Category Archives: writing

The guy quote – Spike Milligan

I’ve been a big fan of Spike Milligan since I was about ten and I read Adolf Hitler: my part in his downfall. There was a hilarious passage in it about he and his comrades had leapt into the sea while on R&R and played with their submarines. It took me about five years to work out there might be a subtext. I just rather liked the idea of loads of soldiers pretending to be marine attack vessels.

Born in India, and a jazz trumpeter and vocalist before the war, he was wounded at Monte Cassino and had a pretty tough time (I thoroughly recommend his books about the war).

After the war, he was one of the great comic characters around, with a wonderful sense of the absurd and surreal. As well as writing and performing on The Goon Show, he was a poet, artist, you name it. His healthy disregard for normalcy and rules in humour (and indeed life) a striking influence on me as a teen. Here are some of the things he has said.

All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.

Are you going to come quietly, or do I have to use earplugs?

Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion.

For ten years Caesar ruled with an iron hand. Then with a wooden foot, and finally with a piece of string.

I have the body of an eighteen year old. I keep it in the fridge.

I spent many years laughing at Harry Secombe’s singing until somebody told me that it wasn’t a joke.

I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.

Is there anything worn under the kilt? No, it’s all in perfect working order.

It was a perfect marriage. She didn’t want to and he couldn’t.

It’s all in the mind, you know.

Money couldn’t buy friends, but you got a better class of enemy.

My Father had a profound influence on me, he was a lunatic.


[[ps – please check out some of my other quote collections here – The Guy Quote]]


A great interview. Very very very funny.

Spike, yes.


Stand-up. WAAAAAAAAY ahead of his time.

Jack London – well I never

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Jack London. As a child, The Call of The Wild and White Fang filled my head with ideas of man’s relationship with dogs, the savage and implacable force that is nature (about as far from a mother as one could get, yet all the more beautiful for it).Then the Star Rover, which, well, which puzzled me, quite frankly, because reincarnation and regression are hippy-dippy holisitic things these days, and not something I’d necessarily associate with the last rational escape of a tortured mind.

This was a man who was qualified to write about life and hardship because he had lived it. Who defined experiential journalism and writing, whose crackling, spitting style inspired countless modern writers.

Pioneer, alcoholic, hero, man, icon, but also a strict racist and rabid socialist – Jack London is a fascinating character. A serious tough guy.

Today’s Independent has a fascinating piece by Johann Hari (read from below). I’ve only put up the first half. Do read the whole thing (here).

The United States has a startling ability to take its most angry, edgy radicals and turn them into cuddly eunuchs.

The process begins the moment they die. Mark Twain is remembered as a quipster forever floating down the Mississippi River at sunset, while his polemics against the violent birth of the American empire lie unread and unremembered. Martin Luther King is remembered for his prose-poetry about children holding hands on a hill in Alabama, but few recall that he said the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.

But perhaps the greatest act of historical castration is of Jack London. This man was the most-read revolutionary socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders – and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog. It’s as if the Black Panthers were remembered, a century from now, for adding a pink tint to their Afros.

If Jack London is chased forever from our historical memory by the dog he invented, then we will lose one of the most intriguing, bizarre figures in American history, at once inspiring and repulsive. In his 40 years of life, he was a “bastard” child of a slum-dwelling suicidal spiritualist, a child labourer, a pirate, a tramp, a revolutionary socialist, a racist pining for genocide, a gold-digger, a war correspondent, a millionaire, a suicidal depressive, and for a time the most popular writer in America. In Wolf: the Lives of Jack London, his latest biographer, James L Haley, calls London “the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon”– but that might be because he is ultimately impossible to understand.

London nearly died by suicide before he was even born. His mother, Flora Chaney, was a ragged, hateful hysteric who reacted to anyone disagreeing with her by screaming that she was having a heart attack and collapsing to the floor. She had grown up in a 17-bedroom mansion, but she ran away as a teenager and ended up joining a religious cult that believed it could communicate with the dead. She had an affair with its leader, William Henry Chaney, who beat her when she got pregnant and demanded she have an abortion. She took an overdose of laudanum and shot herself in the head with a—fortunately—malfunctioning pistol. When the story was reported in the press, a mob threatened to hang Chaney, and he vanished from California forever.

When Flora delivered Jack in the San Francisco slums in 1876, Flora called him “my Badge of Shame” and wanted nothing to do with him. She handed him over to a black wet nurse (and freed slave) named Virginia Prentiss, who let him spend most of his childhood running in and out of her home. She called him her “white pickaninny” and her “cotton ball”, and he called her “Mammy”, no matter how many times she told him not to.

“I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak,” he wrote years later. As soon as he left primary school, he was sent to work in a cannery, stuffing pickles into jars all day, every day, for almost nothing. For the rest of his life, he was terrorised by the vision of a fully mechanised world, where human beings served The Machine. The shriek of machinery pierces through his fiction, demanding that human beings serve its whims.

He didn’t get a toothbrush until he was 19, by which time his teeth had rotted. London grew up into America’s first Great Depression, slumping from one unbearable job to another. He shovelled coal until his whole body seized up with cramps. He tried to kill himself for the first time by drowning, but a fisherman saved him. He began to notice the legions of toothless, homeless men on the streets, broken by brutal work and left to die in their Forties and Fifties. He responded, at first, with a cold Nietzschean individualism, insisting he would escape through his own personal strength and courage.

But in the despond of the depression, new ideas were emerging in America. London said they were “hammered in” to him, against his will: “No lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.”

When the tramps organised a march across America to demand jobs in 1894, London hit the road with them – only to be arrested at Niagara Falls for “vagrancy”. When he asked for a lawyer, the police laughed in his face. When he tried to plead not guilty, the judge told him to “shut up”. He was shackled and jailed for a month. London had always known the economic system was rigged against him, but now he came to believe even the law was rigged.

