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How will Coronavirus change the world? How can we control coronavirus? Can we learn from other pandemics? Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider”, subtitled “The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world”, published in 2017, is a must-read.
I recently had the privilege of meeting Laura Spinney, a British science journalist, and reading her 2017 book “Pale Rider – The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world”.
My much-read copy of “Pale Rider”
“Pale Rider” is an account of one of the 20th century’s greatest cataclysms – and one directly relevant to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Spinney paints a big picture, noting that the Spanish flu may have killed between 50 and 100 million people. But she also brings that incomprehensible figure to life with accounts both of how the pandemic devastated communities from Rio de Jaineiro to Croatia, from Japan to Alaska, from the Transkei to Turkey; and of how the Spanish flu affected individuals and families.
For me, one of the key lessons to emerge from Pale Rider is (more…)
The Overton window is a way of describing the acceptable range of political culture at any given moment. Wikipedia defines it as “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time”.
The Overton window can move, or be moved, so that an action or point of view which was formerly unacceptable becomes acceptable. I wrote about this in my 2018 post The Overton window and social media manipulation, giving as an example of the Overton window Brexit: an idea which was not mainstream in the 1990s but became British government policy by 2016.
So I was intrigued to see in an Austrian newspaper on 31 May a piece by the Austrian meteorologist and climate researcher Helga Kromp-Kolb (in German) linking the Overton window and Coronavirus to climate change.
This short video on my YouTube channel features ominous weather
Ms Kromp-Kolb drew attention in 2019 when she compared children asking their parents, in the future, whether they had flown to London to go shopping despite knowing about the dangers of climate change with children asking their parents what National Socialism (more…)
The coronavirus crisis shows us a number of ways to deal with uncertainty. But dealing with uncertainty is easier with practice and a bit of structure.
‘Are you refusing to shake hands?’ My friend shakes his head. ‘This whole coronavirus thing is overblown.’
It is 4 March. Austria has only a dozen new cases of coronavirus per day, but neighbouring Italy is suffering hundreds. It will be another twelve days before the Austrian government implements one of the earliest, and strictest, lockdowns in Europe to try and control the pandemic.
Neither my friend nor I really knows what is happening. We both take information from whatever sources we can, and come to different conclusions.
Wearing an obligatory facemask in the Vienna metro
Twelve weeks later I meet my friend again. In between, Austria has had around 16,500 known coronavirus cases and 668 deaths. He grins. ‘Are you still refusing to shake hands?’ (more…)
A review of “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver, with quotations, reflecting on what it says about the mood of contemporary America.
Barbara Kingsolver is a great writer. “Unsheltered” pulses with beautiful prose about two families living in a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey, 150 years apart.
When Thatcher Greenwood, the hero of the 1870s cycle, scolds his wife Rose, we hear that: Her eyes flared like a struck match before she looked away.
As the FT says, the book is – in many ways – magnificent.
Willa Knox, the hero of the contemporary cycle, admires her grandson: She lay with her chin on her forearms admiring the baby’s wren-feather eyelashes and delicate nostrils, the bottom lip tucked into the infant overbite. The melon of belly expanding, contracting.
Each chapter ends with the title of the following chapter. We learn that Willa, faced with a grisly task, mommed up and did the deed. This is elegant, powerful stuff.
But the book drove me half crazy. Here are 9 reasons why. (more…)
The Finnish ambassador turned to me.
‘It’s not true that Finns have no sense of humour,’ he said. ‘Or that we lack passion.’
‘For example,’ the ambassador said, ‘there was once a very elderly lady. One day she turned to her even older husband, and said: “Darling. Why do you never say you love me any more?”
‘”Well,” said the husband. “On the day we married, seventy five years ago, I told you I loved you. If the situation changes, I shall let you know.”‘
George Eliot’s Middlemarch is incisive on relationships: “Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment”
I thought of my Finnish friend when I was browsing my post about one of the funniest writers in the English language, the great George Mikes (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). I recommend the post if you have not read it. Mikes said it was the English, rather than the Finns, who were sometimes lacking in passion, as in this example: (more…)
In these coronavirus days, it’s worth recalling how to be happy. I’m going out to dinner tonight, so this might be my last chance.
I’m prompted by a BBC report from 2019, which suggested five things you could do:
- Make a list of the things you are grateful for.
- Sleep more.
- Meditate, or do something which engages your full attention.
- Spend more time with family and friends.
