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Vladimir Putin’s favourite joke

Wednesday, 19 March, 2014 0 Comments

No, it’s not the one about Obama sending Biden to Poland yesterday, although that has generated its own share of mirth. Despite what his numerous critics insist, Putin does have an impish wit and while it’s not very comical to be on the receiving end of his barbs, as the family of Alexander Litvinenko knows full well, there’s a lot to be learned from what Russia’s latest “strong man” finds amusing. Here goes with his favourite joke:

In the bitter cold of the Russian winter, during a wild storm and with darkness falling, a peasant is wandering home to his humble village. Suddenly, he stops as he sees an exotic bird on the ground, nearly dead from hypothermia and hunger. So, he picks it up and warms it with his breath. The bird revives and the peasant is left wondering what to do next as he cannot afford to feed it. At this very moment a herd of cows appears out of the driving snow and one of them drops a large dollop of shit as it passes by. Knowing that if he puts the bird in the steaming substance, it might live until morning and then fly to a milder climate, the peasant does this and trudges towards home.

Shortly afterwards, however, another peasant comes along and hears the bird chirping happily in its warm surroundings. He picks up the bird, breaks its neck and takes it home for supper.

Putin, convulsed with laughter by this stage, tells his terrified audiences that the joke offers three vital lessons for life:

1. Do not believe that everyone who drops you in the shit is your enemy.
2. Do not believe that everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.
3. Whenever you are in the shit, keep quiet about it.

It’s doubtful if he told this joke to Hillary Clinton during the ill-advised “reset.” Wonder if he’d tell it to Mitt Romney, though? He’s a realist, after all.

Valeri Volodin sounds like Vladimir Putin

Tuesday, 18 March, 2014 0 Comments

“The Russian Federation invaded its sovereign neighbour on the first moonless night of spring. By dawn their tanks ground westward along the highways and backroads as if the countryside belonged to them, as if the quarter-century thaw from the Cold War had been a dream.” So begins the second chapter of Command Authority, the final novel by the late Tom Clancy, which was published in December last year. Those Russian tanks are rolling into the Baltic states. “This was not supposed to happen here. This was Estonia, after all, and Estonia was a NATO member state. The politicians in Tallin had promised their people that Russia would never attack them now that they had joined the alliance.”

The leader of this outrageous invasion is Valeri Volodin, a KGB veteran bent on reviving the former Soviet Empire, but as this is a work of fiction characters are a product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Anyway, after Estonia, Putin, sorry, Volodin turns his evil eye on the troubled Ukraine. “Any hopes the police might have had that the situation would defuse itself went away when tents started to be erected on both sides, and nationalists and Russian Ukrainians began clashes that turned more and more violent.”

Cut to an up-market Moscow restaurant where Stanislav Biryukov, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is having supper with a British businessman. “Russia will invade Ukraine, probably within the next few weeks,” says Biryukov, sipping his chacha, a Georgian brandy. “They will annex Crimea. From there, if they meet no resistance from the West, they will take more of the country, all the way to the Dnieper River. Once this is achieved, I believe Volodin will set his eyes on making beneficial alliances from a position of power, both in the other border countries and in the former nations of the Warsaw Pact. He believes he can return the entire region to the central control of the Kremlin. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania. They will be the next dominos to fall.”

But this is just fiction, right? And our dear leaders don’t read fiction.

St Patrick’s Day and the catechism of cliché

Monday, 17 March, 2014 0 Comments

St Patrick's Day Brian O’Nolan, who was born in Dublin in 1911, was best known by his literary alter ego, Flann O’Brien, and he also operated under another layer of creative anonymity as Myles na Gopaleen. From 1939 until his death in 1966, Myles wrote a weekly column in Irish, English or Latin for The Irish Times called Cruiskeen Lawn (‘Little brimming jug’). In several of those columns, he outlined his Catechism of Cliché. “A cliché,” he wrote, “is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the same situations in life.”

Especially for St Patrick’s Day, when Irish clichés abound, here’s Myles deconstructing the language of Ireland’s establishment, which has remained uncannily consistent of clichés over ten decades.

What does it behove us to proclaim?
Our faith.
In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?
Democracy.
From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
From the house-tops.
At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
Now, more than ever.
What action must be taken in relation to our energies?
They must be directed.
In what unique manner?
Wholeheartedly.
In what direction?
Towards the solution of the pressing post-war problems which the armistice will bring.
How will the armistice bring these problems?
In its train.
By what is the train hauled?
A 2-4-2 compound job with poppet valves and Pacific-style steam chest.

In the civilized company of the newsosaur

Sunday, 16 March, 2014 0 Comments
In the civilized company of the newsosaur

Last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University reported that 55 percent of individuals under 35 preferred digital media as their primary news source, as compared with 5 percent in the same age category who preferred print. Last week, eMarketer predicted that UK mobile advertising spending will top £2 billion […]

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Golden Youth

Saturday, 15 March, 2014 0 Comments

In the days when record shops were popular, if not entirely profitable, recordings by Golden Youth would be kept in the “Indie / Alternative” section until the band had a hit that could be categorized commercially. The duo from Sacramento in California consists of singer/songwriters Stephanie Lauren and Kyle Monroe.