When he was released in 1894 at the age of 18, he began to deliver impassioned speeches on street corners, and soon he was on the front page of San Francisco papers as “the Boy Socialist” urging the workers to rise up and take the country from the robber barons.

He was offered a place at a posh prep school, and escape seemed possible for a flickering moment. But he soon dropped out after the parents at the school protested against his supposedly coarsening influence on their little darlings. He enrolled in another academy – only to be thrown out for completing the entire two-year curriculum in four months, embarrassingly outclassing all the rich kids. London felt humiliated and enraged. Soon after, he charged off to the Canadian Arctic, where there were rumours of gold. He watched his team of gold diggers die around him of drowning, cold, and scurvy. A passing doctor inspected him and told him he, too, would die if he didn’t get urgent care. He was 22 years old, and he vowed that if he lived, he would become a writer, whatever it took.

(continue reading HERE)

The poet quote

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
(from ‘Auguries of Desire‘)

There’s a good biography in Wikipedia, but here’s the short story: Born in 1757, William worked in his father’s hosiery shop until his talent for drawing became so obvious that he was apprenticed to an engraver at 14.

He worked on his first book, Songs of Innocence, with his wife Catherine. Blake engraved the words and pictures on copper plates (a method he claimed he received in a dream), while she coloured the plates and bound the books. It sold slowly during his lifetime. Songs of Experience (1794) was followed by Milton (1804-1808), and Jerusalem (1804-1820). He poured his whole being into his work. The lack of public recognition sent him into a severe depression which lasted from 1810-1817, and even his best friends thought he’d gone nuts.

Blake worked on a small scale. Most of his engravings are little more than inches in height, yet the detailed rendering is superb and exact. His work received far more public acclaim after his death. He died on August 12, 1827, and is buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London. Utterly unique, incredibly creative, a true original. Possibly the greatest artist our shores have ever produced.

A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction.

Energy is an eternal delight, and he who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.

Every harlot was a virgin once.

Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth.

What is a wife and what is a harlot? What is a church and what is a theatre? are they two and not one? Can they exist separate? Are not religion and politics the same thing? Brotherhood is religion. O demonstrations of reason dividing families in cruelty and pride!

I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.

Topic of Cancer

Christopher Hitchens wrote this for Vanity Fair following a sudden collapse that turned out to be caused by cancer. One minute he was getting reading to launch his new book, Hitch-22, the next he’s throwing up and getting carted around by ambulances and oncologists. Read it. It’s not too long, but it is a searingly honest and strangely beautiful portrayal of the landscape of cancer – and the clarity of thought that comes with catastrophe (original link here).

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

The previous evening, I had been launching my latest book at a successful event in New Haven. The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books. I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show. This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties—located on my right clavicle, or collarbone—was big enough to be seen and felt. It’s not at all good when your cancer is “palpable” from the outside. Especially when, as at this stage, they didn’t even know where the primary source was. Carcinoma works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly, from the outside in. Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area—“Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue—and I was told the biopsy results might take a week.

Working back from the cancer-ridden squamous cells that these first results disclosed, it took rather longer than that to discover the disagreeable truth. The word “metastasized” was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

The bargaining stage, though. Maybe there’s a loophole here. The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

It’s quite something, this chemo-poison. It has caused me to lose about 14 pounds, though without making me feel any lighter. It has cleared up a vicious rash on my shins that no doctor could ever name, let alone cure. (Some venom, to get rid of those furious red dots without a struggle.) Let it please be this mean and ruthless with the alien and its spreading dead-zone colonies. But as against that, the death-dealing stuff and life-preserving stuff have also made me strangely neuter. I was fairly reconciled to the loss of my hair, which began to come out in the shower in the first two weeks of treatment, and which I saved in a plastic bag so that it could help fill a floating dam in the Gulf of Mexico. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razorblade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

These are my first raw reactions to being stricken. I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.

Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Send comments on all Hitchens-related matters to

The genius of creation

Whenever I think about any sort of script or contrived scene, I always like to imagine the creative meeting behind it. And for the life of me, this (unedited) extract defies reconstruction. Drumroll please, for a bonkers stream-of-consciousness overload – stage directions/storyboard from season one of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (opening scene from episode five: Man’s crisis of identity in the latter half of the twentieth century).

Cut to large van arriving. On one side is a large sign readling ‘Confuse-a-Cat Limited: Europe’s leading cat-confusing service. By appointment to…’ and a crest. Several people get out of the van, dressed in white coats, with peaked caps and insignia. One of them has a sergeant’s stripes.

Sergeant Squad! Eyes front! Stand at ease. Cat confusers …shun!

From a following car a general alights.

General Well men, we’ve got a pretty difficult cat to confuse today so let’s get straight on with it. Jolly good. Thank you sergeant.
Sergeant Confusers attend to the van and fetch out… wait for it… fetch out the funny things. (the men unload the van) Move, move, move. One, two, one, two, get those funny things off.

The workmen are completing the erection of a proscenium with curtains in front of the still immobile cat. A and B watch with awe. The arrangements are completed. All stand ready.

Sergeant Stage ready for confusing, sir!
General Very good. Carry on, sergeant.
Sergeant Left turn, double march!
General Right men, confuse the … cat!

Drum roll and cymbals. The curtains draw back and an amazing show takes place, using various tricks: locked camera, fast motion, jerky motion, jump cuts, some pixilated motion etc. Long John Silver walks to front of stage.

Long John Silver My lords, ladies and Gedderbong.