- Get off social media (except this blog).
Me being happy with friends from Deep Purple – who also have some happiness secrets. My post at the link includes pix of Deep Purple in Kyiv
One thing not on the list, but contained in the piece, is that being happy requires a conscious effort. As Professor Laurie Santos says: “Being happy isn’t something that just happens, you’ve got to practice to be better at it.”
How can you practice being happier? One way is by following some of the advice in these “how to be happy” posts – some of my most popular entries:
- W Somerset Maugham on sex, turnips and the meaning of life – (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).
- Appreciating the Cloud Appreciation Society – taking note of nature.
- Austria: the best footpaths in the world? Moments of walking ecstasy.
- Sex, alcohol, people: what makes you happy? We derive pleasure from feeling that we understand the world, and can cope with it.
- Being happy: Paranoid and Bachelor Boy. Music and happiness.
By Robert Pimm
Financial Times, May 9, 2003
I’m picking up the kids from school here in Berlin when a teacher accosts me. “Started being a house-husband yet?” he says. “How do you like ironing all those shirts?”
“Pamela was never a housewife,” I say. Am I being too defensive? “And she never ironed my shirts.”
“How about the vacuum-cleaning?” He has that look in his eye. Does not compute.
“Nope. Mostly, it’s looking after the kids. And I cook.”
“Why not get an au pair? Find yourself a job?”
“The whole point is that I’m with the children. So Pamela can go back to work knowing it’s me looking after them.”
Standing there in the corridor, with kids swarming around him like ants, the teacher shakes his head. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
In the garden in Berlin, 2003
What I’m doing is this: in October 2002 (more…)
I’m sitting on a high-speed train, next to the window, with an empty paper cup. How best can I make myself happier?
One of my most popular blogs is W. Somerset Maugham on sex, turnips and the meaning of life (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). In his 1938 essay The Summing Up, Maugham explores whether alcohol, sex, writing or companionship can give you fulfilment.
If you are interested in this subject, you may want to explore the links in this post.
I was thinking about happiness recently as I caught a train from London to Manchester (where my mum lives). I had treated myself to a cup of tea at Euston Station before boarding the train. Having enjoyed the tea – hot and wet – I wanted to discard the cup.
On the train to Manchester
‘These old Intercity trains usually have a bin by the doors,’ I thought. I got up, went to the end of the carriage, and, (more…)
My blog of January 2016 recorded the discovery of a handwritten list of ten rules of behaviour amongst my father’s papers, two years after his death in December 2013. The title of the list was: “How to work better”.
You can see the list itself, in my father’s handwriting, at the link above.
The rules seemed profound – or were they?
Research revealed a mystery around the words and whether they represented, as some believed, wise slogans from a Thai factory; or were actually a project by some Swiss conceptual artists.
A reader, @mrRooBKK, has brought to my attention this photograph:
How beautiful can a footpath be? Austria’s are amongst the best.
I particularly enjoy the country’s system of footpath signs. Over the past three years here I have photographed many of them. I reproduce a selection here.
You may wish to pay attention to:
- nature – many signs are worn or overgrown or both, as wind and weather reclaim them. This is usually a good thing;
- texture: the interplay between sign, tree (or rock) and background is often sublime;
- seasons: some, but not all, footpaths can be enjoyed all-year round.
Each of the following pictures represents a moment of perfection, somewhere in Austria. If you know where, feel free to comment.
This squirrel is urging people to care for nature (more…)
I recently visited one of my favourite places on earth, Lundy Island off the north coast of Devon, for the 22nd time.
Lundy Island has superb cloudscapes
Between the arrival of the island ship, the MS Oldenburg, and its departure that evening, I was puzzled to see dozens of people wandering around wearing badges around their necks. (more…)
Do any of our actions make any difference to anything? What makes us happy? What makes us laugh? What about the power of memory?
This week’s quotations look at all these issues. The scandalous Alan Clark, whose remarkable and disturbing diaries I have reviewed, clearly thought that sexual activity was keeping him young. Evelyn Waugh, in his elegiac Brideshead Revisited, blows us away with his reminiscences. P G Wodehouse, on whom I blog frequently, is the one of the best comic writers on earth. Lawrence Durrell, meanwhile, is sceptical that any of our lives achieve anything. I disagree!
Personally, I am a strong believer that our lives can make a difference
Why am I still, in the main, so zestful?
I know, but I don’t like to say
In case the gods take it away.
