Tuesday, February 23, 2010

For flip's sake

Sigh... the BBC really does like to beat itself up about trivialities, doesn't it? In last night's entertaining Newsnight debate on Gordon Brown's bullying, Jeremy Paxman read a quote from Andrew Rawnsley's book which included a naughty word, specifically the F word in its present participle.

Not really the worst thing that could have been said. It was almost 11pm, two hours after the watershed, and you could hear far worse if you switched channels and watched any of the comedy shows or films that were on.

This being the Beeb, though, not only was Paxman instructed to apologise for what he said, but a news story was then written on the BBC website about it.

I did admire the mealy-mouthed way in which Paxo apologised, though:
"Apparently I'm told by our editor I have to apologise for quoting what you said the Prime Minister said, so honour satisfied now."
I also found it amusing that the Government had wheeled out John Prescott, a talented bully himself, to defend the Prime Minister. Still, it could have been Alastair Campbell...

Prescott seemed to find it hard to understand why Andrew Rawnsley didn't name his sources, even though it was explained that they were serving civil servants who could find themselves in difficulty if identified. It does not follow, as Prescott alleged, that if you can't name a source then it must not be true. Rawnsley is too professional a journalist for that.

Then again, what would you expect from a Government that is more than happy to name confidential sources and hang them out to dry if it helps them. The name David Kelly springs to mind...

Monday, February 22, 2010

It makes me fume

Speaking of pipe-smoking, I was disturbed to read last week that a Turkish television channel has been fined £21,000 by a watchdog for broadcasting a Tintin cartoon in which Captain Haddock and some of the villains were smoking.

Normally, Turkish broadcasters blur images of smoking so that weak-minded viewers at home cannot fall under the evil influence and be tempted into plunging a Capstan's Full Strength into their mouth.

This is a bit silly. Is there really any harm in villains being portrayed smoking? Surely that is the sort of diabolical thing villains do. Or should they be restricted to only minor crimes, such as driving without putting on their seatbelt or fiddling their expenses?

As for Captain Haddock smoking, as every Tintin fan knows, the real problem the poor captain has is not being able to smoke his pipe in peace. I can't recall him ever getting through a whole pouch without Tintin slapping him on the back or Snowy biting his ankles or Professor Calculus roller-skating into him or umpteen other comic incidents that inevitably end with Haddock's pipe being broken. The whole thrust of Tintin is as anti-smoking propaganda.

Surely there are far worse things for the Turkish censors to get upset about, such as Captain Haddock's excessive drinking or his colourful bad language. Or, indeed, the barely veiled racism and anti-semitism in the books. Although that is probably OK in Turkey.

The signature that killed 60 million

This photo, from the magnificent Iconic Photos blog, shows the German delegation signing the armistice treaty that ended the First World War in the train carriage of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces who claimed that he had defeated Germany by smoking his pipe (ie, by not getting over-excited).

I've probably got a bit over-excited myself with the headline of this blog (the pipe is getting unblocked this week) but a case could be made that this signature helped to shape the events of the next 20 years that led to the world joining battle once more. Adolf Hitler felt the humiliation of the armistice so keenly that he made the French sign an armistice in the same train carriage after their capitulation in 1940.

What really grabs me about the picture is the quality of facial hair on display, from the neatly clipped bespectacled chap on the left looking like a ticket inspector, to the drooping walrus in the topper on the right and then the mad monk with the wild eyes and what is possibly a fake beard lurking at the back.

It is a great shame that politicians today don't go in for such magnificent whiskers. Just think what a soup-strainer and mutton chops could do for Gordon Brown's image...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Laidback efforts

At the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, there was a sarcastic sneer from Australia as Britain's medal tally passed theirs. They sniffed that we were only good at sports that involve sitting down: cycling, rowing, sailing, kayaking etc.