Long John Silver disappears. A pause. Two boxers appear. They circle each other. On one’s head a bowler hat appears, vanishes. On the other’s a sterve-pipe hat appears. On the first’s head is a fez. The stove-pipe hat becomes a stetson. The fez becomes a cardinal’s hat. The stetson becomes a wimple. Then the cardinal’s hat and the wimple vanish. One of the boxers becomes Napoleon and the other boxer is astonished. Napoleon punches the boxer with the hand inside his jacket. The boxer falls, stunned. Horizontally he shoots off stage. Shot of cat, watching unimpressed. Napoleon does one-legged pixilated dance across stage and off, immediately reappearinng on other side of stage doing same dance in same direction. He reaches the other side, but is halted by a traffic policeman. The policeman beckons onto the stage a man in a penguin skin on a pogostick. The penguin gets halfway across and then turns into a dustbin. Napoleon hops off stage. Policeman goes to dustbin, opens it and Napoleon gets out. Shot of cat, still unmoved. A nude man with a towel round his waist gets out of the dustbin. Napoleon points at ground. A chair appears where he points. The nude man gets on to the chair, jumps in the air and vanishes. Then Napoleon points to ground by him and a small cannon appears. Napoleon fires cannon and the policeman disappears. The man with the towel round his waist gets out of the dustbin and is chased off stage by the penguin on the pogostick. A sedan chair is carried on stage by two chefs. The man with the towel gets out and the penguin appears from the dustbin and chases him off. Napoleon points to sedan chair and it changes into dustbin. Man in towel runs back on to stage and jumps in dustbin. He looks out and the penguin appears from the other dustbin and hits him on the head with a raw chicken. Shot of cat still unimpressed. Napoleon, the man with the towel round his waist, the policeman, a boxer, and a chef suddenly appear standing in a line, and take a bow. They immediately change positions and take another bow. The penguin appears at the end of the line with a puff of smoke. Each one in turn jumps in the air and vanishes. Shot of passive cat.
Cut to Mr A and Mrs B watching with the general.

…aaaaaand compare with the actual finished product (the extract is from 2:10 onwards or so, but you should really watch the whole thing – I won’t tell you the ending in case it spoils it)

Imagine writing that (about a cat). Pretty phat. And yet when you see the sketch, it all sort of makes sense.

The guy quote – Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre: existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. One of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, existentialism, and Marxism, his work continues to influence fields such as Marxist philosophy, sociology, and literary studies. He had a long relationship with the author and social theorist, Simone de Beauvoir. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature but refused the honour. Together, Sartre and de Beauvoir challenged the cultural and social assumptions and expectations of their upbringings, which they considered bourgeois, in both lifestyle and thought. There’s a good summary of his philosophy and thought here.

“If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.”

“Generosity is nothing else than a craze to possess. All which I abandon, all which I give, I enjoy in a higher manner through the fact that I give it away. To give is to enjoy possessively the object which one gives.”

“I do not believe in God; his existence has been disproved by Science. But in the concentration camp, I learned to believe in men.”

“I am no longer sure of anything. If I satiate my desires, I sin but I deliver myself from them; if I refuse to satisfy them, they infect the whole soul.”

“If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”

“It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous.”

“There are two types of poor people, those who are poor together and those who are poor alone. The first are the true poor, the others are rich people out of luck.”

“There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

“We do not judge the people we love.”

“Words are loaded pistols.”


[[ps – please check out some of my other quote collections here – The Guy Quote]]

So the war was dodgy – now what?

Good overview by Robert Fox from The First Post here. Hans Blix has told the Chilcot Inquiry he thought the war was illegal, he hardly found anything, and all the pressure on him and his inspectors to uncover WMD was nothing but warmongering.

“Were they (the Iraqis) a danger?” he asked rhetorically. “No they were not – they were prostrate. So what we got from this was anarchy, and it was an anarchy worse than tyranny.” Full text below, or go to the original story here.

Team America

The former head of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq has landed some heavy body blows against Tony Blair’s reasons for taking Britain to war in Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein was ready to deploy weapons of mass destruction.

“I take the firm view this was an illegal war,” Dr Blix, a renowned international lawyer and former Swedish foreign minister, told the Chilcot Inquiry in London yesterday.

From the end of 2002 to March 2003 his team of weapons inspectors found no traces in Iraq of chemical and biological weapons that could be a serious threat to the outside world; most had been destroyed after the Desert Storm war of 1991.

They did find some traces of old warheads that could carry both chemical and biological warheads. However, despite carrying out six inspections a day, and visiting a total of 700 sites, they found almost nothing that could be deemed “a major breech” of UN resolutions – though both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair claimed the contrary.

Of these 700 sites, 30 had been pointed out to the Blix team as major weapons establishments by the CIA and MI6 – yet no serious weaponry was found there.

Dr Blix confirmed that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his nuclear programmes after the war in 1991 – and by the winter of 2002 – months before American and British forces crossed into Iraq. Both Washington and London knew this.

One of his most damning criticisms of both the Bush and Blair governments was that once Blix’s UN inspectors were let back into Iraq in November 2002, much of the intelligence on which the allies had been building the case against Saddam was shown to be weak or wrong. Yet, said Blix, no action was taken to remedy this.

In nearly three hours of testimony, Hans Blix gave a fascinating word picture of the war factions in the British and American governments. It was a testosterone-driven team seemingly bent on action – or “high on military” as he colourfully put it. “Were they (the Iraqis) a danger?” he asked rhetorically. “No they were not – they were prostrate. So what we got from this was anarchy, and it was an anarchy worse than tyranny.”

Blix stated several times yesterday that he thought that Tony Blair had been “sincere.” He had hoped always to get full backing from the UN, but in the end had been “taken prisoner on the American train” to military action. He said that the case put forward by the Blair government was based on “a very constrained legal explanation… You see how Lord Goldsmith [Blair’s Attorney-General] wriggled about and how he, himself, very much doubted it was adequate.”