Alan Clark, The Diaries (more…)
What are your all-time favourite songs?
If you are over 25, did you first hear those songs recently or – as I suspect – did you hear them in your teen years or early ’20s?
I am intrigued that the usual lists of things that make people happy, such as family, friends, work, wealth, health, freedom, personal values, and beautiful environments, do not include music or the arts (bold italics are links to other posts on this site).
To hear music is a profound human need; the impact on your wellbeing can be sublime.
So I was fascinated when writing my recent blog How to stay sane: never take yourself too seriously, featuring the wit and wisdom of Deep Purple, to explore my old collection of singles. What were the first I ever acquired?
To be honest, I am not certain. My singles were once mixed up with the larger collection of my elder brother (who I believe I remember bringing home “She Loves You” by the Beatles in 1963); and have been culled over the years, including by my giving some to my daughter for her new-fangled vinyl record player.
Leaving aside these quibbles, the oldest singles now in my collection, in reverse order of antiquity, are:
6. Paranoid, by Black Sabbath (1970) (more…)
The lights go down.
Heavy metal chords ring out.
It is clear that Deep Purple have lost none of their ability to rock.
I’ve seen the loudest band of all time (Guinness Book of Records) twice: in Kyiv in 2011 and in Vienna in 2017. I was fortunate enough to share a beer with Roger Glover and other band members after both shows. (more…)
How to be a genius, or a great writer: quotations from P G Wodehouse and Lawrence Durrell
How seriously should we take ourselves?
One of the keys to happiness is not to take yourself too seriously. You can take life seriously, and your family, and your work. You can, and should, take pride in yourself and your achievements.
But the minute you start thinking that you are a rather amazing person, and better than other people, you are in danger of taking yourself too seriously and should stop it at once.
“Thank you, Jeeves” is an absolute corker
I was reminded of this wisdom by one of this week’s three quotations, which are below. (more…)
What are the health benefits of drinking Martinis? Is it possible drinking vodka might be good for you? Two top surgeons explain.
At the roof bar of the Istanbul hotel, I don’t notice a thing.
Below us, the Bosphorus sparkles in the setting sun. I slurp my cocktail and feel a powerful sense of well-being.
When we sit down for dinner, however, I spot it at once.
‘You’re both drinking vodka,’ I say. ‘Why is that?’
My dinner companions, both top cardiac surgeons, glance at one another.
At a “Spectre” premiere in Istanbul. Lousy movie but inspired character (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site)
‘This is because pure spirits are the healthiest way to ingest alcohol,’ one surgeon says. ‘Of course, not drinking alcohol may also have health benefits, although some studies indicate the opposite if consumed in moderation. But if, like us, you enjoy a drink from time to time, without excess sugar and calories, pure spirits are the best.’
‘Wow.’ I sip my glass of red wine and wonder if I should have a re-think. (more…)
Is “50 Shades of Grey” brilliant, entertaining erotic literature, or misogynistic horror-show? Either way, the technique of the author is outstanding.
‘I only finished the first volume,’ my friend says. ‘It was so badly written. And boring.’
‘I disagree,’ I say. ‘I think the writing is brilliant. It hits every target for a best-seller. I read all three volumes. But I ended up hating it.’
What to make of 50 Shades of Grey? Last time I looked, it had sold 150 million copies in 52 languages and spawned a hit movie series. The book has 85,000 reviews on Amazon.com with an average of 4*, and a further 21,500 on Amazon.co.uk – also averaging 4*. A lot of people love it. Why?
The following review contains spoilers. Links in bold italics are to other blog posts on this site.
Each volume of “50 Shades” is substantial
Here are 5 things I found brilliant about the 50 Shades trilogy:
(i) everything is big. In her book “How to write a blockbuster“, Sarah Harrison says a bestseller must have glamour in the sense of absolute, undeniable, gobsmacking allure… with all the maidenly restraint of Joan Collins on speed. It’s got to be BIG, she says. Everything about 50 Shades is big – Christian Grey is not just rich, he’s mega-rich. He isn’t just talented; he is a concert-quality pianist and outstanding skier and linguist who excels at martial arts. He’s not only a good person: he wants to help poor people around the world. He’s not just handsome – every woman he passes is entranced by his charisma. As Ana sums him up:
A writer compares turnips and sex. Is he wise, or daft? Can we use his wisdom – if any – to make ourselves happier?