Many congratulations, therefore, to Amy Williams, the new Olympic going-downhill-frighteningly-fast-on-a-teatray champion. She proves that Britain are more than useful at sports that involve lying down too. For our next trick, an Olympic champion who wins in their sleep?

Williams's win also provides the perfect riposte for anyone who despairs when head teachers ban children from going outside in cold weather in case they slip and fall.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Plain speaking

Sometimes honest opinion is better than party politics. Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, could have had all sorts of fun with the Nicholas Winterton story on Question Time yesterday after the rubicund Tory said that MPs shouldn't travel any lower than first-class on trains because it was horrid to ride with the plebs in steerage.

Hattersley could have said that Winterton was no different from any other Tory; he could have said that this showed they haven't changed under David Cameron; he could have done all sorts of point-scoring and fear-raking about toffs and arrogance and the nasty party. But Hattersley has more class. Instead, he said this:
"Nicholas Winteron is an arse."
Actually, he said "ass", but I think "arse" suits Winteron far better. It should be said slowly, rolling the R like a gin-soaked academic tearing a strip out of an undergraduate's ill-formed essay. You may think of your own four-letter words.

He is a pillock, a prat and a pompous prick. The sooner that this trougher and his equally obnoxious MP wife - known to crack the odd gag that could be interpreted as racist but (worse) were not even funny - leave Parliament, the better.

Then again, there is a fair argument to be made about MPs needing a quiet carriage with table space on which to do their work while travelling by train. If only it was made less obnoxiously by people who are less of an arse.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two more slips

Continuing the theme of inadvertent but funny errors in newspapers, two geographical howlers as picked up by regrettheerror.com:

From The Justice, a student paper at Brandeis University, wherever that is:
The original article provided the incorrect location of New York University’s new institution. It is in Abu Dhabi, not Abu Ghraib.
From the Canadian Press:
The Canadian Press moved a story April 3 that erroneously reported The Wilkins Ice Shelf was originally part of Jamaica. In fact the Ice Shelf, located on the western side of the Antarctic was originally the size of Jamaica.

Through the slips

Journalists are known to make the odd mistake, even when sober, but occasionally the error is far more entertaining than what should have appeared.

Sub-editors on The Times are often reminded to engage their brains when converting from imperial to metric after a 30kg bat (as in flying mouse) appeared on the news pages a few years ago. Readers quite rightly were amused or afraid at the thought of a flying creature built like an overweight labrador.

It can go the other way, too, as two years ago someone converted a 33cm-tall koala into one measuring 85 inches. The briefest pause for thought should have made the sub realise that they were describing a marsupial measuring more than seven feet from pointy toe to bushy ear.

If the bear really was that big, the Australian rugby selectors would have shaved him and placed him in the second row.

Anyway, I write not to pick up the delightful traces of human error in my own paper but to raise a cock-up elsewhere. The Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column is often worth a read and one note in this week's paper made me smile:
"Regarding a phrase in our obituary of Dick Francis (15 February, page 36), a reader writes: 'The concept of an 'unauthorised autobiography' is an interesting one!'"
Maybe he wrote it in his sleep?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spot the difference

John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister, speaking about the etiquette of using Twitter on Radio 5 Live today:
"Be yourself and use humour... If you move away from the humour and you get nasty I think it undermines the integrity of the whole thing."
David Wright, Labour MP for Telford, proves Prezza's point:

"I've never voted Tory because you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig, but it's still a scum-sucking pig."
Never mind the integrity of Twitter, though. What about the integrity of being a politician? They are at a pretty low ebb as it is, but this hardly elevates the dignity of the office. Then again, what MP should take lessons on dignity and integrity from the secretary-shagging, voter-punching former DPM?

However, I disagree with the outraged Tories who are calling for an apology or for Wright to be disciplined. Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, is wrong to make a big issue out of this. Wright's words speak for himself: he is a pillock, a numpty, a fool and, worst of all, he really isn't funny. All Pickles needed to do was to issue a one-word rebuttal: "Prat".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Tardis Revolution

Apparently Doctor Who's scriptwriters had a mission in the 1980s to bring down Mrs Thatcher. Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor, has revealed how firebrand young lefties were hired, using such convincing job-interview lines as "I want to overthrow the Government", and wrote a series of scripts in which Maggie and her party were characterised as evil aliens.