Dr Blix was long the bête noir of the Bush neo-cons, and Vice President Cheney tried to get him sacked several times. The claim by Blair that Blix’s inspectors “had failed!” was shown to be patently untrue by Dr Blix.

He said such inspection teams would be vital in future – but warned that governments like Britain and America should not send their intelligence agents, spies, to join them, as the heavy intelligence presence had undermined the UN inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.

This is the latest powerful piece of testimony to the Chilcot inquiry that has called into question both the behaviour and explanation of the Blair government for taking to Britain to war in Iraq in 2003.

It ranks alongside that of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office lawyer who resigned in protest, the claims by the veteran diplomat Carne Ross that vital FO information and documents have been deliberately withheld, and last week’s devastating critique by Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller.

The former MI5 head said that the intelligence was weak to negligible and that the action in Iraq had made the threat of attacks by radicalised Muslims in Britain “overwhelming”.

At times during yesterday’s hearings, three of the Chilcot panel sounded like Tony Blair’s apologists as they tried to mount counter-arguments to Dr Blix. But the game is up. The committee must now know that they have to explain why Tony Blair went to war on a whim and a somewhat flaky vision of the world – as evident in the almost hysterical testimony Blair himself gave to the inquiry in January.

More to the point, the Chilcot committee has to explain why those in charge of our destiny here in Britain – in parliament, in the ministries, in the law courts and the military – allowed him to do it almost without question.

Active Listening

This came from the Scott Adams blog (Dilbert). Read on – you might learn something.

A few of you wondered what I meant by active listening in the context of a conversation. Maybe you want to be a good listener without being bored out of your frickin’ skull. I’ll tell you how.

The worst kind of listener is the topic hijacker. Let’s say you enjoy snowboarding and you’re listening to a neighbor describe his new gas grille. Don’t do this move:

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Really? I got a new snowboard. Let me tell you about it…

That’s just being a jerk. Active listening, as I choose to define it, involves asking questions to steer the conversation in an entertaining direction without being too obvious about it. Using my example, let’s say you have no interest in hearing about the wonders of barbecuing, but you don’t want to be a blatant conversation hijacker. You might steer the conversation thusly.

Neighbor: My wife got me a new grille for my birthday.

You: Does that mean you do most of the cooking now?

Neighbor: Ha ha! Yes, I think it was a trick.

You: If you do the cooking, who does the dishes?

Neighbor: Well, usually the one who doesn’t cook does the dishes.

You: Do you enjoy cooking?

Neighbor: Not really.

You: Your wife does. So you’re getting screwed when she does the cooking and you do the dishes because she enjoys her end of it.

Okay, maybe in this example the conversation will lead to your neighbor getting a divorce. As a general rule, the more dangerous or inappropriate the conversation, the more interesting it is. You’ll have to use your judgment to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Also as a general rule, conversations about how people have or will interact are interesting, and conversations about objects are dull. So steer toward topics that involve human perceptions and feelings, and away from objects and things.

You also want to avoid any topic that falls into the “you had to be there” category. For example, if someone is describing a vacation, avoid asking about the food. Nothing is more boring than a description of food. Ask instead if the person answered email from the beach. That gets to how a person thinks, and how hard it is to release a habit. And it could provide an escape route to move the conversation to yet another place. Sometimes it takes two or three bounces to get someplace of mutual interest.

You’ve heard of the Kevin Bacon game, where every actor is just a few connections away from Kevin Bacon. Likewise, you almost always have something interesting in common with every other person. The trick is to find it. As with the Kevin Bacon game, you’d be surprised at how few questions it takes to get there.

When I was doing a lot of travel for book tours and speaking, I spent many hours with cab and limo drivers. I discovered two questions that would almost always lead to something interesting:

1. Where did you grow up?
2. Have you driven anyone famous?

I heard amazing stories of political exile, rock star antics, and war. It was great stuff. Most people have at least one good story in them. And you can usually find that story by asking where the person lived and what their parents did for a living.

Watch how this works. If you leave a comment, mention where you grew up, and what your parents did for a living. Notice from the other comments how often at least one of those things is interesting or has a connection to something you care about.

Wikileaks, The Guardian and the real war in Afghanistan

A huge cache of secret US military files released by Wikileaks paints a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan. It reveals how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and Nato commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency.

The whole thing is available online through The Guardian’s purpose-built hub, which has video instructing you how to navigate the logs and live blogging as the news is trickled out. It’s an astonishing piece of journalism. Click the picture below to go through to it.

The disclosures come from more than 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports about the conflict obtained by the whistleblowers’ website Wikileaks in one of the biggest leaks in US military history. The files, which were made available to the Guardian, the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel, give a blow-by-blow account of the fighting over the last six years, which has so far cost the lives of more than 320 British and more than 1,000 US troops.

No fee was involved and Wikileaks was not involved in the preparation of the Guardian’s articles.

The Guy Quote – Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer, 1923 – 2007. Novelist, journalist, playwright, screenwriter and film director. Innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism. Books like “The Fight“, which covered Muhammed Ali vs George Foreman in 1975. Nothing if not bellicose, he was a political activist. His personal life was…well, he had six wives and nine children. In 1960 he stabbed his second wife Adele Morales with a penknife. As you’ll see, there’s not a lot of love lost between him and feminists.

“Women think of being a man as a gift. It is a duty. Even making love can be a duty. A man has always got to get it up, and love isn’t always enough.”

“I’m hostile to men, I’m hostile to women, I’m hostile to cats, to poor cockroaches, I’m afraid of horses.”

