here, but I'm just too busy. Picking up the keys to the new flat in half an hour, and we move in over the next couple of days. And—with perfect timing—there's a conference here over the next three days, starting in an hour. See you Friday.

Monday, 10 September 2001

One of my favourite travel moments was riding the trams in Berlin and realising where the sample at the start of U2's 'Zoo Station' came from. Now there's a whole site built on the same sampling ethic [via MeFi].

Friday, 7 September 2001

Now this is exactly what I needed on a Friday afternoon: Berkeley Breathed at the Onion AV Club [via The Nubbin].

I think I've got the design issues all sorted now. Everything lines up in IE5, NS6 and Opera 5 for Mac, and it's adequate in NS4.77; I've changed the background graphics on the left to GIFs to improve them on a PC; I've darkened the outer background so that it looks more like cobble-stones to avoid further confusion (mea culpa); and a quick glance at IE5 for PC shows it's looking okay there. Phew.

Newspaper quote of the week (Metro, local freebie, 6 September):

Meanwhile, a leading Nasa scientist is due to arrive in Scotland today to discuss plans for growing potatoes in space.


With the countdown to moving-in well and truly happening, our lives have turned into one long round of furniture stores. Habitat was at least a manageable size. Ikea was an aircraft hanger, filled with birch-veneer boxes with names like 'Ektorp' and 'Toksvig' and 'Groggi'; just when we thought we'd made it to the end of the store, we emerged into the warehouse section with its rows and rows of prepackaged Ektorps—and ran screaming into the night. I am Rory's sense of discontent.

Wednesday, 5 September 2001

It's quiet. Not just because the Fringe has ended—although that made a noticeable difference to the feeling on the streets around here last week—but because we have no TV in our temporary flat, no radio, no stereo, no home computer, no nothin'.* For the first time in years** I've been ploughing through novels at a rate of knots (or one every few days; not much of a rate of knots, come to think of it). I keep meaning to review some of them here, but the more books I've read the further behind I've got. So before things get way out of hand, here they are:

Neal Stephenson, The Big U. His long out-of-print first novel, now reissued; good crazy stuff set in a giant university dorm, surprisingly similar to later Stephenson in its relentless build to an over-the-top climax. Stephenson doesn't rate it highly nowadays, but methinks he doth protest too much; it's fine.

Robert Charles Wilson, Darwinia. Science fiction in the alternative history vein, or so it seems for the first third of the book, as explorers venture into the heart of a strange new continent that has mysteriously replaced Europe overnight in 1912. In these early pages Darwinia has shades of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. As the explanation for Europe's mysterious transformation becomes clearer, though, it turns into cosmos-spanning SF of an entirely different kind. The transition isn't handled perfectly, but the book is full of good ideas, and on the whole it works.

Matthew Kneale, English Passengers. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize and winner of the Whitbread. I bought this because: (a) I read his first novel years ago, and remembered enjoying it; (b) it's largely set in 19th century Tasmania; (c) it's also set in the Isle of Man, where my grandmother was born; (d) one of the characters is a nutty creationist pastor, and another is a rum smuggler. It turned out to be a great read, probably my favourite novel of the year. I quickly searched out his previous one, Sweet Thames, set in the cholera-stricken London of 1849, which is similarly—but not quite as—good. There are some interviews with Kneale at Bold Type, The Guardian, and WhatAmIGoingToRead.

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity and Fever Pitch. I figured it was about time I caught up with everybody else by reading these. The former is uncannily similar to the film, considering it's set in a whole different country, and is just as satisfying in its depiction of male obsession; the latter is readable and insightful even for a reader who isn't English or a football fan, since it's as much about, er, male obsession as it is about Arsenal. I'll have to read his later novels now to see how he writes about themes other than male obsession. [Obligatory Hornby link.]

Michael Frayn, Headlong. Another Booker nominee, from 1999 this time. Frayn often writes comedy, but this hardly is; instead, it follows an English academic's attempt to con a neighbour out of what he believes is a long-lost painting by Bruegel. Sort of an academic thriller; Frayn artfully entwines the history of the painting and the tale of its pursuit, and by the end you've learnt all about Bruegel and the 16th century Netherlands, a grim and fascinating place.

David Baddiel, Whatever Love Means. Out of all of the recent UK-comics-turned-novelists, Baddiel is shaping up as one of the best. His second novel isn't comedy in any shape or form, though; it's a serious dissection of infidelity, set against the backdrop of the 1997 hysteria following Princess Diana's death. The final resolution is a tad predictable, but still handled well enough; more satisfying are the various asides on life, death and, well, whatever love means.

Ben Hatch, The Lawnmower Celebrity. Just finished this, and it's the funniest book I've read in ages. Imagine a cross between Adrian Mole and Holden Caulfield, with a BBC manager for a father and a penchant for losing jobs and crank-calling celebrities. It seems that it's more than a touch autobiographical. The story takes a turn for the serious as it goes on, but is none the worse for that; I'd recommend it unreservedly.

It's times like this I remember why I love fiction. Then, inevitably, the reverie breaks, usually with the return of a television set. We're going to hold out for as long as we can this time around, though. Want to make sure we didn't ship over all those books and CDs for nothing.

*Not for much longer, though. The deposit has been paid, the mortgage has been offered. All we have to do is sign some papers and pick up the keys, and the flat is ours. We take possession next Tuesday, and our stuff from Oz gets delivered the next day. Can't wait.

**Four. We didn't have a TV during our four months in New Zealand, either.

Welcome Stranger, Clive James's new webcasting venture; and more Clive. (Who?)

Tuesday, 4 September 2001

I've now had two readers mistake the background image for a keyboard, which while it's somewhat appropriate isn't actually what I intended. It's a picture of cobble-stones in Parliament Square on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, with the saltire—Scotland's flag of St Andrew's Cross—fading in on the top left. Unfortunately, not only has this design fallen victim to the usual CSS discrepancies (some of them now corrected), I'm now up against cross-platform differences in JPEG rendering, which is beyond my humble coding powers to correct. All my careful fades and subtle colours get blasted into chunky stripes of grey on a PC. Maybe GIFs would work better. Maybe raw bitmaps or layered Photoshop documents pumped down a honking great T1 line would work better. Maybe I should give up and go back to flat backgrounds in one of 212 exciting web-safe colours.

Anyway, it's readable.

Spent the weekend with Maria Trip, Hendrickje Stoffels, and Rembrandt van Rijn. Always good to see old friends.

Caught between saying nothing about the Tampa affair or having to say everything, which I don't have time to do, I'll simply point to these two articles in The Age. Greg also has some good comments on it all.