Wednesday, 31 October 2007


A treat I didn't expect is to be able to use this blog to refer you to other blogs featuring me, in this case the brand-new Picador blog. This is so onanistic I'm almost too ashamed to give you the link.


Tuesday, 30 October 2007


I've noticed that many of my labels (the little words at the bottom of each post - I know you knew, but still...) have only been used once. This seems a very uneconomical practice, so I thought I'd try to boost the numbers of a few by reviving a mnemonics exercise I was taught many years ago. It goes like this. If you want to remember something you should associate it with something else in as kinetic, colourful and, if possible, obscene a way as possible.

Now I'm not going to do this for you. I'm simply going to give you the pairs of words and let you do the associating. Here goes (and I'll start with an easy one):

Borghezio - buttplug
Larry Craig - body snatchers
bars - pottery
circumcision - Paris Hilton
Ratzinger - very dark cave
fatwa - eucharist
heritage - dementia
Rupert Everett - soap

I'll be testing you in the weeks to come. Don't let me down.

Toilet paper poll

I suppose I could plead, as disappointed statisticians so often do, that the sample is too small to be significant (and if you didn't vote, shame on you!). But that would be lily-livered of me, so I'll just have to be brave and accept that the results do not entirely bear out my initial hypothesis, developed with Jane and tested at numerous social gatherings, that men fold their paper and women crumple it. Let's take a closer look at the results.

Men who fold: 12 (48%)
Women who fold: 5 (20%)
Men who crumple: 3 (12%)
Women who crumple: 5 (20%)
None of the above: 0 (0%)

Until the rush of female voters (5) of the last few days, the first datum to be gleaned was either that more men than women visit the site or that men are more prepared than women to vote on such a delicate issue. The final difference, though, is trivially small (60% against 40%), so let's move on and see how they voted.

Well, an overwhelming majority of men do tend to fold, so no surprise there. It would be fascinating to track down the nationality/age/sexuality/political allegiances of the three male crumplers (you know who you are), but not really necessary. Twelve out of fifteen is conclusive enough for me. Obviously, it would be interesting now to know how many sheets they each fold at any one time, but there are limits to what a poll of this nature can achieve.

The most startling result for me is that women divide right down the middle, with five folders and five crumplers. This goes against all my previously conducted field research, to such an extent that I wonder if the poll has been, in some way, tampered with. In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that my poll, ground-breaking in its small way, has been deliberately skewed. Well, the truth will out. This tiny seed has been sown. Now let it grow.

Well said!

Sometimes you read a response to idiocy that is so complete, so elegant, so conclusive that it makes your heart sing. Well, my heart sang out loud when I came across this comment to a post by a religious nutter from San Diego, who claims that the recent San Francisco fires were divine retribution for same-sex marriage legislation. I won't tell you his name because he already brags about receiving over six thousand hits a day (although judging from the comments most of them are from people who intensely loathe the man). After all, as Joe.My.God says: "I read him so you don't have to."
If you think that the state of the world today has anything to do with some roundabout interpretation of Leviticus - congratulations, you're right. In fact, if you go to pretty much any epoch in the entire span of human history, even those that predate Christ, I bet you can find SOME evidence that backs up the idea that the End Times are at hand.

If you'd expand your hilariously myopic view of reality, you'd see that, among many other things:

1. Fires are extremely common in Southern California, even ones of this magnitude. I'll bet all of the past ones coincided with some sort of homosexual legislation, come to think of it. I bet they also coincided with a homosexual being discriminated against or being hurt in a hate crime. Which one is God punishing us for?

2. Homosexuals are everywhere. There is always SOME sort of Gay Agenda being enacted, be it anti-discrimination law or affirmative action, and this happens all across the nation - and indeed, the world. Why God would set San Diego on fire for a few days as a message to anyone regarding homosexuality implies that God is weak or stupid, or self-defeatist, none of which are possible.

3. Regarding the Coincidence post: Yes. Yes, it can be mere coincidence. That is exactly what it is. If you looked for the entire body of current events, you would see a whole hell of a lot that these fires coincided with beyond one or two points of political correctness. By whatever logic you arrived at your answers with, I could as easily blame these fires on the Red Sox winning the World Series. (God is omniscient, he can start the fires ahead of time to coincide with their coming back from a deficit against the Indians.)

Get over yourself. God isn't punishing anyone for anything, because he doesn't exist, and even if he did he wouldn't bother killing and evicting innocent people - in his own house no less! - with a poorly-aimed fire because somebody, somewhere, is marrying men to each other. Your beliefs are utterly senseless, and you're insane. Good day.

Percect, isn't it? Thank you, Anonymous.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Cusp of Something

"Jai Clare’s stories are filled with the disaffected, those who kick against their everyday lives, who crave the mystic when seeking their spirituality, and who are desperate to be alone as much as they are desperate to be with someone. Whether in North Africa, Greece, or Britain her characters’ concerns remain the same. To find meaning in the universal and the personal, through transient sex or emotional depth. All told with a fluid intensity of prose that cuts to the heart of them, lays them bare to misfortune and fortune, and stands them waiting on the brink of discovery."