One called Helen A, played by Sheila Hancock, right, wanted to outlaw unhappiness, although that doesn't sound a particularly unThatcherite thing to me. Another story was a thinly veiled attack on nuclear weapons. Gripping stuff and surely more a bit of fun in-jokery than a serious political battle. After all, how many swing voters watched Doctor Who in those days?

And the plan hardly worked. Thatcher left office on November 28, 1990, but Doctor Who had been off-air for a year by that stage, axed because of falling ratings. Maybe it was all those dull but worthy storylines?

But why should it matter if Doctor Who had a political message? Just because the BBC, across the board, has to be impartial does not mean that individual programmes cannot make partisan points and it could go against the Left as well.

Barely an episode of The Good Life went by without Margo complaining about "that horrid little man, Mr Wilson". I'm sure the modern Doctor Who episodes have made points that could be taken as anti-Labour, such as attacks on the surveillance society, state control and unjust wars.

Indeed, the Beeb has often been at the cutting edge of political satire, right from That Was The Week That Was lampooning Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s. Maybe that was ok because it was a direct attack rather than the more subtle approach of having a female alien with a deep voice and bouffanted hair.

A few years ago, a BBC Four series revealed the subversion in children's television during the 1970s. I always felt the worst offender was Trumpton, which was clearly trying to promote a socialist utopia. Not only did the mayor have a beard (a clear sign of a left-wing council), but the local fire brigade employed six people, whose main role seemed to be rescuing balloons from trees. And what did the locals of Trumpton pay in council tax for that extravagance?

The late, wonderful Oliver Postgate also liked to introduce political ideas into his programmes. He had the mice on the mouse organ in Bagpuss go on strike - "We won't sing", they squeaked, for which we were all quite grateful - and persuaded the BBC to do an election night special episode of The Clangers in 1974, in which the pinko moon-dwellers protest at how power corrupts.

Which is all well and good but did Postgate forget that the main characteristic of his Clangers was that they were, well, woolly?

Monday, February 15, 2010

High japes

If you can't go for a drunken drive down the motorway in a golf buggy after coming back from ten points down with four minutes to go to win a rugby international 31-24, when can you?

The alleged low-speed 6am joy ride by Andy Powell, the Wales flanker, a few hours after his side's miraculous comeback against Scotland in Cardiff on Saturday will inevitably be met with stiff punishment.

Powell and a friend were picked up by police at a service station near Junction 33 of the M4 after having apparently stolen the golf cart from the Vale of Glamorgan hotel where the Wales team were staying.

Apart from possible criminal charges, Powell faces disciplinary action from Wales and there is talk of a life ban, which would be a bit over the top. Off-field japes should not influence selection, although there would be grounds for dropping Powell because of a collapse in his form this season.

Rugby players have always done dim things when celebrating victory. While this escapade could have been a disaster, no one was ultimately hurt and part of me (the part that hypocritically would be calling for a life ban if a footballer had done this) would like Powell to get off with just a stern telling off and apology.

Here are a few other notable post-match acts of drunken lunacy by rugby players, who by and large escaped severe punishment. Powell should be judged in their company.

The 1968 Lions: Renowned more for the quality of their drinking than their rugby, they lost three of their four internationals against South Africa but partied hard after each game, trashing hotel rooms across the country, with a particular fondness for breaking beds. After enthusiastically showing off his rucking at one party, Willie John McBride, the Ireland lock, needed eight stitches in a leg and two in a finger.

At another party, in Cape Town, the players caused such damage to the hotel that the owner presented the Lions with a bill for £900. Being a rugby fan, he had only charged them for a quarter of the damage and as the Lions manager paid off the rest, he sniffed: "Huh, couldn't have been much of a party!" McBride went on to captain and manage the Lions.