“In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.”

“What characterizes a member of a minority group is that he is forced to see himself as both exceptional and insignificant, marvelous and awful, good and evil.”

“There is nothing safe about sex. There never will be.”

“Tough guys don’t dance. You had better believe it.”

“A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.” This he said during an address on Richard Milhous Nixon and Women’s Liberation at the University of California at Berkeley. Then at the end of his speech he invited “all the feminists in the audience to please hiss.” When a satisfying number obliged, he commented: “Obedient little bitches.”



[[ps – please check out some of my other quote collections here – The Guy Quote]]

Speed eating gets dirty

I’ve followed the rise of speed-eating with morbid (yet relatively distant) fascination. I first found out about it when someone sent me a few links showing Takeru Kobayashi (below), a skinny Japanese guy who held the world hotdog-eating record for over six years, and who once ate 100 roast pork buns in 12 minutes, demolishing hotdogs by the dozen.
But earlier this week he was arrested. Couldn’t quite work out what he’d done. Seems he’d stormed the stage at Nathan’s Famous (the big eating competition – all the big guns go) and had to be hauled away by the cops. Turns out he was making a protest.

I’ll hand over to William Saletan now. He has written this excellent article on the way a one-time game (who doesn’t remember the barf-o-rama from Stand By Me with affection?) has turned into some thing much more serious:

Major League Eating, founded 13 years ago as the International Federation of Competitive Eating, began as a lark. The P.R. men who run it, brothers George and Rich Shea, gave it a comic Latin motto that meant “In gorging, truth.” They called their members “Horsemen of the Esophagus” and “weapons of mass digestion.” For this year’s hot-dog contest, they outlawed vuvuzelas.
But MLE is no longer a joke. In the last year, it has organized 85 contests with nearly $600,000 in prizes. It has secured sponsorships from Coca-Cola, Harrah’s, Netflix, Orbitz, Pizza Hut, Smirnoff, and Waffle House. This year, it recruited Pepto-Bismol, Old Navy, and Heinz to sponsor the hot-dog contest. In addition to MLE’s TV programming for Fox, SpikeTV, and other networks, ESPN now pays the league to broadcast the hot-dog contest, with 40,000 spectators on hand and another 1.5 million households watching.

Success has given MLE the swagger of a monopoly. It compares itself to the NFL and boasts exclusive representation of “the world’s top competitive eating stars.” On Monday, MLE President Rich Shea told CBS, “If you want to be in the Super Bowl, you have to be in the NFL. If you want to be in the Super Bowl of competitive eating, which is the Nathan’s contest, you have to be a Major League Eater.” Outside MLE, he scoffed, “I don’t know where else you go.”

Hence the contract dispute. Years ago, Kobayashi and others entered the hot-dog contest as amateurs. Then MLE introduced contracts. This year, MLE barred Kobayashi because he refused to sign its contract, which restricted his freedom to earn money from activities outside MLE, such as endorsing products. Kobayashi’s description of the league’s demands resembles a purported standard MLE (IFOCE) contract that has been posted online by a rival league, All Pro Eating. Under the posted contract, the “performer agrees to participate solely and exclusively in organized competitive eating events, exhibitions and appearances … which are sanctioned and approved by the IFOCE.” Furthermore, “IFOCE shall also be Performer’s sole and exclusive representative with regard to obtaining and/or negotiating on Performer’s [behalf] for any revenue opportunities,” including “personal appearances, merchandising, licensing, advertising, film, television, radio, internet and all other media.” For this, the “performer agrees to pay IFOCE 20% of the gross amounts payable to performer under said agreements.”

On Sunday, when Kobayashi stormed the stage, Rich Shea dealt him MLE’s worst insult: “unprofessional.”

But competitive eating has become more than professional. According to Kobayashi, it’s now government-sanctioned. “I recently received a O-1 visa to work in the United States, a visa granted to athletes judged to have ‘extraordinary ability,'” he reports. “In my case that ability was competitive eating.” Such visas are officially reserved for people with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.”

In fact, U.S. political leaders seem divided. While the U.S. immigration service gave Kobayashi his special visa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all but endorsed Kobayashi’s chief rival at last week’s “weighing-in ceremony” for the hot-dog contest. Standing beside MLE star Joey Chestnut, Bloomberg hailed the contest as “the World Cup of eating up,” dismissed Kobayashi as a coward for not participating, and saluted Chestnut for “eating an amazing 68 dogs … in just 10 minutes.”

This is the same Mayor Bloomberg who banned trans fats in New York restaurants and is now pressuring food companies, under the threat of legislation, to reduce their salt use. But 68 hot dogs? That’s a feat worth celebrating. Perhaps the mayor is unaware that each Nathan’s hot dog has 692 milligrams of sodium and 18.2 grams of fat, including 6.9 grams of saturated fat and half a gram of trans fat. This means that in the first 30 seconds of the hot-dog contest, Chestnut exceeded the U.S. government’s prescribed “tolerable” daily intake of sodium, and within 45 seconds, he exceeded the limit of his recommended daily intake of fat. By the end of the 10 minutes, he had eaten 10 to 17 times his recommended fat intake (including 33 grams of trans fats) and 20 times his “tolerable” sodium intake. The mayor should have handed him a cigar—it would have done less damage.

Bloomberg isn’t alone in glorifying eating contests. Scan the Congressional Record, and you’ll find tributes from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. These politicians, like countless others, stand foursquare against pornography, except when it involves deep-throating 68 wieners on ESPN.