Want to know more? Click here.

Nirvana: Smells like Teen Spirit

I love this song and I love this version of it. So there. Maybe it's the cheerleaders.

Saturday, 27 October 2007


If you'd like to have a T-shirt with this written on it - and who wouldn't? - click here. Another classic from Threadless T-Shirts.

Knock, knock, who's there?

Never heard of Sylvia Browne? I hadn't either before I read this article by Jon Ronson in today's Guardian Unlimited. Apparently, she's the most famous psychic in the United States. If you'd like to ask her a question about, say, your missing cat or why your boyfriend killed himself you can pay $750 and wait four years for a 30-minute telephone consultation. Alternatively, pay €4000 and go on a cruise, where she might just pull your name out of a hat during one of her lectures. This is the kind of in-depth information you're likely to get:

"Am I ever going to have a better relationship with my father?" another woman asks.

"No," Sylvia replies. "He's narcissistic. He has sociopathic tendencies. Forget it. There's a darkness there."

"Thank you, Sylvia," she says.

Sylvia seems to be psychically diagnosing a lot of people with narcissistic personality disorder today.

"Will you tell me exactly the time and place my father died?" the next woman asks.

"Ten years ago in Iowa," Sylvia says.

"Iowa?" says the woman, surprised.

"I'm the psychic," Sylvia snaps. "I'm telling you. Iowa."

"Thank you, Sylvia," the woman says, cowed.

The next woman asks, "What happened to my dog? Is she still alive?"

"No, honey," Sylvia says.

The woman bursts into tears.

Read the whole thing. It's worth it. And if you'd like to buy one of the old fraud's inspirational books (titles include: Christmas in Heaven, Animals on the Other Side and, for only $14.95, God, Creation and Tools for Life), just click here.

Back to red (sorry, Amy)

Julian Schnabel was interviewed last night on Italian TV. The programme's called Invasioni Barbariche, so it may have been a policy decision to appear so distracted - in the ironic 1960s rock-star sense of really being, like, somewhere else, man - and to wear pyjamas in such a coolly barbaric fashion. Irritatingly, he kept breaking into pidgin Italian, which confused the interpreter, the interviewer - the charming and resourceful Daria Bignardi - and, of course, the audience. He didn't have much to say for himself in either language, apart from complaining briefly that he was forbidden by contract from drinking whisky on the show, although this may have been a joke. When Bignardi asked him why he was wearing pyjamas, he said that he needed the extra space for his balls. This may also have been a joke. It was his birthday, so all is forgiven.

He rose to the bait, though, when she mentioned recent criticism of his rock-star lifestyle, and came out with the old chestnut about how it wouldn't make any difference if he distributed his fabulous wealth among the deserving poor, it would just be a drop in the ocean, and why didn't his critics fuck off and do something useful with their lives. Obviously this morally complex issue has been discussed in depth with friends like Bono, Johnny Depp, er, David Bowie...

She also asked him what he thought about the recent Trevi fountain incident. He said the red was a beautiful red and wanted to know the name of the artist. When Bignardi explained that the dyer's hand, in this case, belonged to a right-wing activist with a criminal record for political violence, he said - wait for it - art is art, whatever. Oh God, he must have read my blog!

Friday, 26 October 2007

Whatever can be said, can be

Glancing at recent keyword activity (instead of doing something profitable with my time) I see that someone from the United Kingdom has reached my blog this morning by typing into Google the following:

men nakid holding each others winky and sucking each others winkys.

Worryingly, this blog was the first site to appear, despite the fact that I've never - before now - used the word winky (or, for that matter, spelt naked with an 'i'). I'm followed by the blog of someone called The Jaded Skeptic, which looks rather interesting. And 47 other sites, none of which look remotely titillating. Clearly, a frustrating morning for our intrepid Googler.

Oh God, I remember now. Tinky Winky, the sexually ambiguous Teletubby. Why? Why?

Pope duck

Tempted? If making your own holy water (just immerse pope duck in bath!) doesn't grab you, try some of the other goodies Miss Poppy has in stock. (The Handzoff anti-masturbation cream looks like a real bargain.) Go on! You won't regret it!

And if you do, it'll be too late.

Italy rules OK. OK?

Two reminders yesterday that the autonomy of the Republic of Italy isn't a given.

One. Rome's court of assizes decided that there was no case to be made against the murderer of Nicola Calipari, the Italian secret service agent who was shot while helping kidnapped journalist Giuliana Sgrena leave Iraq. Who was the murderer? An American soldier called Mario Lozano. Whatever the truth behind the events of that night (and without a trial it's unlikely we'll ever know what happened), it's hard not to see this as an act of capitulation to the United States government.

