Monthly Archives: July 2005

HP sauce

Ever since I read the first four Harry Potter books out loud to one of my children, I’ve been mystified by the Potter phenomenon. Sure, the stories are inventive, and it’s wonderful that so many children have been attracted to books by the series. But Rowling can’t write to save her life. The prose clunks along.

So I find Robert McCrum in The Observer far more satisfactory than Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

Here’s McCrum: “As usual, Rowling’s prose runs the gamut from torpid to pedestrian.” Kakutani, on the other hand, is swept away: “Indeed, the achievement of the Potter books is the same as that of the great classics of children’s literature, from the Oz novels to The Lord of the Rings: the creation of a richly imagined and utterly singular world, as detailed, as improbable and as mortal as our own.”

Turning Californian

Two events on Monday marked my progress towards Californiazation.

The most obvious was the arrival of my family and me at SFO for our new life here on the left coast. The more significant, in terms of everything Californian, was that I received my California driver’s licence in the mail the same day. Now, all those annoying requests to see a picture ID will be easy to answer (my old-style UK driver’s licence doesn’t have a picture, and I don’t like carrying my passport everywhere).

I continue to resist, however, making the car the center of my existence. I started my new method of commuting today: cycling to work. Coming to the office was easy. It’s about 2.5 miles from my house to the office, and it’s virtually a freewheel downhill all the way. Of course that means that this evening, I face a steady uphill home. A good way to get into better shape.

The meaning of red; the meaning of liberal

I’m sure Craig Smith was just trying to make things understandable for his readers in his article about London mayor Ken Livingstone in yesterday’s New York Times.

Hence, this explanation: “Red Ken, as he was once known because of his outspoken liberal views”.

One thing no one has ever accused Livingstone of before is being a liberal. Under any definition of the term, whether the debased, current American version or a more traditional European one, Ken has always been passionately illiberal.

The reason he was labelled Red Ken in the ’80s was because he was determinedly socialist, verging towards the Trotskyite on numerous occasions. So it was red in the sense of reds under the bed. Not red in terms of roses.

I realize liberal is an all-purpose term of political abuse in the US, avoided at all costs by any elective politician (although not, I trust, in my new home of Berkeley). But Smith and his editors at the Times are only encouraging the trope that liberal equals red (in the communist sense), which is nonsensical.

What a difference a day makes

At breakfast today, London was still euphoric over the Olympic victory. By 10.30, everyone was trying to use the overloaded mobile phone network and track down friends and relatives.

I had a rush of Skype calls, instant messages and emails, checking on me and my family. Thank you everyone who thought of us. Our sleepy corner of London suffered none of the effects of the terrorist attacks.

Since we’re flying off to California on Monday to start our new life in Berkeley, this has been an odd week to end our London life. The rush and pride of the Olympic decision has been replaced by the shock and worry of the terrorist attacks. Wherever we are, however, part of all of us will still be immensely attached to London.

The Jeff Sachs blog?

I’d love to discuss the blog Jeff Sachs is doing for the Financial Times from the G8 summit, but when I look at the page it’s completely blank. Could it be a Firefox thing? Given the technical incompetence of the FT website, anything is possible.

Since I can’t read it, this might be unfair, but I find it strange that Jeff is doing this for the FT. He should take a page from Gary Becker or Brad DeLong and do it on his own account. I suspect he’d get at least as many readers that way, and he sure would establish a far greater web footprint.

Not the London I know

The New York Times’s coverage of London’s victory strikes me as very odd.

First, the headline. “Corners turn upward on stiff upper lip.” Leave aside the awkwardness of upward and upper. Who in London has a stiff upper lip anymore? That’s a hackneyed phrase that has very little reflection in reality.

And then, this paragraph:

The announcement also provides an enormous lift to the fragile national ego, which deep down has never really recovered from Britain’s loss of its empire after World War II. Lately, Britain has been under attack from fellow members of the European Union about its support for the Iraq war and the amount of money it receives from the European Union budget. So the Olympics decision is a welcome moment to indulge in some self-congratulation.

I don’t think there’s a person in Britain who feels fragile about the attacks from other members of the European Union. Perhaps they should, but they don’t. And it may be that Britain’s national ego doesn’t compare to the American one, but I think in a global perspective it’s not one of the more fragile ones.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

I jumped into the air when I heard London had won the 2012 Olympics.

It’s great news for London, for sport and for the Olympics. I’m sure Paris would have staged a great games, but no other place touches London for its richness and for its passion about sport. And I have to say I was very pleased that Jacques Chirac received another comeupance.

It has already become a cliche to remark that Sebastian Coe led the London bid the way he used to run his race, coming from behind on the final turn. But I heard Olympic silver medallist Roger Black say something more meaningful on the radio coverage of the news. “In every sporting contest,” he said, “there is of course someone who wins. But there’s also someone who manages to lose. I often found that I could beat people who were more worried about losing than determined to win.”

Perhaps this will be the jolt all the many grumblers in Britain need to finally stop moaning about everything.

Independence Day

When I was in Australia the other month, I was involved in a roundtable discussion about human rights with a number of students and one of the world’s leading human rights lawyers. The students were debating whether it was modern imperialism for western countries to “impose” their standards on other countries. Should we, for example, decry certain aspects of Sharia law? What about female genital mutilation?

Happily, most of the students arrived at the view that certain rights transcended culture and nationality. Before the moderator could end the session, I said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The human rights lawyer, not American, came up to me afterwards and asked, “That was a wonderful line. What’s it from?”

Today’s the day to read it. There’s a lot of American cultural imperialism in today’s world, but this is one American document that everyone should know.