Saturday, 31 March 2007

War relief

Poached from this blog, which also has an image of what might be called extreme urban fishing.

Of course, it's far more fun if you ask them to take their helmets off first.

Chocolate Christ gets licked

Tasteful? Well, obviously not. Bannable? Apparently, yes. This statue of a hanging man made entirely out of chocolate and drawing on a familiar religious icon for its inspiration has attracted the ire of something called the Catholic League, a non-elected body with the power to determine what the rest of us see. (It appears to be using the term catholic in its lower case sense: i.e. it welcomes bigots of all denominations.)

They have two complaints. The material used: 200 lbs of chocolate. And the fact that the genitalia are visible.

There's a statue in St Peter's in Rome whose sandalled foot has been worn mirror-smooth by the hands of the faithful. Who's to say how long this artwork's choccy dick would have survived its worshippers' oral attentions?

If you'd like to know more, click here for the article in today's Guardian. In the meantime, let's hope the chocolate wasn't made by Nestlé: with the Swiss company's reputation in the third world, that really would be a thorny moral issue.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Cat with mug

The other post may have shown the mug in all its beauty, but the cat lost out.

Now it's looking at you.


It pays to advertise

I thought I'd go with Google's offer to give me money in return for space on my blog. Which is why you'll see a tasteful pale blue rectangle in the top right hand corner whenever you visit me. Naturally, the more often you click on the ad the more I earn, so I expect you to do your best.

The only problem so far is that, being Google, it seems to work on key words and phrases. In my case, presumably on the strength of the recent post about dead pets (entitled Loved Ones: see below), it's decided this blog is an ideal place to advertise sites selling grief management, memorial websites, mortuary services - the gloomier the merrier, so to speak.

So if you notice future posts with cheerful titles that are quite unrelated to the substance of the post (e.g. party time! followed by an attack on homophobia in Zimbabwe), don't be surprised. I'm just trying to throw Adsense off.

Oh yes, after only two days I've made seventy cents. Looking good...


Almost four years ago, Piero Ricca accused Silvio Berlusconi of being a buffoon as the then-PM left a courtroom during one of his many trials for corruption and generally illicit business activities. Ricca, a freelance journalist and the son of a magistrate, was fined €500. The Supreme court subsequently annulled the fine, partly on the grounds that the fact that the insult was used in the corridors of a tribunal was legally irrelevant, and remarking that such a site was, in fact, particularly suitable for a judgement of this type, bearing as it did on Berlusconi's respect, or lack of it, for the law.

Even without the annulment, Ricca would have got off lightly compared to the
unfortunate Mr Oliver Jufer, a long-time Dutch resident in Thailand, who stands to serve ten years for defacing an image of the Thai monarch. For more details click here.

Holiday in Phuket anyone? I'll bring the paint.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Mug with cat

Vanessa Gebbie has recently posted some very attractive photos of her new mug. Never knowingly outdone, I photographed one of my own favourite mugs, sadly handleless and relegated to the humbler role of pen-holder. Beside it is a small wooden cat Jane carved some years ago, which has graced my desk ever since with its lopsided charm.

Emergency response

PeaceReporter and Emergency, the humanitarian organization founded by Gino Strada to provide medical care to civilian victims of war, landmines and poverty, have started a petition calling for the release of Rahmatullah Hanefi, head of Emergency's hospital at Lashkargah. Rahmatullah Hanefi was instrumental in organizing the liberation of the Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Following Mastrogiacomo's departure, Hanefi was seized from his home by Afghan secret police; since then, no one has been allowed to see or speak to him. No charges have been made, but there are eye-witness accounts that he is being tortured.

The petition also calls for the release of Mastrogiacomo's interpreter,
Adjmal Nashkbandi, seized at the same time as the journalist .

You can sign the Italian version
here. If you want it in English, click here.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Loved ones

I was reading an LRB review of what appears to be an extremely interesting book by Alice Kuzniar, dealing with the dog-human relationship and called Melancholia's Dog, and this image, seen in the Guardian round-up of readers' pictures for 2006, came into my head.

This is the caption that accompanies it:

This is a special image for me of my dog Charlie, who passed away this August. I used the clippings from a trim he had during the summer heatwave to create the image, which reminds me of the mischief he regularly got into.

Kuzniar talks about mourning in her book, and refers to a photograph by Sally Mann showing a piece of skin taken from the corpse of her beloved greyhound, Eva, on which ribs and other bones from Eva have been lined up. The photograph is entitled 'What Remains, 2003'. She comments:

Although Sally Mann might be accused of uncovering and publicly displaying what is intensely personal, namely the remains of a loved one, by representing finitude and loss she militates against how grief over a pet is socially foreclosed.

If this is true of Sally Mann, it's even truer of Charlie's owner.

Time and money

I have Tom Raworth to thank for leading me to this as well, by Ed Dorn:

Beau Coup

For the capitalist, time is money
(he bets by the hour, lately by the minute)
For the artist money is time

For more by Dorn, click here.

Books and covers

This, from Tom Raworth's blog, is too good to miss.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

On Chesil Beach: a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar...