Two. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican's secretary of state, announced that people should 'stop it'. He was referring to Curzio Maltese's inquiry in la Repubblica into how much the Vatican costs the Italian state. The most recent instalment, published a few days ago, looked at the ora di religione, obligatory in all Italian state schools although not for students, who can, if they or their parents wish, opt out. This isn't as easy as it sounds. The hour of religion (i.e. catholicism) is always timetabled mid-morning, rather than at the start or end of the school day; those students who choose not to take part - some of them as young as six - are usually told to 'wait in the corridor'. Alternatives? There are no alternatives. Comparative religion? Stop it!

This is already bad enough, in a country which now has half a million children from other countries and cultures in its public educational system, not all of them catholic. What's worse is the way the teaching of the hour is financed. Religious teachers are chosen by the local bishop, side-stepping the time-consuming and exhausting obstacle race of national competitions all other teachers have to undergo. They're paid, though, by the state, and their salaries cost something like €1 billion a year; in terms of occult financing to the catholic church, this is second only to the otto per mille scam I've posted about before. Not only that - they have tenure in a country where a significant part of the teaching is conducted by precari, teachers, often in their forties or fifties, who struggle from short-term contract to short-term contract, their holidays unpaid, their pensions rights undermined, their chances of a mortgage or bank loan seriously restricted.

Finally, as salt in the wound, they're actually paid more than their equivalent non-religious teachers, as a result of laws passed more than 25 years ago, laws that are still being contested in Italian courts by their lay colleagues.

No wonder Bertone wants Maltese to shut up.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Happy birthday to whole universe! And me! (Two days late)

Tom Raworth has just reminded me that, according to Archbishop James Ussher, I share my birthday with Heaven and Earth, created on 23 October 4004 BC.

Other people whose birthdays coincide with mine and the entire caboodle include Diana Dors, 'Weird' Al Jankovic and Ned Rorem. For a complete list (and further proof that astrology is a distinctly inexact, er, science) click here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

What it says on the packet

Suffering from what is almost certainly post-party flu, I've been a recent visitor to our local chemist's and I've been struck, as always, by the subtle, and not so subtle, cultural differences between the UK and Italy. In England, medicines are stocked and shelved, named and labelled, in much the same way as any other consumer good might be. The packages are designed to catch the eye, the names to suggest what good the medicine is designed to do. In England, I'd probably have wandered around the colds and flu section of my local Boots and ended up buying a box of Lemsip. Lemsip. Sounds good, Tastes of lemon, made to be sipped. The box has a tick to emphasise positivity, rich, cosy colours, a gleaming yellow mug with some warming steam rising from it and a human hand around its tummy. In the TV commercial, arms and legs spring out of the box's corners and, before you know it, the medicine is not only making you feel better, it's physically caring for you. It actually makes itself.

In Italy, an almost identical product in terms of active ingredients (paracetamol) is called, wait for it, Tachifludec. Apart from the middle syllable, the name tells you nothing except that the stuff inside the box is medicinal. It doesn't coax or comfort; it doesn't do anything but distinguish what's in this box from what might be in the one next to it. It is not, in other words, a publicist's dream. Granted, there's a silhouette of a mug on the front and a picture of half a lemon, but the general look is 1960s clinical; you can see that, whoever designed the box, their heart wasn't in it. Interestingly, neither the box nor the sachets inside have any information on how to use the stuff. For that you need to read the closely printed four-paged sheet of information inside, which I no longer seem to have. Even there, the how is lost in columns of what that might mean something to a specialist, but leave an everyday flu sufferer woefully uninformed.

And that's the other difference. Chemists' in England are, essentially, supermarkets. In Italy they're more like designer boutiques. No other kind of Italian retail outlet has quite the same aura of wealth. My local chemist's, until recently lined in sumptuous prestige hardwoods with satin glass shelves in eau-de-nil and touches of burnished aluminium here and there, has just been made over. All surfaces are now protected by heavyweight slabs of marble, it has a multi-layered false ceiling Borromini might have designed, and bullet-proof automatic doors that slide open with an affluent hiss the minute you approach them. Money's been thrown at it, and thrown again, until it won't stick any more. In the heart of this shrine to conspicuous expenditure, like serving vestals, are the chemists in their starched white coats, their voices low, their origami skills exquisitely honed as they take the box of Tachifludec and wrap it in a pre-cut rectangle of paper, and fold in both ends, and apply just a touch of sellotape. Voilà.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

A normal country

The problem with talking about events in Italy, particularly political events, is that, as they move forward, often at a great rate and with considerable fluster, they nonetheless drag their significance behind them, fanning out into an endless murk, so far behind them and in such confusion that what we are faced by is nothing, a bagatelle, a minor scandal, and so we don't know where to start, which thread to begin to unpick, which rumour to substantiate or set aside, which name to name, which reputation to save or besmirch. In other words, they're rather like the previous sentence, and I wouldn't be surprised if you were tempted to give up and wonder why I hadn't just posted a photograph of my dog again. So thank you for getting this far.

The event that triggered this post is the news that Clemente Mastella, Italy's minister of justice, is being investigated for a series of crimes, including the abuse of his office and membership of secret associations (read: masonic lodges), in connection with an inquiry into the activities of one of his chums, a certain Antonio Saladino, a powerful entrepreneur, connected to the world of politics, the church and, it's said, organised crime, as well as being ex-owner of a temping agency called Why Not. Why not indeed?