John Jeffrey and Dean Richards: After the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield in 1988, Jeffrey and Richards, opposing back rows for Scotland and England respectively, decided to take the trophy for a post-dinner kickabout on Princes Street. Apparently by the time they had finished punting it to each other, the 108-year-old silver cup more resembled a plate and it cost £1,000 to repair. Jeffrey was given a six-month ban by Scotland. England, more generously, gave Richards a one-game ban.

Colin Smart: Not the most apt name for a player. Smart was the victim of a prank at a post-match dinner in Paris in 1982 where the players had each been given a complimentary bottle of aftershave. Maurice Colclough, the England lock, threw away the cologne and filled the bottle with white wine, which he then ostentatiously drank. Thinking this was a dare and not realising that Colclough had ditched the scent, Smart decided to do the same and drank a whole bottle of aftershave. Within an hour, he was having his stomach pumped in hospital. But apparently his breath smelt lovely.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Have a heart

Oh dear. A primary school in Somerset has banned pupils from exchanging Valentine's cards this year because the poor mites could end up with broken hearts.

The head teacher said that the pre-teens are not emotionally mature enough to deal with having relationships. Being dumped, he says, could affect their studies and any cards he finds will be confiscated.

I would have thought that falling in love is far more damaging at secondary school, what with raging hormones and suicidal urges and the risk of pregnancy and all that, but if this misery-guts wants to ban a few harmless cards then so be it. I bet he can't stop kids playing kiss-chase and developing crushes in the playground, though.

I had my heart broken at primary school. I "went out" with a girl for a few months, which I think involved holding hands and little else, and then she dumped me. Or rather she got one of her friends to tell me I was dumped. I remember blubbing in the toilets all lunch and most of the afternoon.

Eventually, I got over it. The girl didn't, though. She died of leukaemia a few years later. Probably more cruel luck than divine vengeance. True story.

Anyway, St Valentine's Day is on a Sunday this year. Why couldn't he just ban the exchange of cards on the grounds that this silly festival should be for one day only?

Charlie Wilson's Legacy

"These things happened, they were glorious and they changed the world... and then we fucked up the endgame."
So ends one of the most fascinating, enjoyable films I have seen in the past few years, although as an Aaron Sorkin fan I was always going to admire Charlie Wilson's War - or Josh Lyman meets the Mujahideen as it could have been called.

The death last night of Charlie Wilson, the Texas Democrat congressman who drove the US to fund freedom-fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviets, will inevitably lead to angry analysis of his legacy.

Some people will ignore whether it was right to force Russia out of their toe-hold in Asia and will instead focus on whether funding the Mujahideen - with an increase from $5 million of Federal money to $500 million - led inevitably to the rise of the Taleban and thence to September 11, Operation Enduring Freedom, Iraq and so on.

Of course, the problem was not the funding or the arming but the failure to ensure a future for Afghanistan - or the endgame. Wilson said that he regretted not pushing harder for the US to invest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.

"The part that I'll take to my grave with guilt is that I didn't stay the course and stay there and push and drive the other members of Congress nuts pushing for a mini-Marshall Plan," he said. If a fraction of the money that had been spent on the conflict had gone on building roads and schools and erasing political corruption, would the Taleban have gained sway?

But Wilson never regretted arming the Mujahideen, even if some of those weapons ended up in the hands of the Taleban who moved in almost as soon as the Americans left. ("The crazies are rolling into Kandahar", as one of the CIA agents says near the end of the film.) "How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun?" Wilson once asked.

"We were fighting the evil empire. It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II," Wilson told Time magazine in 2007. "Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"

This morning, appropriately, the United States were playing cricket against Afghanistan in Dubai in a qualifying match for this year's World Twenty20. Many of the Afghan team had been born in the refugee camps that were created on the border with Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew. These are players whose very existence and upbringing was shaped by Charlie Wilson and those he funded.