I have written often about happiness on this blog. You might like to look at a summary in my piece The one with the links to happiness.
W Somerset Maugham considers happiness and the meaning of life in his essay The Summing Up, written in 1938. Perhaps we can learn from him. Try not to be put off by the old-fashioned way in which he often refers to “men” when he means “people”
W Somerset Maugham is most famous for his short stories
In The Summing Up, Maugham asks whether writing itself is enough for a happy life…
From time to time I have asked myself whether I should have been a better writer if I had devoted my whole life to literature.
… and concludes:
Somewhat early, but at what age I cannot remember, I made up my mind that, having but one life, I should like to get the most I could out of it. It did not seem to me enough merely to write. (more…)
People often ask me: ‘What is the best city you have lived in, apart obviously from Manchester? Is it London? Berlin? Moscow? Istanbul? Kyiv? Or Vienna?’
I usually answer with Oscar Wilde: ‘Comparisons are odious.’
Vienna has much to recommend it, including lovely countryside nearby
I thought of Oscar Wilde when I heard that that Vienna had this year taken first place in the annual Economist Intelligence Unit’s global liveability index – the first time a European city has ever won. I certainly can confirm that Vienna is a magnificent place to live, offering everything from terrific cafes (see my cafe reviews) to awesome local countryside, great outdoor pools, and – my favourite – outdoor cinemas, comparable with Berlin’s. I am very happy here.
When I was deciding in 2011 whether to try and move to Istanbul, I was influenced by a report in the Financial Times which made fun of rankings such as that of the EIU, or the widely quoted Mercer quality of living survey (where Vienna also came top in 2018 – for the ninth consecutive year). The FT said that not all of the cities which tended to do well in such surveys were actually cities where people want to live – Osaka, Calgary, Toronto or Zurich were all fine cities but not on everyone’s bucket lists. Cities where people did actually want to live, such as New York or London (more…)
Many years ago I worked alongside a young woman who, long before in another city, had had a relationship with a man who now worked in the building we were in. Whenever she spoke of him, her voice quavered and her eyes brimmed with tears. She was sure he was in love with her, but was dismayed that he showed no interest. She longed for him, but had not spoken to him for years. At certain times of day, when he might be due to leave work, she would go to the window and gaze out, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in the distance.
The cover of my (borrowed) copy of Prep
I thought of that colleague when I read “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2005. The book follows a 14 year-old girl, Lee Fiora, who leaves her family home in Indiana to take up a scholarship at Ault, an elite boarding school on the US East Coast. Through her four years at the school, she obsesses about her relationships and develops a crush on a boy.
What a crush. (more…)
I am on a four-stage plane journey, from Vienna to Sharm-el-Sheikh and back via Istanbul. On the first leg, from Vienna to Istanbul, my Turkish Airlines flight features seat-back video and I choose recent blockbuster “Black Panther”.
Unfortunately the crew make many announcements in numerous languages (bold italic links are to other blogs on this site), interrupting the movie. So I miss the end of the film, which I am hoping will include astonishing plot twists but fear will mostly be superheroes slugging each other (a fundamental problem with all superhero movies: if two superheroes have a superhero fist-fight, how do you make it interesting? No-one knows).
On the next three legs, Istanbul-Sharm, Sharm-Istanbul and Istanbul-Vienna, the Turkish Airlines aircraft are older, without seat-back video. So I haven’t seen the end of “Black Panther”. Should I make an effort to catch the last 20 minutes? What do you think? No spoilers please!
The news gets worse. On the communal screens on the older planes, the airline shows episodes of Fish Tank Kings. This is (more…)
“The Simpsons” is the most sophisticated show on TV. Obviously.
In an earlier post I praised Series 25, Episode 20, Brick Like Me, in which I noted the parallels between the episode and the 1955 Frederik Pohl short story The Tunnel Under the World.
Trash of the Titans, Series 9, episode 22, is from 1998. It was the 200th episode overall. Do the producers make a special effort with round-numbered episodes? Maybe they do: Brick Like Me was episode 550.
Trash of the Titans looks at what can happen when democracy goes wrong:
(i) an evil corporation, trying to fill a lull in sales of its useless toys, cards and gifts over the summer, invents “Love Day” to boost sales (a naive executive who argues they should accept the lull – “hey, we’re making enough money, right?” is ejected by goons). Shortly after, the Simpsons are celebrating “Love Day”, despite Lisa pointing out that “the stores just invented this holiday to make (more…)
My famous Vienna Cafe Reviews note the alleged “no kissing” rule in the Cafe Malipop; and promise a story from 1986.