I've just been reading the extract printed in today's Guardian from the new Ian McEwan novel, to be published next month, and it seems to confirm a tendency that first became evident in Atonement and, alas, all too explicit in Saturday. What looked like the attractive, even accomplished pastiche of a certain kind of genteel English fiction in the first section of Atonement, a tone reminiscent of the novels of, say, Elizabeth Taylor or Rosamund Lehmann, developed into the cumbersome and mannered gravitas of Saturday. In both cases, the choice of style might be justified: in the former by period setting; in the latter by voice. But already it was beginning to grate in the second novel, regardless of its inappropriateness, for its arch and slightly pompous monotony.

Things look even worse in the new novel. In this passage, the heroine is taking off her shoes:

When Florence reached the bedroom, she released Edward's hand and, steadying herself against one of the oak posts that supported the bed's canopy, she dipped first to her right, then to her left, dropping a shoulder prettily each time, in order to remove her shoes. These were going-away shoes she had bought with her mother one quarrelsome rainy afternoon in Debenhams - it was unusual and stressful for Violet to enter a shop. They were of soft pale blue leather, with low heels and a tiny bow at the front, artfully twisted in leather of darker blue. The bride was not hurried in her movements - this was yet another of those delaying tactics that also committed her further.

Who is supposed to be watching this laboured over-detailed scene? Florence, who sees herself as "dropping a shoulder prettily"? Her new husband, presumably a shoe fetishist ("artfully twisted in leather of darker blue"!)? Or maybe it's just the novelist, intent on dragging the moment out for as long as possible. Amusingly, the moment is later recalled as "she was the one who had [...] removed her shoes with such abandon", suggesting that McEwan hasn't even bothered to read himself.
Abandon? Delaying tactics?

In the writing's attempt to be exhaustively attentive to the characters and the situation, what comes across most strongly is the dreadful awkwardness of it, as it lapses from long-winded to precious to, unwittingly, ludicrous. There are numerous examples:

Edward's face was still unusually pink, his pupils dilated, his lips still parted, his breathing as before: shallow, irregular, rapid. His week of wedding preparation, of crazed restraint, was bearing down hard on his body's young chemistry.
"Bearing down hard on his body's young chemistry"? What kind of mixed register is this? It strikes me as 'fine writing' of the worst sort. It ought to be young body, of course, not young chemistry, but McEwan presumably thinks his version sounds more literary. It's a pity he didn't think harder, then, before using clichés like "a trapped moth" (yes, it flutters) and "a startled gazelle" (that's right, it leaps). And then there are repetitions of structure and form that should have been picked up, if not by McEwan himself, by his editor.

For example, in this passage, the grammatical echo may have been desired. But I doubt it:

Edward's hand did not advance - he may have been unnerved by what he had unleashed - and instead rocked lightly in place, gently kneading her inner thigh. This may have been why the spasm was fading, but she was no longer paying attention.

Hmm. I'm not surprised.

Friday, 23 March 2007

I've fallen in love with John Callahan

You can find more (and even more gleefully offensive) animations of this sort here.

Gaultier makes career leap

An incentive, if it's needed, to visit John Callahan's site. You'll find the cartoon to the right under Hate Mail from America. In this specific case the hate mail is from from Dale K., Plantation, who doesn't like the cartoon at all. He ends his letter:

If the editors have any concrete and worthy reason for having printed that Callahan cartoon, they best write it down so they won't forget what it is when they are called to explain themselves to the "Executive Editor" of the "Final Edition."

Women in wartime (2)

If you'd like to see more of Patrizia Casamirra's extraordinary collection of photographs of women in wartime (in Argentina, Bosnia, Guatemala, Palestine and Rwanda), get hold of a copy of this week's Internazionale.

And don't miss the cartoon on p. 78, just next to the crossword, by the wonderful John Callahan.

O. Henry Prize Stories 2007

Well, here it is! It's got stories by William Trevor, Alice Munro, Ariel Dorfman, Justine Dymond, Eddie Chuculate, Vu Tran, Richard McCann, Joan Silber, Yannick Murphy, Tony D’Souza, Rebecca Curtis, Brian Evenson, Sana Krasikov, Bay Anapol, Jan Ellison, Adam Haslett, Christine Schutt, Andrew Foster Altschul, Susan Straight and, er me.

You can pre-order it here in the UK and here in the US.

Go on, treat yourself. You deserve it.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Elton speaks out

Threatened by homophobes in Tobago, Elton John has been saying some important things recently. You can find out more in this article from today's Independent, but I'd like to draw your attention to this bit:

Mr Hernandez has publicly accused a congressman from the opposition Christian Democratic Party, Robert Parker, who is the main champion of the amendment proposal, of fomenting new violence against homosexuals.

He has also laid blame on the Catholic Church, noting that the Bishop of El Salvador, Monsignor Saenz Lacalle, has referred to gay people as "sick" and "perverted". He claims that the Catholic charity Caritas has a policy of not extending a hand of help to anyone in El Salvador who is homosexual.

Is this true? Maybe someone who knows how Caritas operates here in Italy can shed some light on the matter?

And if you'd like to know more about the courageous Mr Hernandez and many others like him, click on Doug Ireland's wonderful blog, Direland.

Just a taste of what you can see...

... on the blog of a dear friend and someone I've known all her life. You'll find more at Erranti Erotici Eretici.

Insults: fascist style

One of Berlusconi's house newspapers, Il Giornale, published an interview last week with the man responsible for Tourism and Sport in Lombardy, the region that includes Milan and is still controlled by the centre-right alliance, such as it is. Piergianni Prosperini, ex-Northern Leaguer and now member of the former fascist party, National Alliance, announced that homosexuals, and particularly those who had demonstrated against the pope and in favour of civil unions (DICO), should be executed as deviants.