In a normal country a minister of justice who found himself under investigation would, at the very least, remove himself until the investigation was concluded. But Italy isn't a normal country. Mastella's first reaction was to attempt to remove not himself, but the investigating magistrate, Luigi De Magistris. In a normal country, De Magistris would have sought redress within the structure, and probably found it. In Italy, he went on prime-time television to defend his position. In a normal country, this would have been seen as inappropriate. In Italy, it's absorbed into political discussions
of a Byzantine complexity as to how long the Prodi government can survive. Because, of course, if Mastella goes, or is forced to go, he'll take his 1.4% (yes, that's right - 1.4%) with him and the government will fall. At this point, his innocence or guilt is irrelevant. In a normal country, a man whose party contrives to win 1.4% of the popular vote and whose attitude towards the morality of the state and its representatives is notoriously elastic, would not be minister of justice in the first place.

In Italy, he is. In the meantime, De Magistris has been taken off the case.

Saturday, 20 October 2007


I know I should get worked up about this dreadful act of vandalism at the Trevi fountain, but I can't. The red stuff thrown into the water is harmless, the man responsible claims to be a futurist, which these days is merely touching, and the act coincides (almost) with a massive demonstration to defend workers against punitively liberal labour legislation. Red flags in the streets, red water in the Trevi fountain. It's the October revolution all over again.

And I think it looks fabulous.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Do you know what it means?

More wine, fewer roses

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Clench, dean, clench...

Remember the auto-erotically asphyxiated pastor a few posts below (click here)? The one with a condom-sheathed dildo up his, er, revealed truth? It turns out he was once the dean of Jerry Falwell's 'university'.

Probably gave out straight 'A's in rubber technology.

The benefits of a university education

Shortly before New Writing 15 came out in June, I entered the title into Google to see what pre-publication attention, if any, it was getting. The faint, almost inaudible buzz I did find came from the blogs of a handful of the contributors, including my own and that of someone who operates under the name of Kingfelix. Kingfelix’s post said that he’d just received advanced copies of the anthology. I added a comment:

I got my copy today. Naturally, the first thing I did was read my own story. Now I’ll read yours… See you at the party!

This was his response:

Ah, sadly I can’t read your story as you attended Cambridge and I have a single-person boycott against all Oxbridge literary output (too much of it, too easily published), but nevermind, enjoy the party.

I would have left it at that, but someone called Tom interceded on my behalf:

Kennedy, will you please control your vituperative urges. Wait until you’ve met him before you insult him …OK, maybe if he was from Oxford. But Cambridge is fine.

Kingfelix, now revealed as Jason Kennedy, replied:

I did not insult him, I rebuffed him.

At this point, foolishly, I commented:

Your loss, boyo.

To which Kingfelix responded:

Of course, those of us who did not attend Cambridge are always incurring losses of one sort or another.

As far as I was concerned, that was the last of it. But I was unwise enough to mention, in a post about the NW15 launch, that I’d enjoyed Tod Hartman’s piece in the anthology. Kennedy, ruffled, rose to what he presumably saw as bait and intervened:

The boy's reading was excruciating and his story has less jokes and of a lower quality than my own story.

Ah, but he works at Cambridge!

Once again, the wisest policy seemed to be to ignore this. Kennedy’s issues with Cambridge and apparent conviction that praise of anyone else’s work automatically implied unfavourable criticism of his were outside my remit. Nonetheless, I continued to visit his blog every now and again, and enjoyed his posts in much the same way I enjoy John Fowles’ journals, for their self-effacing wisdom and intellectual modesty. And what should I find there a few days ago but news that his story from NW15 is about to be translated into Chinese? I click on comments with the intention of congratulating my fellow-contributor and find this:

I thought the fact my story is about work, rather than the gay scene in Tuscany as experienced by a Cambridge man… (yes, it is tough to accept that such a story and author profile has an easier time reaching market, but there you go).

It isn’t quite a sentence (just as nevermind isn’t quite a word and less jokes isn’t quite grammar), but the gist of it is clear enough. He’s referring to me. And now I’m beginning to get irritated. My first thought is that, if he had been to Cambridge, he would probably have known that Rome, the setting of my story (which you can read by clicking on Entertaining Friends here, by the way), isn’t in Tuscany but Lazio, an altogether less glamorous (as in Cambridge-y) region. My second thought is that no one who has been to Cambridge in the last half-century would refer to himself as a Cambridge man. My final thought is that the person who wrote this knows nothing about me, has no intention of finding out anything about me because that might shake his convictions, and that these convictions are, essentially, racist because rooted in ignorance of the worst, most wilful kind. It’s the kind of mindset that assumes Africans have rhythm, or that Jews are scheming and mendacious. It assumes that someone who has been to Cambridge has floated to success on a cloud of privilege. In my case, it assumes wrongly.