Afghanistan beat the US and now stand a very good chance of qualifying for the global cricket tournament, an astonishing ascent given that the team were playing in the fifth tier of world cricket only two years ago.

The result will not cause a ripple in Washington, but it may well send a signal of hope back to the refugee camps. Charlie Wilson's children are on the rise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rear of the Year

Who says we are politically apathetic as a nation? Why, there is a growing campaign under way to get Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, voted Rear of the Year, one of those awards that gets as little publicity in The Economist and The Spectator as the Nobel Prize for Literature gets in The Sun.

Puerile nonsense of course but there would be a certain short-lived pleasure in Ms Harman getting the award, not just because it would irritate her but also because it would mark a brief departure from our nation's fascination with Heat magazine covergirls.

Winners of the women's prize in recent years include Rachel Stevens, Jennifer Ellison, Nell McAndrew and Charlotte Church (slightly worryingly, given that she was 16 when she won), while the men's booty, if that is an appropriate word, has been carried off by a Coronation Street pin-up and the winner of the Joseph reality show Any Dream Will Do. All boringly predictable.

No, a victory for Harman would prove that her equality agenda is well and truly marching on. It would be victory for unphotoshopped maturity and experience and a sign that we can considers matters higher than whatever is on the floor of the barber shop. And David Dimbleby to win the men's prize?

A shipwreck of a contest

Here are a few tips on how to kill all interest in a 160-year-old trademark, based on the way this year's America's Cup yachting competition has been conducted.

1) Take as your starting point a competition with a good brand, an exciting challenge format with lots of teams, plenty of sponsors and a thrilling set of races, the last of which is won by only one second over 40 miles. Have everyone talking about what a great thing this is.

2) As defending champion, release a new set of stringent rules that will strongly favour your side next time and manage to irritate every other team. This will provoke another team into launching a battle to knock that smile off your face.

3) As that other team, quibble over everything. Launch lawsuit after lawsuit (nine in all would be good) over the size of boats, timing of races, location, where the sails are made, make-up of the judging panel, lack of sparkling water in the hospitality tent and so on. Take two years doing it. Ensure that the only time anyone reads about the competition the articles feature the words "turmoil", "chaos", "crisis" and "piss-up in a brewery".

4) Just as everyone is fed up with your squabbling, grudgingly agree with each other to compete. Make sure that there are no other competitors, though, even though 19 teams from around the world would like to take part. If you have really done your job well, interest from sponsors will slump: from $200 million in 2007 to $11 million this year.

5) Schedule the competition in the week between the Super Bowl and the start of the Winter Olympics to ensure that any remaining interest is crushed. And begin racing at 5am US time, just to knock out those few enthusiasts in the challenging team's country who may want to watch it.

6) In case anyone were in any further doubt about your intentions, make it known that if you lose the contest you will go back to court anyway and sue your rival again until you win.

7) Once everything is finally ready to get under way, cancel the opening day's racing because there is not enough wind.

8) Cancel the next day's racing because there is too much wind.

9) Cancel a third day of racing because it is the wrong type of wind (to come)

Palm pilot

I quivered at the thought of Sarah Palin running for president a couple of days ago, but now I'm warming to the idea. Think how much fun it will be. She is the American version of John Prescott, albeit more shapely than Two Jabs. What was her line about lipstick on a pitbull again?

Palin's latest gaffe was to write a few words on the palm of her right hand as an aide-memoire for an interview. When asked what she stood for, she surreptitiously looked down to check exactly what her principles were. Fortunately for us, a photographer managed to capture it too.

Some ask what the big deal is. We have all scribbled notes to ensure we don't forget things. One friend of mine tattooed the whole of Exodus on the inside of his eyelids for a theology exam. When asked later why he always walked around with a labrador and dark glasses on, he said he had been blinded by the word of the Lord.