If you’ve never seen the Nathan’s contest, you can get your fill of it by watching ESPN’s excerpt, a full-length video, or MLE’s highlights from last year’s show. It’s an orgy of brown drool, flying debris, and masticated mush. You’ll see fists and fingers pushing food down throats. You’ll see contestants twisting their necks and shaking their bellies to make the food go down. “They work on their gag reflex,” one ESPN announcer explains. Another praises a contestant: “He was blessed upon birth with an overactive gall bladder and not four but six first molars. He’s a great eater.” In case the frontal images aren’t graphic enough, ESPN delivers close-ups through its “chew-view cam,” along with a running “dogs per minute” stat.

Chestnut, who has won the contest for the past four years, explains his techniques to Esquire: “I drink massive amounts of water to make sure the muscles around my stomach are still loose and stretched. You can fool your body into accepting more—I’m jumping up and down to control my stomach and push the food through faster. It wants to settle in your stomach, but I’m getting the food to settle farther and farther down.” He tells ESPN, “I’ve practiced ignoring the feelings of hunger and being full for so long, I don’t even feel them anymore.” Ten years ago, the record at the Nathan’s contest was 25 hot dogs. Now it’s 68, and Chestnut claims to have forced down 72 in a practice session.

The physical risks of this lifestyle are obvious. Three years ago in Slate, Jason Fagone, the author of Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, recounted strokes, jaw injuries, choking deaths, fatal water intoxications, and other eating-contest tragedies. “Thanks to increasing prize money and media exposure, there’s incentive now for competitive eaters to challenge the physical limits of the body,” Fagone observed. They’re “stretching their stomachs with huge volumes of chugged liquid,” inducing digestive paralysis and risking “gastric rupture.” A study published that year cautioned that “professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting.” Even MLE warns prospective contestants of the sport’s “inherent dangers and risks.”

But the contestants keep pouring in. Thanks to MLE, ESPN, and a growing stable of corporate sponsors, the fame and money become more attractive each year. One contestant has chugged 48 ounces of beer in less than six seconds. Another has wolfed down a 72-ounce steak in less than seven minutes. People weighing less than 100 pounds are eating one-eighth of their body weight in eight minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, more than a dozen elite competitors touted by MLE and All Pro Eating weigh over 300 pounds. One of them, 420-pound Eric “Badlands” Booker, crushed Slate’s Emily Yoffe in a matzo-ball eating contest five years ago. Booker also makes rap CDs about competitive eating. You can buy them, of course, through the MLE Web site.

Fifty years from now, when historians are looking for a moment that captures the depravity of our age—the gluttony, the self-destruction, the craving for worthless fame—it won’t be bathhouses, Big Love, or AdultFriendFinder. It’ll be Joey Chestnut stuffing that 68th hot dog down his unresisting gullet, live on ESPN. Or, worse, it’ll be the guy who broke his record.

The man quote

“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it – don’t cheat with it.”

Ernest Hemingway

Why do men (sometimes want to) cheat?

(from a piece by Paul Wachter on AolNews)

Why do men, in particular middle-aged men, have affairs?

One’s tempted to answer the question — or a revision of it (why do men sleep with other women — or men?) — with Sir Edmund Hillary’s response to someone who asked him why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he said. Sexual opportunities are out there, too.

And while there are myriad reasons one might stray, the authors have identified a biological one.

[O]ne factor we think deserves more attention is the role of testosterone (T) in middle-aged men’s eroticism. In their twenties, men’s T levels begin a long decline, often experienced as diminished passion and appetite for life. Suppressed T levels are associated with depression, heart attacks, dementia, and overall mortality rates from 88 to 250 percent higher. One of the few things that can reliably and immediately revive a man’s sagging testosterone is exposure to a new woman. One researcher found that even a brief chat with an attractive woman raised men’s testosterone levels by fourteen percent within minutes.

Ryan writes that men may confuse this testosterone spike with “love” and make decisions they later come to regret. But that seems to be straying from the scientific into the moralistic. There’s no reason to think this spike triggers feelings of “love.” It may be simply feelings of titillation, which are sufficient drivers of action.

Norman Foster at 75

Jonathan Glancey interviews Norman Foster for the Guardian:

Norman Foster at 75: Norman’s conquests
As the great British architect Norman Foster turns 75, he talks to Jonathan Glancey about flying cars, his new underground city – and how he beat bowel cancer

Portrait by Kathryn Rathke for Economist

‘The other day,” says Norman Foster, “I was counting the number of aircraft I’ve flown: from sailplanes and a Spitfire to a Cessna Citation. By chance, it comes to 75.” So Foster, who turned 75 this month, has decided to make models of all 75, to hang in his own personal museum, which he keeps at his Swiss home, an 18th-century chateau set in vineyards between Lausanne and Geneva.

These model aircraft will hover over his collection of some of the 20th-century’s greatest machines, cherished for both their engineering brilliance and streamlined beauty; many of them look like winged or wheeled versions of Foster’s most innovative buildings. “At the moment,” says the architect, “I’m restoring a Citroën Sahara, designed to tackle north African dunes. I’m also thinking of getting a Bell 47 helicopter as a focal point. And I’ve had a model made of the Graf Zeppelin airship.”

This last item puts me in mind of 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin, the Zeppelin-like London skyscraper that bears witness to Foster’s passion for engineering marvels – a passion that began in childhood. Five years ago, I asked the architect if he had ever been a railway enthusiast. He replied by postcard, with a sketch of a Royal Scot class 4-6-0 thundering along, just as he would have seen it from his bedroom window, in the terraced house in Manchester where he grew up.

Foster has come a long way from those zinc-bath-in-front-of-the-fire days. The boy who left school at 16 to do his national service with the RAF is now – as his astronomical career shows, and as Deyan Sudjic writes in his new biography – “a phenomenon”. But the lad from Levenshulme never forgot what he saw and learned as a working-class child brought up in an industrial Britain.

