Thursday, 27 January 2011

Stylist: Dr Forrest 'The Chilling Read of 2011'!

Commuting into town regularly again for the first time in a few years, I've only just begun to notice the free magazine Stylist, but I'll be paying it keen attention from now on because in a feature last week on books to look out for in 2011 it picked out The Possessions of Doctor Forrest as 'The Chilling Read of the Year.' This is really gratifying, so thanks to 'em. 'Chilling' is obviously the desired effect of this piece, so I was doubly pleased yesterday when one early reader of the proofs told me she'd been getting through it in the evenings, and had finally had to close all the windows and turn on all the lights round her house in order to steel herself for the end...

Bookhugger column: On Jonathan Powell's 'New Machiavelli'

My second Bookhugger column of the month is now posted here, and with that out of the way I hope to read no more studies of British government between 1997-2007, at least not before my dotage... I should say I wrote and filed said column before the resignation of Alan Johnson and the appointment of Ed Balls, so... well, you can imagine my mood.

On Being a Whisky-Drinker

My last birthday was a Big One and so I did rather well for gifts, not least in that I was presented with several very fine bottles of malt whisky over which I crowed for days to anyone who’d listen. In fact more than one friend was moved to remark that he ‘hadn’t known I was such a whisky drinker...’ Well, a bloody good thing too, pal, for if it were more widely known that I favour the amber then I daresay I’d receive a lot more of it on gift-giving occasions (since apparently I’m reckoned to be ‘a bit hard to buy for...’) And if there were racks upon racks of first-rate whisky just lying round my house all the time...? Aw boy, I’d be in trouble then.
Let me say quickly that out of all the malts I choose the Glenlivet, which is certainly not a connoisseur’s pick but one that you could put your house on. I won’t try to describe its complexity on the tongue and in the throat, sadly I’m not that accomplished a writer. I’ll just say that I began drinking it (as I began doing many things) on account of something I read by Norman Mailer – in this case, the early pages of Harlot’s Ghost where retired CIA man Harry Hubbard receives a nocturnal visit from his old spook associate Reed Rosen, offers him a dram and, while pouring, is annoyed to hear Rosen ‘go on about its merits.’ The main point is that Hubbard pours it neat – and ‘screw him if after all that praise he secretly wanted ice...’
The finest, most discerning piece of writing I know about whisky and its ways is Don Paterson’s poem 'A Private Bottling' from the 1997 collection God’s Gift to Women. If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour. The following stave offers only the barest flavour of a poem that concludes magificently with a glass raised in toast 'not to love, or life, or real feeling,/but to their sentimental residue;/to your sweet memory, but not to you...' But just as a passing evocation of the taste of the ambers - it's unimprovable.
O whiskies of Long Island and Provence!
This little number catches at the throat
but is all sweetness in the finish: my tongue trips
first through burning brake-fluid, then nicotine,
pastis, Diorissimo and wet grass;
another is silk sleeves and lip-service
with a kick like a smacked puss in a train-station;
another, the light charge and the trace of zinc
tap-water picks up at the moon’s eclipse.
You will know the time I mean by this...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Against AV