Here it is. It concerns the Gmoa Keller, right here in Vienna.
Back in 1986 I looked something like this
In the 1980s, the Gmoa Keller was a tenebrous place, damp with history and rich with atmosphere. It was run by two elderly sisters from the Burgenland, Grete Novak and Hedi Vécsei. Grete had been in charge since taking over from her uncle, Andreas Herzog, in the ’60s. He in turn had run the place since 1936.
Late one night, my girlfriend Nicky and I took refuge there from a bitterly cold, wet evening. We ordered beers. We were the only guests.
The beer, and the safe haven of the Gmoakeller, warmed us up. A hint of kissing arose. Nothing ostentatious: a nuzzle, perhaps, a cheek to a neck.
Grete shuffled across to where we were sitting. She leaned down to my ear almost as though she were about to kiss me herself. (more…)
‘One of my favourite restaurants in London is the Laughing Halibut,’ I say as we eat our lunch in Vienna. ‘When I first started eating there in 1979, it was run by this Italian guy, and one of his sons used to work there, a young bloke. Now, the son is still there, he seems to run the place, but he has become a much older man.’
’40 years is a long time, I guess,’ my friend says. ‘The Italian has aged. But you have stayed the same.’
‘Correct! It’s like that Joe Walsh song, Life’s been good to me so far. Great lyrics. It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame, he sings. Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed. Best fish and chips in central London.’
A delicious portion of chips from the Laughing Halibut – RP
I often think of the Laughing Halibut, and would recommend it to anyone visiting or living in London. In fact, I like it so much that it features in a key scene in a novel of mine, which is on ice at present but might see the light of day in a couple of years. The scene also features a phlegmatic Italian waiter.
The scene (which I have lightly edited, for reasons too complex to explain here) is as follows. Angus Fairfax, the protagonist of the book, is meeting his wife Rosie for lunch.
Excerpt from an unpublished novel
Rosie and I had instituted regular Monday lunches when she was promoted – again – twelve months before. ‘You must be in the diary,’ she’d said. ‘Otherwise, I’ll never see you.’
She’d been right. These days, most of our conversations seemed to take place in the Laughing Halibut in Strutton Ground.
Strutton Ground was a curious street. (more…)
I was bemused recently to see a news report headed: Austria ranked by expats as one of unfriendliest countries.
I have lived in Austria for years and have numerous friends. Who are these expats who say Austrians are unfriendly? And who is doing the measuring? I decided to investigate.
It turns out that the report is based on the “Expat Insider 2017” survey carried out by the “InterNations” network.
Austria has a lot to offer – as well as friendly people – Photo RP
“Internations” is a company which works to help expats settle in and get to know other expats (slogan: “Wherever in the world life takes you, our InterNations Communities help you feel at home”).
Its full report, which you can download in full from the link above, is packed with interesting statistics. (more…)
What is the Overton window? I first came across the term in a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in July 2016.
He described it as “a term… meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment… [which] can be moved.”
Lanchester said that ideas can start far outside the political mainstream yet later come to seem acceptable. He cited Brexit as an example: considered eccentric in 1997, yet enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.
Lanchester’s article, by the way, like many LRB pieces, is improbably long: set aside a bit of time if you want to read it.
A recent piece at the splendid “Flip Chart Fairy Tales” blog (recommended: often a source of illuminating graphs, charts and views) entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, also noted how opinions can change. The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades towards libertarian, right-wing policies which do not obviously overlap with established political parties. By contrast, the views of voters have moved in the opposite direction, towards more authoritarian and left-wing ideas – likewise not corresponding clearly to existing parties. This tendency, he argues, a) is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations; and b) should lead politicians to shift towards those authoritative and left wing policies if they are not to leave voters alienated from politics.
What has this got to do with social media, and why does the Overton window matter? (more…)
I have chosen my favourite ten posts, out of the 47 I published in 2017. Which is your favourite? Let me know. And feel free to re-post this on Facebook or to “like” it – if you do.