Kennedy was born in Tamworth, the son of an engineer. (You see, unlike him, I’ve done my homework.) I was born, just down the road, in Lichfield, the son of a quantity surveyor. I went to a series of state schools and then, with no assistance from my last comprehensive, won a scholarship to Cambridge, which I attended on a full grant. Cambridge may have been, and may still be, a bastion of privilege, but it never made me feel that I wasn’t entirely within my rights to be there. Since then, I’ve travelled and cobbled together a living in a variety of ways, much as Kennedy seems to have done. I’ve been writing throughout this time and now, a week away from my 54th birthday, I’m about to publish a novel, the sixth I’ve written over a twenty-five year period.

I found my first agent after sending a manuscript, blind, to Cape. The editor who read it (Neil Belton, not a Cambridge connection) turned it down after 18 months, but recommended I get in touch with AP Watt, literary agents. They tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it and, soon after, we parted company. I entered a short story competition organised by the Independent of Sunday and Bloomsbury and was among the winners, without any mention being made of my degree or its origin. My second agent (Malcolm Imrie, not a Cambridge connection) worked hard to sell a novel, but was unsuccessful. My third (Isobel Dixon, not a Cambridge connection, although she lives there) was more successful, selling a novel of mine to an editor at Picador (Sam Humphreys, not a Cambridge connection).

As far as I know, the only use (in the vulgar, self-aggrandising sense Kennedy intends) that my degree has been to me is to facilitate entry into the staff room of one or two cowboy language schools – hardly a glittering prize.

Kennedy might not like my story for a number of reasons. He might have problems with what he refers to as the ‘gay scene’; he might see Italy as irredeemably fey and bourgeois when compared with the grittiness of Guatemala. He might assume my short story is an autofiction, as the French say, and that I and the narrator are one, and equally despicable. But to dismiss my work and me, out of hand, as ‘such a story and author profile’ in the public space of his blog, and to do so without even having the courtesy to name me, is indefensible.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Just in case you haven't already come across it, I've linked to the site of MediaWatchWatch. This is what it's all about:

MediaWatchWatch was set up in January 2005 in reaction to the religious campaign against the BBC's broadcasting of Jerry Springer: the Opera.

We keep an eye on those groups and individuals who, in order to protect their beliefs from offence, seek to limit freedom of expression. And we make fun of them.

If you have any information, email The Monitor.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Wine and roses, ongoing

I'm emerging, slit-eyed and slightly dyspeptic, from a weekend-long party to celebrate the 50th birthdays of Giuseppe and one of my oldest friends, Janet. We had people from all over, from Bulgaria to Bristol to Arizona to Cologne, as well as the length and breadth of Italy. We ate and drank and danced, and then did it all again. We were legion, and very noisy. The police closed us down. It was an occasion of, and for, excess and affection and I couldn't have been happier or more grateful (and it wasn't even my party!). Thank you. You know who you are.

I'll be posting photos over the next few days. In the meantime, this is a pre-party shot of the living room.

An even wider stance

If you thought Larry Craig had a wide stance, try reading this, from today's Timesonline. You can find the complete article here.

Mgr Stenico admits inviting a man whom he met on a gay website to his office, across the piazza from Saint Peter’s Basilica, after expressing an attraction to sado-masochism. What he did not know was that the young man was working for a TV investigation on homosexuality among Catholic priests and went to the tryst with a concealed video camera. The footage was shown this month by La 7, the national TV channel.

It shows the young man entering the lift to Mgr Stenico’s office and then speaking with the priest in his office. The faces and voices are heavily disguised to respect privacy laws but with the help of subtitles the topics being discussed are obvious.

Mgr Stenico asks the man, “Do you like me?” and tells him that he is very good-looking. When the young man expresses fears that having sex would be “a sin in the eyes of the Church”, the priest replies: “I do not feel it would be sinful.” Drawn on the subject of sado-masochistic sex, the monsignor says that these are “inner choices, the psychological basis of a personality”. The young man continues to raise moral and religious objections to actually having sex, until the priest becomes irritated, says that he has no time left and takes him back to the lift. On parting, the Monsignor tells him that he is “really tasty” and that he can telephone him or send him a message.

One of the most amusing aspects of the whole story (and there are so many: I must find out what 'really tasty' - a detail omitted from Italian reports - is the translation of,) is Stenico's claim that gay men prey on priests. This is rather like saying that hedgehogs seek out busy roads, or rats, traps.

Oddly enough, Stenico's website, in which he discusses, among other things, the vocation of marriage, is currently unavailable. I suspect the Vatican is more efficient than the GOP at making sure this kind of story will not run and run.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Rant and let rant?

I was recently forwarded this.

We all have to sign a petition to force Google to remove from their websites lists the website:

This site is devoted to anti-Semitism, hate of Jews and so, with false articles and researches.....It is one of the first website appearing when searching Jew on Google!

To force Google to remove this website, we need to gather at least 500,000 signatures.

We already got 272,000 signatures. We need 200,000 more!

Please sign the petition at:
and spread it to all your friends.