He was even thoughtful enough to suggest the best tool for the job. A garrotte. But not a Spanish garrotte, presumably on the grounds that, with Zapatero in power, anything from Spain is too gay-friendly. What's needed, apparently, is the Apache garrotte, which, twisted round the head, 'makes the brain explode'.

National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini has, to his credit, demanded Prosperini hand back his party card. But Prosperini's not happy. After having pointed out that the Apache garrotte doesn't actually exist (so he made it up? so that's an excuse?) he said that, despite having nothing against homosexuals, it was obvious that they should never be allowed to be teachers, soldiers, football coaches, or gym instructors. How very specific this all is. It's almost as if the lovely Piergianni (see photograph) had direct knowledge of the
very special attractions such jobs might hold.

Insults: Taliban style

Daniele Mastrogiacomo, the Repubblica war correspondent captured by Taliban forces in Afghanistan almost three weeks ago and released on Tuesday, has written a long, informed and moving account of his time as a prisoner. He had a particularly gruelling time of it, both physically and mentally, though not as rough as his driver, who was beheaded after having his throat cut.

The most salient parts of the article were translated by Peter Popham and published in yesterday's Independent. One detail though, is missing from Popham's edited version: the term used by the Taliban to insult the Italian journalist.

Tony Blair.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The shallowest dream...

...I've ever had.

Rupert Everett and two ageing English actresses I recognise but can't name arrive at an airport with a sign saying Rupert Everett airport above the entrance. Everett leaves the plane and sweeps in to the airport, leaving the actresses behind him.

One of the actresses says to the other: I don't think Rupert's a big enough diva to warrant his own airport.

Hmm, says the other one. Rupert does.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Love is all you need (and it's free!)

If you know of any priests, pastors, vicars, bishops, hey, even popes who need a little TLC, direct them to this site.

They'll never be able to thank you enough.

I'm a world classic... in Thai

My story SOAP is in very good company on this site.

(OK. It's coming next. But I'm still rubbing shoulders with Henry James and Turgenev.)

Pity Wanakam never asked, of course.

O. Henry Prize

I've had to keep quiet about this for over six months, but now that my story is about to be performed at the University of Austin, Texas, on Tuesday (for details click here), I can tell you that THE SCENT OF CINNAMON, first published by One Story in November 2005, has been chosen as one of the O.Henry prizewinning short stories for this year.

The anthology should be coming out in May, but I'll keep you posted.

I'm delighted. And if you happen to be in Austin on Tuesday and see the show, tell me about it!

Friday, 16 March 2007


Time for a little poetry after so much unpleasant and utterly disrespectful ranting. This poem, written 33 years ago, was published in a fugitive collection entitled Of Western Limits, containing my work and poems by John Wilkinson, ostensibly written during a walking holiday we went on in Scotland and intended to be a Lyrical Ballads for our generation. There's certainly a copy in the British Library and there may even be one in the Cambridge University Library. I have one myself, unbound, and I imagine John does too. And that's it. It's dedicated to Charlie Bulbeck, who printed the collection and conspired with its authors in various other undertakings of a cultural nature.

The Gift has apparently been referred to as 'the great lost work of the Cambridge school'. (Once more, I have John to thank for this information.)

Well, it's lost no longer.

for Charlie Bulbeck

Where we drive it is stubborn,
parked on the cliff edge it comes
with dawn. By inclusive reckon
each meed recovers its promise,
drifts home, a treasured account

in the nervous rein. Only a
loose prize, caustic on
the parabolic curve of tin,
burnished, you might reflect,
in whose pervasive ardour.

We are spelt, as grammar and
glamour cohabit in the patch;
a scholar’s trick. We conjure
allotments, ravishing in this
bright arena, with subtle poise

down the borders of light.
From scattered harvest, neap
touches the high-water mark,
rummage of golden oddments
scooped in, the sight of grain.

Forgiven by the bollard, by
the gleaming trim of the hub,
you reap, compacted to your
lunar metric. An occult
precipice and the flank of

achievement is bare, enticing.
It is sleight of hand, the boy
looks open mouthed as the conjurer
cuts down the stalk, a white bird
shimmering on his sleeve.

And this is the gift it brings:
refracted on the car, in sight
of the coastal acres, scoured
haloes of sunlight ‘as solid
and dense and fixed’ as

you can hope to secure it.
Arrest that flame, coals glint
and the flue is absolved by this
shiny token it palms you, tanned
still, elated in the fluent breeze.

Frozen warnings from Nico

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Follow the yellow brick road, but not to Tobago

This comes from popbitch and seems an appropriate appendix to the previous post:

Next month's Plymouth Jazz Festival in Tobago features a headline appearance by Elton John. Not all islanders approve. Breakfast TV show Rise & Shine this week had a phone-in about Elton. Presenters refused to condemn a caller who thought Elton should be subjected to earthly hellfire for his "poisonous" lifestyle, while another asked, "Is it your understanding that he is planning a hideous nude gay orgy on stage or in private during his visit?" Callers complaining about the homophobia were told: "Opinions are like noses, everyone has one."