A novelty this year was my Picture Quiz – not including this picture from Cuba. Spot the Che Guevara tattoo
It wasn’t easy choosing a shortlist. I’ve left out many favourites, including my account of how, aged 8, I used to electrocute myself regularly with my girlfriend Barbara in Wonder Woman and Wartime Moral Confusion; or my recent review of The Last Jedi 3/10: the galaxy’s most shagged-out designers? (more…)
Can we make ourselves happy? Is there a formula for being happier? Suggestions and practical ideas for improving your mood.
Can we make ourselves happier? It is a question I have looked at so often – along with feminist issues – that I even have a category for it on this blog called Existential – and women.
Some say that a combination of a) physical activity; b) other people; and c) nature is the key to happiness, cf walking the Dales Way in England
One of my key ways to improve my mood, when things appear to be going wrong, is to take a step back and get some perspective. I wrote about this in my 2017 blog Things are getting worse, right? Wrong. Here’s why.
Other happiness-related blogs include:
A man is writing a novel. He decides to check a fact. He consults his computer, or his phone, to find he has six new messages from friends. An extraordinary news story has come out. Some thrilling sport is available, live, on-line.
You know the rest. By the time our writer friend returns to his novel, 45 minutes have passed, and he has forgotten what he originally set out to research.
Our apparent inability to focus on anything for an extended period of time is one of the problems of the 21st century. It risks hampering our creativity and channelling our energy into bitty activities which leave us unsatisfied or unhappy. What can we do?
First, we can learn from the masters of concentration. One of these is the novelist Anthony Trollope, about whose awesome qualities I have written before, including this: “Trollope’s work is a reminder that sometimes, life in the slow lane can be better than the alternative. There’s no way to rush-read Trollope. His novels are best savoured: read in chunks, rather than a few pages at a time.”
The sharing economy is a great way to decrease your ecological footprint and make your contribution to saving the planet. Not buying stuff can be rewarding, too.
The novel Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny, opens with the following lines:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha– and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.
I was thinking of Lord of Light the other day, and the new start-up Fat Llama, when planning to walk the last 100 miles of the Pennine Way.
This is not the Pennine Way, but the Lake District in 2007
I was due to walk the Pennine Way with my brother, with whom I walked the Dales Way in 2003 and who has done all the hard planning, including scoping the route, booking accommodation and so on (and has walked the first 168 miles of the Pennine Way, on his own). But for various reasons he now cannot go – disaster. Fortunately, my daughter (more…)
When I was 8 and living in the mountainous African kingdom of Lesotho, my friend Barbara Stewart used to receive a package of DC and Marvel comics every few weeks from a relative. We would retreat to a certain deserted basement room in the university campus to gorge ourselves on the newly arrived treasures.
In that room was an electric point with the cover missing. We discovered that by inserting our fingers into a certain part of the wiring, we could give ourselves a powerful electric shock. We spent many lovely afternoons reading comics and daring each other to give ourselves another shock. Barbara, if you’re out there, please get in touch.
Wonder Woman “Official Final Trailer”
I mention this story because, back in the ’60s, we used to think the DC comics, with characters such as Superman and Batman, were cool; and that the heroes in the Marvel comics, (more…)
When was the last time you punched the air and said “yesssssssssss!”?
If you want to understand me a bit, read on.
Air-punching is the stuff of small victories. You disagree? Please leave a comment below. I would argue that with big victories (child born; illness overcome) you feel a powerful inner glow and no air-punching goes on. But I digress. My recent small victory involved the mileometer (an English word, the spell-check tells me – more usually odometer in the US and probably more appropriate here also as I actually choose to measure my cycling progress in small, rapidly-mounting kilometres rather than large, hard-to-accumulate miles, a fascinating subject in itself) on my bicycle.
I bought this bike on 16 July 1998 in Bonn, along with three other bicycles which have since perished. One was out-grown. Two were destroyed when a car I was in skidded on snowy tires in my garage in Kyiv and crushed the bikes, which were leaning against the wall and thus in the wrong place at the wrong time. My own bike was leaning against a different wall and escaped.
The bike on the Rhine tow-path – before I uglified it with yellow tape for Berlin – Photo Robert Pimm
In Bonn, I cycled 14 km each day to and from work, mostly on a tow-path along the Rhine, (more…)
One wonderful feature of Austria is the survival of independent cinemas.
Austrians do not admit this. They complain that independent cinemas are dead or dying and everything used to be much better. This is kind of true: I remember in 1985 sitting through a showing of the movie Britannia Hospital in a Viennese cinema as the only viewer.