I haven't clicked on the site, which sounds not that dissimilar to the numerous hate-fests that riddle the web, directed at pretty much any definable minority from Roma to gays to liberals and visited, one imagines, by people who already share the views expressed and enjoy the sizzle of seeing them on their screens and of feeling they belong to their own grubby little tribe.

Certainly, it makes me uncomfortable to think that it should appear so quickly on Google searches. But it makes me even more uncomfortable to find out that half a million people can render a site effectively invisible by forcing Google to take it off their listings. Censorship is a double-edged weapon and I'd be very worried if, having used it to remove this undoubtedly loathsome site from circulation, it were then used against, say, Joe.My.God or any of a thousand other sites or blogs that represent ideas unacceptable to large swathes of the public. It surely wouldn't be difficult to find 500,000 rabid homophobes only to happy to sign that kind of petition.

In the long run, it seems preferable to let the ranters rant than to lose the chance to express our own opinions and beliefs without being hounded into obscurity.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Rubber I get, but slippers?

My thanks to Popbitch for directing my attention to this story.
An Alabama minister who died in June of "accidental mechanical asphyxia" was found hogtied and wearing two complete wet suits, including a face mask, diving gloves and slippers, rubberized underwear, and a head mask, according to an autopsy report. Investigators determined that Rev. Gary Aldridge's death was not caused by foul play and that the 51-year-old pastor of Montgomery's Thorington Road Baptist Church was alone in his home at the time he died (while apparently in the midst of some autoerotic undertaking). While the Montgomery Advertiser, which first obtained the autopsy records, reported on Aldridge's two wet suits, the family newspaper chose not to mention what police discovered (see Personal effects, page 4) inside the minister's rubber briefs. Aldridge served as the church's pastor for 16 years.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Freedom is as freedom does

An interesting article in today's Slate about bloggers' rights and the recourse made to British libel laws by those who feel that a post has caused them scorn, derision, social alienation, or loss of face with "right-thinking" individuals. Johann Hari, the journalist who supported the war in Iraq and then, er, didn't, and Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, part owner of Arsenal, have both called in lawyers to defend what they fondly imagine to be their good name against impertinent commentators. The good news is that it hasn't worked. They might have been able to close down individual sites but the cause has been taken up by other bloggers and both Hari and Usmanov are now seen as enemies to free speech. This might be water off a Russian oligarch's back but it can't be welcomed by a liberal journalist.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Who are you? Where are you? (UPDATE)

OK, now I know where you are, and that's wonderful. Already I feel better. But all these weird silhouettes are disturbing, to say the least. Come on, you can do better. You don't need to leave a portrait. An intimate detail would do; a foot, a finger. Failing that, a pet, a favourite pot plant, the last house you left without saying goodbye, an edible object that vaguely resembles Mother Teresa (you must have some wizened root vegetable in the fridge)...

You can do it, you know you can. No one need ever know it's you.

Monday, 8 October 2007

I have seen the best minds of my generation...

... run for cover at the threat of very large fines. Like American radio station WBAI, which last week decided not to broadcast Ginsberg's Howl to celebrate its 50th birthday. More information here.

Why let the government censor you when you can do it yourself?

Who are you? Where are you?

Right down at the bottom of the side bar to the right is a map. If you want to be on the map, do what it says. I'd love to know who you are and where you are. I look so lonely. Make me feel loved, wanted.


Buon appetito, says Jamie

Jamie Oliver plans to open a string of 'authentic, rustic' Italian restaurants in Britain's high streets, according to an article in today's Guardian.

That'll be 'authentic' as in spaghetti alla carbonara... with cream? Oh dear.

Pro-life (as in, er, death)

Amnesty International's decision to endorse the decriminalisation of abortion when the woman's life is at stake or the foetus is the product of sexual violence has been attacked by religious fundamentalists, including, naturally, the gaggle of officially celibate old men in the Vatican. Maybe they should all go and live in the fabulously roman catholic Nicaragua, where a blanket ban on abortion has led to the deaths of at least 82 women since its introduction. You can find out more about this pernicious life-hating law and its effects here, in an article from today's Guardian. It starts like this:
María de Jesús González was a practical woman. A very poor single mother, the 28-year-old's home was a shack on a mountain near the town of Ocotal in Nicaragua. She made the best of it. The shack was spotless, the children scrubbed. She earned money by washing clothes in the river and making and selling tortillas.
That wasn't quite enough to feed her four young children and her elderly mother, so every few months González caught a bus to Managua, the capital, and slaved for a week washing and ironing clothes. The pay was three times better, about £2.60 a day, and by staying with two aunts she cut her costs. She would return to her hamlet with a little nest-egg in her purse. She bought herself one treat - a pair of red shoes - but she would leave them with her family in Managua, as they were no good on the mountain trails she had to go up to get home.