Chelsea, before it became part of Londongrad

Friday, 14 March, 2014 0 Comments

In light of Sunday’s illegal referendum in Crimea, what now for the West? That is the question. Writing in the Financial Times, John Gapper makes a suggestion: “It could impose asset freezes and visa bans on a few selected oligarchs (perhaps seizing Chelsea Football Club from Roman Abramovich, the minerals magnate).”

Long before Chelsea became the home of resource thieves and their fawning retinues, Sir John Betjeman, the British Poet Laureate, was casting a wary eye on the borough. The transformation of spelling through texting was still a way off in 1977, but punk was in the air and Betjeman was convinced that “the kiddiz know the sound”. And for all those Stamford Bridge fans who think that there is no tomorrow, he reminds them, in gleeful anticipation of the inferno of the oligarchs, that “Satan stokes his furnace underground”. Here’s Chelsea 1977 from from The Best of Betjeman.

Chelsea 1977

The street was bathed in winter sunset pink
The air was redolent of kitchen sink
Between the dog-mess heaps I picked my way
To watch the dying embers of the day
Glow over Chelsea, crimson load on load
All Brangwynesque across the long King’s Road.
Deep in myself I felt a sense of doom
Fearful of death I trudge towards the tomb.
The earth beneath my feet is hardly soil
But outstretched chicken-netting coil on coil
Covering cables, sewage-pipes and wires
While underneath burn hell’s eternal fires.
Snap, crackle! pop! the kiddiz know the sound
And Satan stokes his furnace underground.

Sir John Betjeman (1906 — 1984)

Where’s the omelette?

Thursday, 13 March, 2014 0 Comments

In the glory days of the Soviet Union, for which Putin pines so much, it was not uncommon to hear famous apologists for murderous totalitarianism — Sartre, Pete Seger, Picasso, Eric Hobsbawm, Neruda — say that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

“Where’s the omelette?” George Orwell asked when confronting an egg-breaking advocate of Stalinism in the 1940s.

When speaking of Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela today, one should ask the same culinary-ethical question.

unbroken eggs

#web25

Wednesday, 12 March, 2014 0 Comments

“By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. Thousands of people worked together to build the early Web in an amazing, non-national spirit of collaboration; tens of thousands more invented the applications and services that make it so useful to us today, and there is still room for each one of us to create new things on and through the Web. This is for everyone.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Elmore Leonard’s extraordinary ordinary language

Tuesday, 11 March, 2014 0 Comments

In the early 1950s, Elmore Leonard worked as an advertising copywriter for Chevrolet. When he was asked to come up with a catchy line for the company’s half-ton trucks he went into the field to interview the men who drove them. One guy said, “You can’t wear the motherfucker out. You just get sick of looking at it and buy another one.” The Chevy executives laughed nervously when Leonard presented it to them, but said no thanks. That wasn’t what they wanted on billboards or in magazines. But it was exactly the kind of language that appeared in Leonard’s books a decade later when he turned to crime fiction writing, where it expressed the ordinary without being ordinary.

For example, there’s a scene in the 1995 film Get Shorty where Chili Palmer’s coat disappears from a restaurant cloakroom. When he takes the restaurant owner aside, he doesn’t say, “Hey, where my coat, it cost $400,” Instead, he says: “You see a black leather jacket, has lapels like a suit coat? You don’t, you owe me $379.” In the film of the book, John Travolta riffs memorably on Leonard’s language.

Language note: According to Jim Dawson’s The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words, “Possibly the earliest literary use of the term motherfucker was in the Ionic poetry of Hipponax, who accused a sculptor who had insulted him of being a metrokoites.” Dawson traces the first written American instance to a Texas Court of Appeals judgement in 1890.

Kasparov checkmates Putin

Monday, 10 March, 2014 0 Comments

Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion and considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, is not just a passionate opponent of Vladimir Putin, he’s a multimedia opponent of Vladimir Putin. Along with using Twitter to rebuke the Russian leader on an hourly basis, he’s on TV, the radio and in the traditional press. “Cut Off the Russian Oligarchs and They’ll Dump Putin” is what he wrote on Friday in the Wall Street Journal. “Use banks, not tanks,” is his advice. Snippet:

Thanks to their unfettered access to Western markets, Mr. Putin and his gang have exploited Western engagement with Russia in a way that the Soviet Union’s leaders never dreamed of. But this also means that they are vulnerable in a way the Soviets were not. If the West punishes Russia with sanctions and a trade war, that might be effective eventually, but it would also be cruel to the 140 million Russians who live under Mr. Putin’s rule. And it would be unnecessary. Instead, sanction the 140 oligarchs who would dump Mr. Putin in the trash tomorrow if he cannot protect their assets abroad. Target their visas, their mansions and IPOs in London, their yachts and Swiss bank accounts. Use banks, not tanks.

Returning from the flea market

Sunday, 9 March, 2014 0 Comments
Returning from the flea market

It is said that back in the 1880s, a visitor to St.-Ouen, just outside Porte de Clignancourt in Paris, observed traders selling scrap metal, old furniture and rags, and exclaimed, “My word, but it’s a market of fleas!” And it is from the French marché aux puces that the English term “flea market” is derived. […]

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