This blog has had little to say on politics of late, possibly because this blog is increasingly Old, while politics has allegedly got New (while nonetheless looking to me about as sprightly as ‘an old bitch gone in the teeth.’) Consider this recent gobbet as quoted in the Independent:
‘A Labour source said: "Those opposing reform are from the old generation, rather than what some have called Generation Ed. Ed [Miliband] is prepared to work with Nick Clegg in the interest of something he believes in. This is what we mean when we talk about new politics..."’
Urgh. Still, it seems worth offering my tuppence on electoral reform, since everybody else is. I’m against AV, emphatically – there are no circumstances under which I’d welcome it, end of, even when first-past-the-post has been referred to by the Younger Generation as ‘an analogue system in a digital age’ that is due ‘an upgrade’... (Urgh 2.)
A chap called Mark Fuller spoke for me and others, I’m sure, on Twitter the other week: ‘I'll be voting No in May because I see nothing wrong in whoever gets the most votes winning...’ The most keenly-stated riposte to this position that I’ve heard is: ‘But under First Past the Post being popular just means having one more vote than the next guy.’ But it doesn’t ‘just’ mean that. Surely if it means one thing alone then that would be ‘popular as in none of the other ‘guys’ got more votes than you...’
The argument over the vote seems to be getting more fractious as we slouch toward polling day, and a good few advocates of AV have begun to wax irritable over the seeming non-comprehension by those of us agin. Let me at least try to nail down the planks of my position, in no particular order.
1. I’ve heard it said that AV reduces the need for tactical voting. I know that it didn’t manage to do so in the election for Labour leader last September. I know of several David Miliband supporters who, knowing DM would ‘get the most votes’ and yet was vulnerable still to defeat, voted for Ed Balls #1 and DM #2, solely because they rightly figured Balls would be the last of the also-rans to be eliminated. The ruse didn’t work on this occasion, but I daresay that particular electorate may know better next time. The point is that tactical voting will be alive and well under AV.
2. I’ve further heard it said AV ‘requires every MP to get the support of at least half their constituents.’ No it doesn’t require this. What if none of the voters, or a negligible share of them, chose to state more than one preference? This scenario is not so massively unlikely. And AV is bad, in any case, at measuring what we call 'support' in the proper, active sense.
3. This is the pro-AV line that makes my skin crawl – that it ‘categorically ensures that no candidate can be elected who is actively opposed by a majority of voters.’ No it doesn’t, per #2 above. Moreover, I find the notion of this spoiler/veto principle, to be wielded by the Mass of the Unpopular against S/he Who Got The Most Votes, pretty repellent. I’m sure most of its upholders would say they live in fervent abhorrence of the BNP (even though the polite name given to the menace in public seems to be ‘divisive candidates’, a category into which the aforementioned and perfectly mild David Miliband fell last September.) Well, I’d say first-past-the-post is doing well enough at reflecting and appropriately rewarding the BNP’s level of support in the country, which is negligible.
4. AV-ers have said that their desired reform will eradicate the supposedly moribund, corrupt (cf. expenses) business of ‘safe seats.’ Well, here we approach a crux. I do believe that most of us live where we live for good and/or salient socio/cultural-economic reasons, and that We the People then define the character of that given area, also the shade of political representation that area broadly endorses. By which measure, there ought always to be relatively ‘safe’ seats. The idea that the character of an area is something we think ought to be in continual flux from election to election seems to me queer, undesirable, worrisome.
5. I have to take this seriously as it is stated by the estimable John Rentoul:
‘[B]eing able to rank candidates in order of preference gives more voters more of a chance of a say in the outcome... and reduces wasted votes.’

Well, if you really feel you need such a 'say', that the right to vote is in itself just not enough, then I humbly defer to you. I speak as one who, in 22 years of voting, has not once had the pleasure of voting for a candidate who went on to win. But I can’t complain about any of those results that I failed to influence, and I accepted that my neighbours had spoken, their will had been done. If I had needed so badly to feel warm and fuzzy about my voting preference then I would have taken steps to up sticks and move elsewhere. But the area where you live needs to send one representative to parliament, and I believe it should be the person who comes out on top after the ‘Likes’ have been totted up – not the one who slips over the line once all the ‘Dislikes’ or ‘Don’t Minds/Not Bothereds’ have been brushed up into the dust-pan and dumped all over the count.
So, yes, I hope AV is voted down, but its supporters can take some small heart from my long and indefatigable record of having failed to endorse a winning candidate. For what it’s worth, the point I have found most incisive in all of this was made by the Independent’s Andy McSmith:
"What the FPTP does is give an unfair advantage to parties whose votes are geographically concentrated at the expense of those whose support is spread widely but thinly. In England, that is a bias in favour of both Labour and the Conservatives at the expense of all the others... The coalition government has passed legislation which simultaneously promised a referendum on the FPTP voting system and imposed a redrawing of constituency boundaries. The referendum may or may not reduce the bias in favour of the two big parties. Redrawing the boundaries will certainly benefit the Conservatives at the expense of Labour."