No abortion isn't the only thing the sex-obsessed geriatrics in the Vatican would like about Nicaragua. It's also the only country in Latin America with a law that prohibits gay sex. Article 204 of the Constitution imposes sentences of up to three years for sodomy. But you don't have to buttfuck to get into trouble; all you need to do is say you're gay and happy and you can be arrested. Oddly enough, according to Nicaraguan activist, Don Pato:

Article 204 is used as a tool to institutionalize child abuse where the many poor children and parents in this country dare not accuse the perpetrator. To accuse anyone a priest, teacher or not so wealthy land owners of male on male contact can equate to justifiable homicide in this place, and the accusing person can end up jail for libel. Nicaragua has the highest rate of underage sex abuse anywhere in Latin America.

Two laws, in other words, that strike directly at the poorest and most defenceless. As Tony Blair so famously said: I wonder what Jesus would have done.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Tengo famiglia

La Sapienza in Rome is the largest university in Europe. This isn't necessarily an advantage: the place is famous for its overcrowded classrooms, Byzantine administration, no-show professors, assistants in de facto charge of courses, massive drop-out rates, er, too many cars. In an attempt to solve the last of these problems, work began n March on a new underground car park. The cost of the car park? Almost nine million euros (six million pounds). It's being built by a company called CPC (Compagnia progettazione e costruzioni), the chairman of which is the architect, Leonardo di Paola. Di Paola isn't just an architect and businessman; he also teaches at La Sapienza. His son Marco, CEO of CPC, and chairman of ANCE, the association of young constructors, does too. Last Friday, seven tax officers spent eight hours in the relevant offices to try and see where that odd fishy smell was coming from.

While they were there they had a closer look at the documentation surrounding a recent appointment. Maria Rosaria Guarini, daughter of La Sapienza's dean, Renato Guarini, became a researcher early last year after winning a concorso (competition) for the post. The specific subject she chose to present for the exam was Estimo (Estimation), taught by Professor Di Paola (sound familiar?). The first part of the exam was conducted in the Professor's private study, conveniently situated in the same building as the offices of CPC. Later parts were held in the Faculty of Architecture, where Ms Guarini, already an employee at La Sapienza, gallantly fought for the post against two other candidates, one of whom had failed to attach a list of publications to his application, while the other 'declared but failed to present three publications'. The only person to show up for the final written and oral exams was Maria Rosaria Guarini. It took a month and six meetings to give her the post, despite her failure to publish anything at all. Her sister, Paola, has been teaching at the university since October 2006 - officially; unofficially she'd been teaching for some time before that on a tecnico-amminstrativo contract. Her partner, a geologist, also teaches at La Sapienza. As Italians caught with their snouts in the truffle sack so often say: Tengo famiglia (I have a family to support)

The cherry on the cake? The deputy dean and head of the faculty of medicine, a certain Luigi Frati, whose votes were decisive in Guarini's election as dean, has also been investigated for nepotism. His wife and two children all work, you guessed it, in his faculty.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Language slaves: update

It's come to my notice that numerous teachers of foreign languages in Italian universities (yes, lettori), despite having regular full-time contracts, are expected to make up any lessons they may have missed as a result of illness or public holidays. In other words, they aren't paid when they're ill or when they're prevented from working by state-imposed interruptions, even though they, like all other workers with regular contracts, pay national insurance and have the right to be paid in both cases. In other, even simpler, words, they're being shafted.

This is an administrative decision, proving once again that there are two battles to be fought. The most visible is for academic status, although that's not worth a great deal in the humanities faculties of Italy, where full professors are often unpublished (or as good as: look up S. Nuccorini in any reputable citation index) and, mercifully, unsung, except by themselves. The most irritating is the one for basic workers' rights,
routinely denied us by ignorant and servile university administrations.

Gay bomb gets Nobel, sort of

This year's Ig Nobel Prize for Peace has been given to the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, theorisers of a chemical weapon that would make soldiers sexually irresistible to one another (as if they weren't already).

For details of the other awards, click here.

For my initial, over-excited, reaction to this extraordinary device, click here.

Facebook journalism

It's chastening to discover that Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who received the first face transplant, wouldn't have known that the donor had committed suicide if it hadn't been for the gallant investigative efforts of British tabloids. There's an article about her autobiography here.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Pontifical knickers twisted

Editorialist for La Repubblica and one of Italy's sharpest journalists, Curzio Maltese, has been looking at the way Italian taxpayers contribute, largely without their direct consent, to the Vatican's bulging coffers. The money collected by the catholic church each year through the legalised scam known as otto per mille* amounts to an extraordinary €80 billion. Of this, just over a third comes from taxpayers who specifically choose to direct part of their money to the Vatican; the rest of it - €524,565,000,000 in 2004 - is skimmed off the taxes of those who express no preference.

It would be nice to think that all this free money is spent on good works. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. The 2005 campaign (created by Saatchi and Saatchi, friends to the wise and good) showed images of the tsunami and its devastating effects. The price of the campaign? Nine million euros. The amount of aid provided by the Vatican to tsunami victims? Three million euros. In percentage terms, the Union of Jewish Communities gave twenty terms as much, despite the fact that there are no Jewish communities in the areas affected. The amount of otto per mille money actually spent on charitable works by the catholic church amounts to no more than 20% of the total. The rest of it goes on, well, other things. I'll leave you to decide what these might be, but they certainly aren't priests' wages: these have halved since 1999; the amount of tax money the church has received in these years has quintupled.