“There’s a snobbery at work in architecture,” says Foster, speaking at his riverside studio in Battersea, London. “The subject is too often treated as a fine art, delicately wrapped in mumbo-jumbo. In reality, it’s an all-embracing discipline taking in science, art, maths, engineering, climate, nature, politics, economics. Every time I’ve flown an aircraft, or visited a steelworks, or watched a panel-beater at work, I’ve learned something new that can be applied to buildings. Disciplines connect, from locomotive engineering to the design of a bridge, or from a study of the way raptors and gliders soar. The most amazing lesson in aerodynamics I ever had was the day I climbed a thermal in a glider at the same time as an eagle. I witnessed, close up, effortlessness and lightness combined with strength, precision and determination. ”

(read the rest of the interview here)

Repetitive, bored or urgent – which one are you?

When designing applications, Google breaks down users into three different categories: repetitive now, bored now and urgent now.

The “repetitive now” user is someone checking for the same piece of information over and over again, like checking the same stock quotes or weather. Google uses cookies to help cater to mobile users who check and recheck the same data points.

The “bored now” are users who have time on their hands. People on trains or waiting in airports or sitting in cafes. Mobile users in this behavior group look a lot more like casual Web surfers, but mobile phones don’t offer the robust user input of a desktop, so the applications have to be tailored.

The “urgent now” is a request to find something specific fast, like the location of a bakery or directions to the airport. Since a lot of these questions are location-aware, Google tries to build location into the mobile versions of these queries.

The same is true of writing (especially for web). The best applications, and indeed the best magazines/papers/blogs/whatever all have something in them that appeals to all three types.

Wendy Cope

I like Wendy Cope‘s poems. She’s very dry, gives you plenty of room to make the scene in your head. Also quite uncompromising on blithering idiots, as in this poem, “Men and their Boring Arguments”.

One man on his own can be quite good fun
But don’t go drinking with two –
They’ll probably have an argument
And take no notice of you.

What makes men so tedious
Is the need to show off and compete.
They’ll bore you to death for hours and hours
Before they’ll admit defeat.

It often happens at dinner-parties
Where brother disputes with brother
And we can’t even talk among ourselves
Because we’re not next to each other.

Some men like to argue with women –
Don’t give them a chance to begin.
You won’t be allowed to change the subject
Until you have given in.

A man with the bit between his teeth
Will keep you up half the night
And the only way to get some sleep
Is to say, ‘I expect you’re right.’

I expect you’re right, my dearest love.
I expect you’re right, my friend.
These boring arguments make no difference
To anything in the end.

If I were a giant

Priory Woods School in Middlesborough has an amazing web project, getting kids from all around the world to upload “Giant Stories” (and, sometimes, accompanying pictures). They are, if you don’t mind me saying, absolutely inspired. Some are heartbreaking. Some are like haiku. I’ve put a few below, but you should really click through to HERE and see for yourself – and if you know any teachers, tell them to get stuck in with their schools too.

I were a Giant, I would destroy towns. There would be massive destruction. I would be green and smelly. I would be mean and destroy the Earth. There would only be two people left on Earth.
They would die in space with me, the giant. (Joshua, 7, USA)

IF I was a giant, I would kill people. I would go to a jungle and climb trees and kill lions by kicking footballs in their eyes.
I would like to climb a mountain and jump off. (George, 11, UK)

If i woke up to be a giant, I would take over as queen and get free things. I would eat until I was full and have lots of friends watch loads of movies, listen to music in the sun and go swimming in the sea. When i go to sleep I would go to a cotton factory and a mattress factory, put the cotton on the mattresses and build a big room to put them in. I would get a massive cover then sleep. I would never go to school. I would have my dream job and never have to wake up if i didn’t want to. Nobody would call me fat because everyone would think it is cool to be fat so I would be so popular. (Kirsty, 10, UK)

One day there was a giant. She was too fat and a little girl was crying. The giant ate 20 chickens.
The End. (Jamie Lea, 7, Australia)

Objectivity, information and the BNP

True journalism – and I don’t mean celebrity gossip or extended captions for fashion shoots – has its roots in the struggle for fairness and objectivity. As a journalist, you report the news so that readers can make up their own opinions. People still die for this right around the world. We are incredibly lucky in this country to have a free press.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) takes its responsibilities very seriously. Beyond looking out for obvious stuff – rates of pay, working conditions and so on – it strives to bring an equal level of scrutiny to all subjects we may write about.

Among the points in the NUJ’s Code of Conduct are various points including that a journalist:

  • strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair
  • differentiates between fact and opinion
  • produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation

So what does this mean around election time – specifically with political groups that base their policies on issues of race, creed and so on? Simple. It means that journalists should, if anything, intensify their focus. Politics of hate are incredibly difficult to deal with. And it is all too easy to let a comfort zone settle around groups that – for the time being at least – are wearing a friendlier face.

We can’t afford to let that happen. It’s just too important. And as for the consequences of letting things drift…well, they don’t really bear thinking about.

The NUJ has started a website, Reporting the BNP, which deals with exactly this issue. Even if you aren’t a journalist, it makes fascinating reading.

It provides background on personalities, policies and activities; it has a couple of fascinating first-hand narratives by journalists who have covered the BNP; and it explains how the party has been modernising as well as explaining itself to the public.

And when many people don’t know much more about the BNP other than that it is “tough on immigration”, the facts are more important than ever. The public needs truthful information, not obfuscation and sound-bites from PRs.

This is what unions should be about: enabling their members to do their jobs, allowing them to see – and paint – the bigger picture, protecting the liberties that we so often take for granted.

I’ll leave the final word to Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the NUJ:

As journalists we have a responsibility to hold politicians to account.