Now a Tobago lawyer has unearthed a section of the Trinidad and Tobago immigration code which bans self-professed homosexuals from entering the country, and a Church crusade is underway to try and make the government enforce it. Music fans on the island are hoping Elton manages to get through this gauntlet of hate...they say they'd rather LL Cool was banned from the jazz festival instead.

Archbishop Arsehole strikes again

A New York Times editorial had this to say on 8 March:

Denying Rights in Nigeria

A poisonous piece of legislation is quickly making its way through the Nigerian National Assembly. Billed as an anti-gay-marriage act, it is a far-reaching assault on basic rights of association, assembly and expression. Chillingly, the legislation — proposed last year by the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo — has the full and enthusiastic support of the leader of Nigeria’s powerful Anglican church. Unless the international community speaks out quickly and forcefully against the bill, it is almost certain to become law.

Homosexual acts between consenting adults are already illegal in Nigeria under a penal code that dates to the colonial period. This new legislation would impose five-year sentences on same-sex couples who have wedding ceremonies — as well as on those who perform such services and on all who attend. The bill’s vague and dangerous prohibition on any public or private show of a “same sex amorous relationship” — which could be construed to cover having dinner with someone of the same sex — would open any known or suspected gay man or lesbian to the threat of arrest at almost any time.

The bill also criminalizes all political organizing on behalf of gay rights. And in a country with a dauntingly high rate of H.I.V. and AIDS, the ban on holding any meetings related to gay rights could make it impossible for medical workers to counsel homosexuals on safe sex practices.

Efforts to pass the bill last year stalled in part because of strong condemnation from the United States and the European Union. Now its backers are again trying to rush it through, and Washington and Brussels need to speak out against it. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and one of the most politically influential. If it passes a law that says human rights are not for every citizen, it will set a treacherous example for the region and the world.

This is the Anglican church that the Archbishop of Canterbury recently favoured over the US Episcopalians (see my post: A question of priorities). I hope he's proud of himself.

Vatican CEO with bitch

This is what the Guardian had to say about the lovely Georg Gänswein shortly after "Eggs" Benedict came to power:

Born on July 30 1956, Gänswein grew up in Riedern am Wald, a tiny Bavarian village. He was ordained in 1984 and is a doctor of canon law from Munich University. He came to Rome in 1995 and was quickly on the Vatican fast track. In 1996, the then Cardinal Ratzinger asked him to join his staff, and he became a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, an institution affiliated to the secretive Catholic movement Opus Dei.

Those who know him praise his efficiency and analytical ability. "He understands complicated issues within about 10 seconds and can give a clear and immediate answer," one Vatican source said. Gänswein is, though, more than just an impressive theologian. He is, like the man he serves, extremely conservative. "I think he is very dangerous," Daniel Deckers, the author of a biography of Germany's leading liberal cardinal, Karl Lehmann, said. "He's part of a small but very powerful group within the Catholic church. He will use his power to push Ratzinger in a certain direction.

"Deckers recalls travelling to Rome to meet Gänswein. "He's a good guy. He's very eloquent and can be very charming. But he came right up to me and said: 'Oh, you don't like us.' He referred to himself and Ratzinger as 'us', as if the two of them were an institution.

"With Gänswein as private secretary, there seems little hope that Benedict XVI will offer concessions on issues that alienate many from the Catholic church - the use of condoms, gay relationships or pre-marital sex. "You can forget it," one religious affairs writer said bluntly.

A trusted confidant of the last Pope, who made him a chaplain in 2000, Gänswein has worked as Ratzinger's secretary since 2003, and was one of the few aides allowed to give out press statements on John Paul's condition. In the Vatican, Gänswein and Ratzinger dine together, recently entertaining Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, the German socialite, according to reports in the Italian press. In Cologne last week, Gänswein was never far away from his boss - handing the 78-year-old Pope his reading glasses, or travelling with him on a cruise down the Rhine. He was there, too, when the Pope appeared on a hill beneath a flying saucer-shaped dome, for a vast open-air mass. (In his address to nearly 1 million pilgrims who had spent the night camped out in a muddy field, the Pope reminded the young Catholics that they had to obey all of the church's rules - not just the bits they liked. "That basically means no sex, doesn't it?" German pilgrim Malte Schuburt, 19, pointed out.)

Gänswein's critics even accuse him of turning the Pope into a fashion victim. This summer, Ratzinger and his secretary went on holiday to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, as well as to the Italian Alps at Valle D'Aosta. While both men were hiking in the hills, the Pope appeared in public wearing a Nike hat, designer Serengeti sunglasses and a Cartier watch. "This is Gänswein's style. It's his handwriting," one religious affairs writer said. "This is something I don't understand."

Gänswein's power derives partly from his place in the Pope's very small personal staff. Benedict's long-time assistant is Ingrid Stampa and he has four women - Carmela, Loredana, Emanuela and Cristina - who do domestic duties. They have taken nun's vows but do not wear habits. Pope Benedict writes everything in German in very small script, and Gänswein is one of the few who can read his writing.

So far, Gänswein does not enjoy the same power as Stanislaw Dziwisz, who spent 40 years at Pope John Paul II's side. Some have even dismissed him as the "Black Forest Adonis". Yet it is Gänswein who decides who gets to see the Pope, and who doesn't. He also protects his boss from the mound of papers on Benedict's desk. "He is the Pope's gatekeeper. This makes him a very powerful man," Deckers said.