But it is what Palin has chosen to write that seems worrying. How incapable is she of remembering what she stands for if she needs to write this stuff down? They say she has a steely intellect. Is that because it cannot absorb anything?

They are hardly obscure topic. Energy, rarely in the news, was one key point to mention. And "Lift American spirits". One presumes that is to do with optimism rather than slipping a bottle of Jim Beam under her coat next time she is in her local liquor store.

And then we get the really enigmatic one. She wrote "Budget cuts", then crossed out the first word and replaced it with "Tax". Was she really in confusion about whether she was in favour of cutting spending or taxation? That is seriously worrying rather than amusing.

She was mocked yesterday by the White House press spokesman, Robert Gibbs, who has never struck me as a great intellect himself, but showed a nice line in sarcasm by appearing for a press conference with the words "hope" and "change" clearly written on his hands.

But maybe the biggest problem with this gaffette is the hypocrisy. Only minutes earlier Palin had mocked Barack Obama as "just a charismatic guy with a teleprompter".

I'm not saying that she doesn't have a point - Obama's whole election campaign seemed to be based on making positive speeches rather than demonstrating much leadership ability - but at least he knows what he stands for without needing to have it written down.

Palin's aide-memoire reminds me of the joke about George W Bush, who was similarly urged to read from notes in case he forgot the basics.

On the back of his left hand, he wrote: "Breathe in", and on the right he wrote: "Breathe out".

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

They Don't Like It Up 'Em

One of my beats for The Times is to report on rowing, a sport that I regret not doing properly at university (such little time, so much drinking to be done).

You would think that it is a fairly safe sport, with the main risk being back injuries or catching something delicate in the seat runner, but this medical report that I was sent today makes you think again.

The title is bad enough - "55-year-old man impaled in rowing accident" - but the opening paragraph brings tears to your eyes:

"The patient was sculling on the Charles River in Boston when his boat collided head-on at approximately 7:20 a.m. with an eight-person shell moving in the opposite direction; both boats were estimated to be traveling at 24 to 32 km per hour. The sharp prow of the larger craft entered the left side of the patient’s lower back, above the iliac crest, and exited the central portion of his lower abdomen above the pubis."
He fell into the river but was pulled ashore and taken to hospital where, despite "loops of intestine protruding from the wounds", he was given routine surgery and allowed to return home within a fortnight. There are photos of that protruding bowel should you not be too squeamish.

There is one element of the story that really disturbs me, though. The accident happened at 7.20am! Crazy fools, as Mr T said. You're just asking for trouble if you are going to be up taking exercise at that hour.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Unbearded Wonder

There are some figures from history whose image is so familiar that it is hard to imagine them looking any other way, even in their youth. Adolf Hitler surely always had a bad moustache and an even worse haircut (or did he just get them to look like Charlie Chaplin?); Winston Churchill must have emerged from the womb looking jowly and bad-tempered (as all babies do, in fact); and if you had to name Abraham Lincoln's three defining characteristics, you would say "tall, bow tie, beard".

Actually, the beard appeared very late in Lincoln's presidential campaign in 1860. As this photo by Mathew Brady reveals (found on the Iconic Photos site), the Lincoln who sought election was a gaunt, clean-shaven man with rather sad eyes who looks as if he could do with a decent meal. Or even a KFC.

Apparently, Lincoln only decided to say "To hell with the badger brush, I'm going furry" one month before the election. An 11-year-old girl from Westfield, New York, wrote to him advising that he grew a beard because "your face is so thin".

She added: "All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you." Abe was so impressed, although he wondered if it might be seen as an affectation, that he immediately stopped shaving.

A couple of months later, as he headed for the White House, Lincoln popped in on young Grace Bedell to thank her for her advice.

It is a little-known (and little-true) fact that 11-year-old Grace continued to advise Lincoln throughout his presidency. She told him that slavery was "just mean", suggested that Ulysses Grant would make a good commander of the Union Army (that beard obsession again) and persuaded him by yawning and picking her nose as he read a draft of the Gettysburg Address that perhaps a sprawling diatribe against the rebelling Southerners could be replaced by something more pithy.