Our job is to scrutinise people from all parties. Our job is also to tell the truth, which is why we have provided this resource for journalists covering the BNP in the course of their work.

It gives background information on the party, its past, its policies and its personnel; it provides information on how to follow the party’s progress in the European Parliament; it provides resources to help challenge the party’s claims on housing, immigration and race, and it explains why the BNP is not like any other party.

After all, no other party:

  • was founded on the basis of a whites-only admission policy
  • feels the need to remind members: ‘We are not a racist party’
  • denies the Holocaust
  • shelters so many convicted criminals in its ranks
  • has links with a website that encourages attacks on journalists

The NUJ encourages its members to expose the BNP to public scrutiny and to challenge their claims.

When you do, you will find the veneer of respectability soon wears off. A few well-directed questions here, a bit of background research there, and the British National Party stands before you as it really is.

This website provides you with a starting point for that research and puts the party, and its members, into a political and historical context. We hope you find it useful.

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary, NUJ

Reporting the BNP

OCD office

This comes from Passive Aggressive Notes, and it’s well worth clicking through to see the whole story. I want my time back.

Samuel Johnson on Sleep

by Samuel Johnson
The Idler‘ no. 32, Saturday, 25th November 1758

Among the innumerable mortifications that way-lay human arrogance on every side may well be reckoned our ignorance of the most common objects and effects, a defect of which we become more sensible by every attempt to supply it. Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiaritv with knowledge, and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things when they are shown their form or told their use; but the Speculatist, who is not content with superficial views, harrasses himself with fruitless curiosity, and still as he enquires more perceives only that he knows less.

Sleep is a state in which a great part of every life is passed. No animal has been yet discovered, whose existence is not varied with intervals of insensibility; and some late Philosophers have extended the empire of Sleep over the vegetable world.

Yet of this change so frequent, so great, so general, and so necessary, no searcher has yet found either the efficient or final cause; or can tell by what power the mind and body are thus chained down in irresistible stupefaction; or what benefits the animal receives from this alternate suspension of its active powers.

Whatever may be the multiplicity or contrariety of opinions upon this subject, Nature has taken sufficient care that Theory shall have little influence on Practice. The most diligent enquirer is not able long to keep his eyes open; the most eager disputant will begin about midnight to desert his argument; and once in four and twenty hours, the gay and the gloomy, the witty and the dull, the clamorous and the silent, the busy and the idle, are all overpowered by the gentle tyrant, and all lie down in the equality of Sleep.

Philosophy has often attempted to repress insolence, by asserting that all conditions are levelled by Death; a position which, however it may deject the happy, will seldom afford much comfort to the wretched. It is far more pleasing to consider that Sleep is equally a leveller with Death; that the time is never at a great distance, when the balm of rest shall be effused alike upon every head, when the diversities of life shall stop their operation, and the high and the low shall lie down together.

It is somewhere recorded of Alexander, that in the pride of conquests, and intoxication of flattery, he declared that he only perceived himself to be a man by the necessity of Sleep. Whether he considered Sleep as necessary to his mind or body, it was indeed a sufficient evidence of human infirmity; the body which required such frequency of renovation gave but faint promises of immortality; and the mind which, from time to time, sunk gladly into insensibility, had made no very near approaches to the felicity of the supreme and self-sufficient Nature.

I know not what can tend more to repress all the passions that disturb the peace of the world, than the consideration that there is no height of happiness or honour, from which man does not eagerly descend to a state of unconscious repose; that the best condition of life is such, that we contentedly quit its good to be disentangled from its evils; that in a few hours splendor fades before the eye, and praise itself deadens in the ear; the senses withdraw from their objects, and reason favours the retreat.

What then are the hopes and prospects of covetousness, ambition, and rapacity? Let him that desires most have all his desires gratified, he never shall attain a state, which he can, for a day and a night, contemplate with satisfaction, or from which, if he had the power of perpetual vigilance, he would not long for periodical separations.

All envy would be extinguished if it were universally known that there are none to be envied, and surely none can be much envied who are not pleased with themselves. There is reason to suspect that the distinctions of mankind have more show than value, when it is found that all agree to be weary alike of pleasures and of cares; that the powerful and the weak, the celebrated and obscure, join in one common wish, and implore from Nature’s hand the nectar of oblivion.

Such is our desire of abstraction from ourselves, that very few are satisfied with the quantity of stupefaction which the needs of the body force upon the mind. Alexander himself added intemperance to sleep, and solaced with the fumes of wine the- sovereignty of the world; and almost every man has some art, by which he steals his thoughts away from his present state.

It is not much of life that is spent in close attention to any important duty. Many hours of every day are suffered to fly away without any traces left upon the intellects. We suffer phantoms to rise up before us, and amuse ourselves with the dance of airy images, which after a time we dismiss for ever, and know not how we have been busied.

Many have no happier moments than those that they pass in solitude, abandoned to their own imagination, which sometimes puts sceptres in their hands or mitres on their heads, shifts the scene of pleasure with endless variety, bids all the forms of beauty sparkle before them, and gluts them with every change of visionary luxury.

It is easy in these semi-slumbers to collect all the possibilities of happiness, to alter the course of the Sun, to bring back the past, and anticipate the future, to unite all the beauties of all seasons, and all the blessings of all climates, to receive and bestow felicity, and forget that misery is the lot of man. All this is a voluntary dream, a temporary recession from the realities of life to airy fictions; and habitual subjection of reason to fancy.

Others are afraid to be alone, and amuse themselves by a perpetual succession of companions: but the difference is not great; in solitude we have our dreams to ourselves, and in company we agree to dream in concert. The end sought in both is forgetfulness of ourselves.

Samuel Johnson, 1709 – 1784.