It is not surprising, then, that the Pope's private secretary is already beginning to inspire dread in liberal Catholic circles. In Germany, the Catholic church is divided more or less between two figures - the liberal-conservative Cardinal Lehmann, the head of the German archbishop's conference, and the ultra-conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the Archbishop of Cologne. Both men were with the Pope last week. But it is no secret as to which Bishop the Vatican favours. "Gänswein is an opponent of Lehmann," one source in the German Catholic church said. "One of Ratzinger's great weaknesses is that his judgment of people isn't always sufficient. He has a small out-reach."

Just what we need: a pope with a 'small out-reach'...

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Notes from WYD 2005

I wrote this soon after returning from Cologne in the summer of 2005, but now seems an appropriate time to post it:

Tram No 7 is one of four trams that cross the Rhein from Deutzer Freiheit to Heumarkt. We could just as easily walk over the bridge, but the ritual of taking public transport makes us feel we belong here, beside the late-start commuters and pensioners with their small quaint dogs. We’ve been in Cologne for over a week and feel like old hands, our change counted out for the ticket machine on board, our mood relaxed.

So we’re startled and slightly miffed when the tram arrives to find it crammed with foreign teenagers squatting in the aisles on expensive brand new backpacks, shouting from one end of the tram to the other in a babble of tongues. Bare legs, the sort of serge-like dark blue shorts favoured by scouts on hefty legs, tanned or milky pale according to ethnic group. Already they seem to have separated out, like curds from whey; Italians loud and boisterous and turning inwards to their group, Americans dour, their backpacks protected by condom-like sheaths of coloured plastic, staring across the river towards the Dom, a sprinkling of Asiatics in cowls and dog collars lending a clerical air.

It’s been raining and dozens are draped in improvised protective wrappers, often flags. One girl, dark circles round her eyes, is sitting with a supermarket bag on her head, like a cloche. The habitual passengers have the air of embattled survivors under invasion. There are bursts of song, discordant and oddly hesitant. Anthems flare up, then stutter out. The strongest smell is of damp socks.

The fifteen-, maybe sixteen-year-old girl slumped in front of the ticket machine shrugs and sighs as Giuseppe eases his hand around her to touch the screen, her backpack still over the slot for the money, one Euro thirty. He asks her to move, politely, in English. She flounces to one side, the expression on her face a textbook example of Milanese affront. Un attimo, she snaps, and I watch Giuseppe resist the temptation to answer back in Italian as he feeds the appropriate coins into the slot. Thank you, he says, which seems to irritate her all the more, as he intends. By the time we have our tickets it’s time to get off.

Our house swap was arranged six months before we discovered that World Youth Day 2005 would be held in Cologne, and we couldn’t back out. We overlap with the event by two days, returning to Rome the morning Pope Benedict XVI arrives, our planes within spitting distance of each other somewhere above the Alps. An unwilling, often enraged, witness to WYD 2000 in Rome, I prefer to see the coincidence as just that, as bad luck; talk of fate plays too neatly into the hands of the people all round us, whom we’re supposed to call pilgrims I discover from the scrolling message on the bus stop at Heumarkt. Pilgrims. Pilgerin. Pellegrini. Pèlerins.

Special passes for public transport have been provided, so there’s no excuse for their grabbing a free ride, unless they only speak Japanese, which doesn’t appear on the scroll. I still feel that we’ve been followed though, despite myself. I wonder how many of the kids on the No. 7 have their pilgrim passes as they bustle across the street, the traffic light still red, the first shrill notes of something rousing on their lips, while the people of Cologne, obediently waiting for the bitte warten sign to change, just stand and watch.

Up to this morning, Cologne has been low key, as though nobody much cares about Ratzinger’s homecoming, trailing glory, about to become B16 just as his predecessor has been apostrophised to JP2. At WYD, acronyms rule. There are house-sized photographs of the two of them on the building diametrically opposite the cathedral, placed so that neither can see the other, nor anything else, their eyes aimed firmly horizonwards. Apart from that, and an iconoclastic Warholian portrait of the new pontiff in a nearby restaurant (see an earlier post), the city appears indifferent.

The porn shops, I discover later, are supposed to have cleaned up their windows, but Erotik für Damen still has an impressive display of double-headed dildos and pussy ticklers, while its neighbour flaunts a selection of studded cache-sexes alongside one with elephant ears and trunk in scarlet satin. There’s even a blow-up three-holed lovely in one shop made from the same pink plastic as the inflatable giant hands group leaders are holding above their heads to guide their flocks towards the cathedral.

The hands are the tip of the gadget iceberg, I discover. Apart from the T-shirts and baseball caps, registered pilgrims receive the official pilgrim package, containing a backpack with the WYD logo, refillable plastic bottle and biodegradable cutlery (15 Euro). Other merchandise includes candles of various dimensions, a silicon case for cell phones, lip balm and a chronograph with the legend Tempus fugit.

One of the items on the website is a technical description of the Popemobile. It has a getaway speed of 80 mph, just in case the armoured body isn’t enough. Inside, the footrest can be moved electronically. The organisers use the word pilgrim, but I’m not convinced. They’ve been flown and bussed here by the church’s travel agencies, with insurance against accident and theft included in the deal. They haven’t suffered. Their jeans are ironed. Their lunches packed.