Sadly, as she got older Grace's advice became more half-baked. Barely a month after his second inauguration, Abe found himself at home with nothing to do and asked Grace for ideas. "I've heard good things about the new play at Ford's Theatre..." she replied.

Book of the Week: Race of a Lifetime

This week, the Vole has been reading Race of a Lifetime, a splendid journalistic account of the tumultuous back story behind the 2008 American presidential election and the arguments between the Obama, Clinton and McCain camps.

Not to be confused with A Lifetime in a Race, the biography of Matthew Pinsent, which is more about rowing than rowing (I guess that is a joke, like Aspirin, that only works orally).

The authors, two old hands in Washington politics, spoke to dozens of inside sources about the fractious relationships within and between the camps as momentum shifts from one frontrunner to another and hopes ebb and flow.

As David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, says: "This would be a really exciting election if I wasn't part of it."

One thing that becomes clear is that, in the main, Obama was given a pretty gentle run by the media. It is also clear that the Clintons underestimated him.

No wonder: in 2003, Hillary Clinton was being lobbied hard to run for the presidency (she refused, in the main because her daughter said it would break her promise to serve a full term in the Senate) and at the same time was being generous, both with money and contacts, to a young would-be Illinois senator as he sought election. She must have found it hard to accept that within four years her protege, a queue-jumper, would be giving her a kicking.

Certainly, she found it hard to stomach that having helped to fund his initial run for office, Obama than refused to help her to clear her campaign debts after she withdrew from the race for the nomination. It was this, the authors suggest, that almost proved a fatal block to her accepting his offer to be Secretary of State. She rejected the offer at first, wanting to spend time erasing her debts instead, but was talked round.

If Clinton v Obama is the main fight, it is one of the characters on the undercard whom I find most fascinating and who may yet prove to have a role to play in politics. Sarah Palin was such a leftfield choice (or should that be far-rightfield) that few knew who she was or what her capabilities were.

She was a game-changer, for sure, but the bounce that the McCain campaign got from her being unveiled and her first speech were extremely short-lived.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Palin, who was dumped way out of her depth. An early briefing of the would-be VP realised the task that confronted the McCain advisors. "Palin couldn't explain why North Korea and South Korea were separate nations," the authors write.

"She didn't know what the Fed [the Federal Reserve] did. Asked who attacked America on 9/11, she suggested several times that it was Saddam Hussein. Asked to identify the enemy that her son would be fighting in Iraq, she drew a blank. Later, on the plane, Palin said to her team: 'I wish I'd paid more attention to this stuff'."

She frantically scribbled down facts on index cards, which piled up on her desk, but the information did not seep in and, as the disastrous Katie Couric interview revealed, she really was dimmer than a 20-watt bulb.

As she realised that she was drowning, the candidate became depressed. She stopped eating, she barely drank even water, she could not sleep. As one might expect, she clung to what she knew best - Alaskan politics - demanding that more money be spent on polling and adverts in her home state, even though it was a Republican banker. She was reportedly dismayed that she only had 70 per cent approval ratings in Alaska and regarded improving that to be as important as winning the rest of the country.

Of course, people can change and people can improve. Palin will be stronger for the experience of 2008. But it is worrying to read that she is now planning her bid for the White House in 2012. She may be loved on the right for her folksy straight-talking and her strict religious views on guns and abortion. But if she is really the best that the Republican Party can offer in two years' time, God help us all.

Still, at least she can see Russia from her house. That's got to count for something, right?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Death of a Jazzman

Sad news that Sir John Dankworth died last night aged 82.

Johnny Dankworth, as he was better known, was one of the Great British Jazzmen, up there for my money with the Humphrey Lyttleltons, Stan Traceys and Chris Barbers who defined the coolness of swinging Britain in the 1960s every bit as much as the Beatles and Stones.