Livia Turco, ex-minister for solidarity, once suggested that the otto per mille money assigned by taxpayers to the state (around 8% of the total) be used directly to combat infant poverty, imagining the Holy See would be only to keen to back her. She couldn't have been more wrong. The Vatican peevishly accused the state of 'unfair competition' and the idea was dropped. Infant poverty is clearly Vatican business. Under Berlusconi, the state's portion was used to finance the war in Iraq and, get this, the restoration of churches. Catholic churches, naturally.

The response to Maltese's articles was immediate. Vatican house organ Avvenire called them 'one of the most colossal operations of disinformation of recent times' - unlike, presumably, the Vatican's tsunami campaign - and, for good measure, 'indecent': a common ploy when anyone dares to criticise the church, as though decency were a spiritual rather than social value. Unlike his papal predecessors, who let their underlings do the dirty work,
Eggs Benedict threw one of his usual hissy fits, insisting that the catholic church doesn't ask for or expect financial favours. I'm sorry? Say that again? Even the EU begs to differ.

*Otto per mille. Italian tax payers can devolve 0.8% of the tax they pay to a religious body of their choice, or to the state. Most of the people who bother (40.86% of taxpayers) devolve it to the Vatican. The percentage of tax that isn’t assigned to anyone is divided up in the same proportions as that which is, although some churches - such as the Waldensians - refuse it. The Vatican, in other words, gets a substantial slice of revenue from people who don’t want to give it to the catholic church.

Get with child a mandrake root

It's good to see Exeter University's professor of complementary medicine expressing serious doubts about the validity of many herbal remedies. Most of them, apparently, don't work and may even be harmful. This ought to be self-evident but, for an ever-increasing number of people, from Prince Charles down, hocus-pocus continues to exercise its awful appeal. I broke my shoulder just over a year ago and was recommended homoeopathic pills to encourage the bone to heal. As I wasn't prepared to break the other shoulder to provide myself with a control group I've no idea how efficacious they might have been, but common sense (remember that?) suggests that sugary pellets that contain not the slightest measurable trace of any active ingredient probably didn't have much effect on my compound fracture. Maybe I should have used crystals.

Interesting though that the Independent should consider the findings of Professors Ernst and Canter to be 'controversial'. Next thing we'll be reading that doubts about the credibility of the virgin birth or the transformation of Hyacinth, son of Amyclas, into a spring bulb are 'controversial' as well. The only thing that doesn't appear to be controversial any longer is the weight given to superstition in daily discourse. Italian news programmes talk regularly about miracles as though they'd actually taken place, which is at least as worrying as the presence of herbal 'medicines' on chemists' shelves.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Joined-up government

A valuable, and shocking, article in today's Independent describing the hypocritical divide between what the UK government says about people fleeing brutal and corrupt regimes, and what the Home Office actually does with these people. You can read it here. It set me thinking about the way we now seem to prefer the term asylum-seekers to refugees. Etymologically, a refugee is someone who has found refuge: 1685, from Fr. refugié, prop. pp. of refugier "to take shelter, protect," from O.Fr. refuge. The provision of protection, and the need for it, both seem to be implicit in the word. The term asylum-seeker, on the other hand, suggests that refuge has still to be found, may not be found and, even worse, may not be deserved. It shifts the moral onus, and burden of proof, onto the exile.

Monday, 1 October 2007


Hackney Downs station, moments after being told that, due to points failure, no trains will be entering or leaving Liverpool Street Station.

It pays to advertise

But it also pays to find someone who knows how to do it. I may be more sensitive to language than many people, but the sheer concentration of howlers in this flyer for the Bear Hotel, Hodnet, is pretty glaring. I'm particularly fond of the free-form third sentence, which isn't a sentence at all, and the juxtaposition within it of 'Medieval Banqueting Hall' and 'disco facilities'. Unique backdrop, indeed. I also like the idea of themed wedding, though I wonder what they have in mind. The Black Death? Beowulf?

But the pièce de résistance has to be the second paragraph. The semi-colon is presumably there to lend gravitas to its surroundings - it certainly serves no grammatical purpose. Unfortunately, it comes immediately after pallet, as in:

a) a narrow mattress filled with straw;
b) a hard, narrow bed;
c) a flat wooden or metal platform on which goods are stored.

How sophisticated is that? Nice one, Trevor.

Trahison des cler(i)cs

I'd hate to encourage unsubstantiated gossip about the sexual habits of one of the most luminous of our moral beacons, so I'll simply mention in passing that God's ferret, Cardinal Ruini, leading light of the flog-em-and-hang-em school of compassionate catholicism, may have had - or be having - an affair with a male artist whose critical success is not entirely unlinked to his eminent squeeze'

Next thing you know he'll be wearing Prada.