A dozen French kids huddle round a stand of public telephones to call their homes. Individually, they look untried, untested, as though they’d been beamed down from the mother ship for some sort of initiation. They might be the vanguard of an invading force, or sacrificial lambs. It’s all a question of numbers, which must be why they move in anxious packs behind their flags and blow-up hands. It shouldn’t matter, but I’m struck by how many of them look like the kind of teenagers who get beaten up and bullied: overweight, nerdish, spot-disguising cream caked on their cheeks, unfashionable hair cuts. Wholesome, certainly. But wholesome multiplied by half a million turns into something else, uncontrollable and rather sinister.

When one pack passes another, there’s a surge of antagonistic pride and flag-waving, the equivalent of youths pushing each other to see how far they can go. The rest of us, lay tourists, citizens, don’t count. A small screaming woman in a black suit, carrying a briefcase, struggles to cross the Altermarkt, her voice distorted by exasperated rage, but nobody shifts their backpack or draws in their feet to let her pass. The Ludwig Museum foyer is filled with bivouacking youth but the only pilgrims prepared to buy tickets seem to be Americans, a group of whom use an installation of Patti Smith videos to improvise a picnic until they’re moved on by a visibly shocked custodian in his late fifties.

A show called Naked Drawings, political graffiti-like doodles by the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi covering the walls of a high-ceilinged white room (see an earlier post), attracts larger numbers, though what they make of his telegraphically astute comments on terrorism and global warming is hard to say. The twin-spired profile of the Dom runs through the drawings like a leitmotiv. In one sketch, the tower on the right says ‘I’m tired’ and the one on the left replies ‘Me too’, which neatly undercuts the aggressive-triumphal mood outside. In another, a man in a turban is standing alone in the centre of a tramcar, with the other passengers crushed at each end in their effort to avoid him.

In Peters Brauhaus our final evening, the waiter delivers another round of beers and schnapps to the next table, thirteen men and one woman speaking Canadian English. Their voices rise in the flow and warmth of alcohol and it isn’t difficult to overhear talk of community and Father Brice, who couldn’t come. The waiter’s a friend of ours by now. He downs a glass of the local Kölsch in one and confesses that the train ride to work was hell, too many people, too many pilgrims. ‘I think you are here for the Pope,’ he says, ‘but then you tell me you come from Rome and I think, no way.’ He smiles and clinks his empty glass against our almost full ones.

Crossing the bridge on foot, we watch a tram go past, flushed faces squashed against the glass. The Dom behind us is lit unearthly blue, the Romanesque apse of Saint Martin a warmer honey-coloured ochre. Beyond the railway bridge, one side of the building that houses the regional government is covered by part of the WYD logo, a swoosh of yellow, a star, suitably ecumenical. Halfway across the Rhine, we come up against the last few flag-bearing ragtag bands, all male by now, laddish as religious sentiment morphs into testosterone, and it could be anywhere, any provincial city after the match. They might as well be singing We Are the Champions, I think, and, as if on cue, some of them do. They’re primed for the Big Day, oiled up for some chance encounter. They’re up for it, whatever it is.

The sales of condoms in Rome rose by 30 percent during the 2000 edition; it may be only an urban myth that three tons of them (used) were collected after the Pope’s sermon, but I doubt it. I shouldn’t, I know, but I think of men the same age as these in Srebrenica and a hundred other places, this century and last. I think of them moving through Berlin, victorious, with everything allowed. And I’m anxious as I always am when faced by mobs. I unlink my arm from Giuseppe’s and move an inch or two away.

Grace... to be born and live...

Jane just sent me this photograph of a protest in Dalston Lane, in London, about houses and shops being demolished for some brand new city type development and it made me think of Grace Paley, who would no doubt be angry about such a thing.

So I looked out an interview with her, by A.M. Homes, that's a pleasure and an education to read.

The title to this post, by the way, comes from a Frank O'Hara poem, and continues... 'as variously as possible.' There can't be two writers whose lives are less similar than those of Paley and O'Hara. But I like to think that O'Hara would have endorsed wholeheartedly Paley's claim: All my habits are bad.

Chancelucky: I'll take the Constitution for a Thousand Alex (Jeopardy American Style)

Meanwhile, in another country....

Chancelucky: I'll take the Constitution for a Thousand Alex (Jeopardy American Style)

Natural law for beginners (and pontiffs)

Perhaps someone can explain to me exactly what the connection is between 'natural law' and a legal provision to enable someone to continue to live in his/her home after the death of his/her partner? Or to visit that partner in hospital? Or to have time off from work to look after him/her at home? Aren't these things not simply 'human rights', but common decency? Not according to the pope, they're not.

As Jeremy Bentham said: people invoke Natural Law when they wish to get their way without having to argue for it.

'Natural law' is a cultural construct, honey. Even in Latin. Live with it.


A clique of sex-obsessed old men in the Vatican continues its offensive against civil union legislation (read DICO) by stigmatising the demonstration last Saturday in Piazza Farnese as carnivalesque, hysterical, a masquerade and so on. As one who was there, I can tell them this simply isn't true, that the event was almost depressingly sober.

But--as is the case with most phobics--the truth doesn't seem to be what concerns them. Once again, ignoring the scope and purpose of the proposed legislation, that of ensuring a measure of economic security to couples bound by affection, regardless of sex and sexual orientation, l'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican house organ) accuses the demonstration of two cardinal sins: a lack of respect, and an inappropriate use of children.