I am fortunate to have seen Dankworth, primarily a saxophonist but also a fine clarinetist, play a couple of times with his wife, the singer Dame Cleo Laine, but regret never making it to the Stables club that they formed in the 1970s in their own garden. It was after a gig at the Stables last night that Laine announced Dankworth's death to the audience. The show went on, an appropriate tribute to the musicians' musician.

One of the concerts I saw them perform was at the Globe theatre in South London, where Dankworth and Laine performed tracks from their 1964 album Shakespeare: And All That Jazz, which you can listen to here. Performing with them was their son Alec, a fine bassist.

I'm planning to spend this afternoon (while watching Scotland's fruitless attempts to beat France at rugby) checking out some of Dankworth's back catalogue and running through this month's pay cheque on iTunes. The starting point has to be this charming number, Experiments with Mice, a bebop arrangement of the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice that was a hit single in 1956.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

BBC television minus one

Following my last post on the parlour game that is "Radio 4 minus 1", I began to think about a spin-off: "BBC TV minus 1". Here are a few suggestions:

A Question of Spot: Bill Beaumont and Emlyn Hughes captain the teams in the quiz show where every contest has chickenpox

'Allo 'Alo: A comedy in which an angel falls from heaven and takes refuge with the French resistance

Bids of a Feather: A very cheap auction show

Doctor Ho: Adventures of a time-travelling prostitute

Granstand: Low-budget sports show in which the main interest is how long it takes your relative to get out of her chair

House of Cads: Not too different from the original House of Cards actually

Noel's Hose Party: A tiresome Saturday evening programme in which everyone gets doused by the host

Tet the Nation: Anne Robinson hosts a quiz about the Vietnam War

Radio 4 minus one

Will Luke, writer of one of my favourite cricket blogs, has posted on an entertaining parlour game that has become popular on Twitter. I'm afraid I don't tweet myself but I remember hearing this mentioned on Fi Glover's Saturday morning show. The rules are simple: take a Radio 4 programme and see what curiosity you can come up with by removing one of the letters in its title.

For example, Will mentions: Lose Ends: a panel have to find the end of a sellotape roll.

The Shipping Forecat: a daily nautical report from a feline stowaway

Test Mach Special: Geoffrey Boycott and Henry Blofeld travel supersonic in the world's fastest planes

I've added a few suggestions of my own. Any more ideas very welcome:

The Achers: everyday stories of country folk who feel a bit sore after a hard day ploughing
Bok at Bedtime: South African rugby players read from their autobiographies

Afternoon lay: a post-luncheon bit of nookie

Font row: Mark Lawson argues with vicars about the way they lay out their churches

Face the fats: John Waite goes on to the streets of London and interviews obese people

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Enter the Vole

This is a new blog. Lord knows there is a shortage of them out there, but maybe The Questing Vole can add a few new insights on this strange world we live in. Perhaps some new jokes. Mainly some old jokes, though.

This blog takes its title from Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's satire on journalism, and is written by someone who has been with The Times for almost ten years, having worked in politics in Westminster before, and written for most departments of the paper, starting on the gossip column and flitting through news, features, property, comment and obituaries to my present home on sport.

As a result, the Vole will likewise pass (feather-footed, of course) across a wide array of topics, from politics and culture to sport and society. I'll try to write with a gentle humour and a whimsical bemusement for the modern world, although I may occasionally turn Hulk and give something or someone a kicking if they really annoy me.

Some of you may have read my stuff on the Times cricket blog, Line and Length, which I have been writing for the past four years. I have also written two books: one on cricket and one on rugby. Some day, if I ever pull my finger out, I'd like to write a novel or two. I have a great idea about a school for wizards...

I hope you enjoy this blog, O reader, and I shall try to post a couple of pieces a day to keep you interested. Do pop back often and let me know what you think by clicking on "comments" below. Toodle-pip!