It's both arrogant and mendacious to expect people who are constantly insulted, demeaned and denigrated to show respect for their denigrators. Respect is mutual, or not at all. And the casuistic papal tosh that the homosexual is worthy of respect as an individual but not as someone capable of giving and receiving love (and, yes, that includes sex) is the kind of nonsense it can apply to its own members if it wants, although it's signally failed to convince a significant number of priests, bishops, cardinals and even, dare I say it, pontiffs of this. But it certainly has no right to extend its magister to the rest of the population.

Besides, if a couple of papal hats made out of cardboard are all it takes to make a carnival, what on earth is the real thing supposed to be? And if a slogan saying the Devil wears Prada is so deeply offensive to Ratzinger why doesn't he think a little harder about the appropriacy of wearing designer clobber and rattling on about poverty? Presumably for the same reason he presides over an ostensibly celibate institution and 'defends the family' as natural law.

The presence of children at the demo appears to have been particularly galling to pontifical sensibilities. It's becoming increasingly clear that what perturbs Ratzinger et al. isn't the fact that gays are 'constitutionally sterile' (as Berlusconi's tart, Mara Carfagna, says), but that we're the opposite. We can have children! And we do! It's our sexual potency that's so disturbing. And the comments made yesterday by the Minister for the Family (and co-author of the draft bill), Rosy Bindi, to the effect that gay men and lesbians 'can forget children', is in line with this fear. But what on earth does she mean? That the law will annul the desire for maternity and paternity? That we'll have to be sterilised in order to share a pension? As a celibate herself, she clearly needs to learn a little about human ingenuity. If gays want kids, they'll have them. And if the law makes life difficult for gay couples and their children, it's the children who'll suffer. Is this what Bindi wants? Apparently yes. In a remark which appals on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin, she announced that it's better to leave a child in Africa, with its tribe (!), than to allow its adoption by a gay couple. Has she told Madonna? But that's OK. Millionaire absentee mothers and their male bitches (sorry, Guy!) are perfectly acceptable parents for African children...

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Credit where credit's due

My first class after ten months away. I explain what the course involves. I tell them what they'll be learning and how we'll be doing it and what book we'll be using, I give them the usual pep talk, making them feel good about they already know, excited about what they'll know in ten weeks' time. I'm funny, I'm warm, I'm encouraging, I'm student-friendly. I'm hot shit. This is what teaching is all about, I think.

Finally, I ask them if they have any questions. A hand shoots up.

'What happens if I fail the exam? How many credits will I get?'

Dispirited? Yes.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Reasons to be cheerful, if you're Peter Kay

This article will probably have been blogged by just about every struggling writer in the English-speaking world. So why should I be left out? Sob.

Any ideas who 'Jane' might be?

Better a queer citizen than a paedophile priest

The most provocative placard at yesterday's DICO event was probably this one. But look at the man's face. Could anything be sweeter?

A spotted dog

This dog was seen in London by Jane, hanging around outside a shop (the dog, not Jane) and its stance has that mixture of curiosity and patience that I love so much in dogs, a sort of brinkmanship they do even better than children, who tend to cross thresholds the minute they're not being watched; so I wanted to share it.

It's also here to make up for the fact that I didn't get a decent photograph of any of the many dogs that contributed so much to yesterday's demonstration. Let this one be their representative.

DICO day: impressions

The day after, there's the usual war of numbers: 20,000 according to the police, 80,000 for the organisers; La Repubblica's settled on 50,000. Whoever may be right (and I'd go with La Repubblica), Piazza Farnese was jammed with adults, children, dogs taking part in the protest in favour of civil unions, currently under attack from the centre-right, the Vatican and elements within the cnetre-left government, notably the Minister of Justice, Clemente Mastella (whose party polled 1.4% of votes in the last election), and Opus Dei member Paola Binetti, centre-left senator and, god help us, psychiatrist, who recently announced that homosexuality was deviant behaviour (and who is also known as a self-flagellant). The mood was contained, static, even dull; certainly not festive, despite the presence of a score or so of rainbow banners. A stall was selling the usual T-shirts, with Che Guevara, surely no homophile, prominent among them. Most of the flags belonged to political factions within the governing coalition (the Rose in the Fist, Rifondazione Comunista, the Greens), although several handwritten banners showed a camper, less party aligned spirit.

We were there to tell the government that civil unions are still on the agenda, whatever the Vatican and Andreotti might think, and three government ministers were there to tell us how right we were, although the promised presence of some centre-right representatives remained unfulfilled. It's obviously a cross-party issue, though, and it will be interesting to see how people vote when a bill of some sort reaches parliament. Cecchi Paone, television presenter and Forza Italia MP, apparently had a hissy fit and left the stage, but this was set so low only a privileged few could see it. There were very few police and some of those present were parked as usual outside the home of Cesare Previti, corrupter of judges and Berlusconi sidekick; the scaffolding against his building had the largest banner of the day, announcing Io DICO Zapatero! The Spanish PM was definitely the event's patron saint, and placards to his sanctity were scattered throughout the crowd.

There were none of the usual leather chaps framing bare bums, disco bunnies and male-on-male snogging that, for better or worse, tend to characterise gay protests, though I did see one couple of youngish men share a fairly chaste kiss. This was only fitting. After all, the law--if it ever exists--won't only protect gay couples, as civil partnerships do in the UK, but any two people bound by 'affective ties'. Even the highly-publicised wake-up alarm, which went off at six with the help of clocks, mobiles, etc, felt angry rather than shrill.

The only sour note occurred later, as Peppe and I walked through the centre of Rome. We were just past the Pantheon when we heard a waiter announce to no one in particular that Rome was full of queers. And today, there's news of the arrest of the latest Rumanian rentboy-cum-murderer, obliged to kill a man forty years older than he is to protect his honour. Business as usual in the shadow of the Vatican.

Friday, 9 March 2007

When your cavity needs a little filling

The dentist's chair is often a locus for sexual fantasies but I've never seen the notion expressed quite as blatantly as it is in this sign, spotted in Kingsland High Road and snapped by Jane.

And if you think the title to this post is gratuitous vulgarity (as of course it is), let me hastily refer you to its onlie begetter, Bette Midler, who wrote and performed the song it comes from: Long John Blues.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

A very few inches of theatrical criticism

Ostensibly reviewing Equus, the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh commented: “Never in modern times has such excitement been stirred by the prospect of viewing a very few inches of adolescent male flesh.”

Judging from his authoritative tone, De Jongh is an expert on the excitement to be derived from adolescent male flesh. All well and good: specialised sites, of which De Jongh is no doubt aware, have already dedicated a fair amount of space to Radcliffe's physique, photoshopped and otherwise. But I fail to see what this expertise has to do with the business in hand: that of reviewing the play.

And I certainly don't see the need to mention the length, or lack of it, of Radcliffe's 'male flesh' (a direct quote from Teleny)? After all, there's no mention in the review of Jenny Agutter's bra cup size, surely also of interest to London theatregoers?

Where are you, Kevin McCarthy, when we need you?

Flying back from London on Ryanair this morning I noticed that three members of the cabin crew had identical blemishes on the back of their necks. Naturally, I thought of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Is this an isolated case? Or has anyone else noticed the tell-tale sign of alien occupation on no-frills airlines?

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Air guitar? Air head?

You many have seen a photograph of Tony Blair, taken during his time at Oxford. Most commentators have focused on the gesture he's making with his right hand, offering a variety of interpretations, from the vulgar (masturbation) to the pathetic (air plectrum).
But nobody seems to have remarked on the look of utter open-mouthed vacuity and, surely, smugness on his face.

Has it ever been slapped? If not, why not?

Saturday, 3 March 2007

The natural order

Two friends and colleagues (lettori: if you don’t know what they are click on the label below) were summoned a few days ago to the office of a professor in their faculty, head of department and died-in-the-wool barone (ditto).

He showed them a 60-page wodge of text and tables and said that he needed the English translation within a week. You can share it out among yourselves, he added, with unexpected munificence. My colleagues glanced at each other, surprised. And with reason. This isn’t the place to provide a detailed job description of a lettore post, so I’ll simply say that the translation of university documents at the drop of a hat isn’t included.

One of my colleagues pointed out that each page would take at least an hour and a half and asked if the time they spent on the work, assuming they agreed to do it, would be taken out of their annual tot of hours. Barone bristled. I’m sorry? he said, looking up. Otherwise, how would we be paid? I beg your pardon? he said.

My other colleague, in her turn, pointed out that teaching was starting this week, so that, in any case, they would have no time. I also teach, said Barone. Yes, but not quite as much as we do, my colleague reminded him. (The ratio is something like 1:6, entirely in Barone’s favour.) She might as well have added, And nowhere near as well.

Deeply offended by such insolence, Barone swept them from his room. If you aren’t prepared to do it, he announced, I’ll find someone else. Rome is full of English people. His last words, as he closed the door in their faces with that subtle irony only years of professorship can forge, were: Grazie per la preziosa collaborazione.

They behave like this because they’ve been allowed to. Italian universities work on a fagging system Flashman would have recognised immediately. It’s perfectly normal for people to work for nothing for years: typing, baby-sitting, writing humdrum pseudo-research for non-peer-assessed publication and seeing their own names appear behind their sponsors, who’ve glanced at the paper once, if that.

Finally, their spirits broken, the first few crumbs are thrown their way (a doctorate, some contract teaching, an unpaid place on an exam commission) and the rise begins. No more toast-making at dawn, no more shoe-polishing. Research! They’re still expected to earn their keep, of course, but at least they’re being paid. At least they have tenure. And look, beneath them, a lower order of creature awaits to ease their load.

Our problem, as lettori, is that we don’t perceive ourselves as a lower order. We see ourselves as equals (and often, with justification, betters). They see us as serfs. It’s a cultural problem (which means it’s also, implicitly, racist) of incommensurability and I don’t see any way round it.

Oh yes, the document they were told to translate contained evaluations of the teaching staff (a category from which we’re officially excluded), conducted, apparently, by themselves.

This is how Italian structures do accountability. (Otherwise known as trasparenza.) Aaahh.

Art-lovers near Chard...

...should make an effort to see this exhibition, by Paola Casalino, a friend and a gentlewoman. It's at The Gallery at Hooked on Books, 6a Holyrood Street, Chard TA20 2AH. From 2 to 24 March.

There's also a private viewing on 11 March (Sunday) from 12 to 2pm. Tell her I sent you.