Trailer for Toni Erdmann (English subtitles)
But believe me, Austrians: you have it good (or, as they say in German, hör auf mit dem jammern auf hohem Niveau).
It follows that in Austria, one has a feast of fine independent films, many off-beat and existential. But are they any good? (more…)
A review of the forthcoming thriller Atomic Blonde describes it as “the biggest action role for a woman on screen to date”.
Sounds good to me.
Atomic Blonde (2017) – trailer
A piece in the International New York Times by Jessica Manafi, which appeared in the Austrian Standard on 22 May, argues that Lorraine Broughton, the MI6 spy who is the heroine of the movie played by Charlize Theron, is getting closer to equality by (more…)
‘I saw this terrible news today.’ My friend, a sensible person, is distressed. ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause. How can we resist such fanaticism?’
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’
I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in my blog The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.
Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has a low life expectancy – Photo RP
I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (more…)
‘Please, Tatiana, show mercy!’
But Tatiana does not show mercy. You can find out why in my 2016 Hotel Story, the sixth in the series.
If you have read any of the Hotel Stories, you will enjoy this one. If you haven’t read any, The Swedish Woman is a great place to start.
How to enjoy The Swedish Woman;
- You can read some of The Swedish Woman instantly via this free chunky excerpt;
- You can scoop up all seven Hotel Stories, including The Swedish Woman, in one package in Hotel Stories: The Complete Collection;
- If you can’t afford it or don’t like paying for stories, no problem: write a comment below and I’ll send you a free Word copy of the first short story in the series, “The Two Rooms“. It would be great to hear from you.
P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please friend me on Facebook or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see the “click here” blue button). Check out the range of writing on this site via the sitemap and guide.
“Why am I still, in the main, so zestful?
I know, but I don’t like to say
In case the gods take it away.”
As so often, Alan Clark, here aged 62, is talking about what he refers to as the other – as in “I fear that if I’d come from ‘an underprivileged background’ I’d probably by now have done time for GBH, or assault, or even what Nanny calls the other.”
An Amazon reviewer of Alan Clark’s diaries, which cover the period 1972 (when he was 44) to his death in 1999, described him as The Mr Toad of the Tory Party – vain, boastful and a lover of fast cars. No-one outside the UK has heard of him. He quotes Hitler, of whom he keeps a signed portrait in his safe, and revels in the shocking effect this has on readers.
So why read his diaries? (more…)
The Simpsons is, possibly, the most sophisticated show on TV.
Take a look at Series 25, Episode 20 (episode 550 in total), “Brick Like Me“. Homer, after enjoying playing with Lisa but then being rejected by her when she wants to spend time with older girls, wishes that he could play with her forever in a perfect world.
He then awakes in that world, where everything – himself and the family included – is made of Lego bricks. At first, everything seems perfect. Neither he nor Lisa nor Maggie will ever grow old; they can play forever; “where everything fits together and no-one gets hurt”.
‘It’s relentless,’ the god-like figure says to me. ‘From 7 a.m. things are coming in. All day – even when I’m in meetings, mealtimes. Until late at night. It’s the 24-hour news cycle.’
I’m talking to a top figure in an elite organisation: someone I respect and trust.
In fact, this person is almost a household name. Most people would see him or her as someone who has risen to the top through an awesome combination of intellect, charm and hard work. Yet this person is struggling to cope with information coming in on one device – a Blackberry.
What chance do the rest of us have? You may be addicted to multiple devices.
When Blackberrys were first introduced, people called them Crackberrys. No wonder. Ten years later, our smartphones are one hundred times more addictive – an addiction as strong as alcohol or gambling, as the video below (watch it later!) points out.
What can you do? (more…)
I have recently been examining my father’s magnificent collection of books to try to decide which further volumes, if any, to try and rescue.
In doing so I came across – amongst many other treasures – four volumes of history by the American historian Barbara W Tuchman. I must confess that I had never heard of her.
I looked Barbara Tuchman up and found “Tuchman’s law”, coined by the author herself in 1971, according to Wikipedia, “playfully”:
‘Disaster,’ says Tuchman, ‘is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).’ (more…)
A man repeatedly lies to and harasses both his fiancé and his young lover, while pontificating about the “unpalatable anthropological truths” which plague relations between the sexes. In pursuit of his obsession with the young lover, he then displays over 728 pages (in my paperback edition) every one of the unpleasant male characteristics he decries, from jealousy to over-control. In the process he ruins her prospects for either marriage or a career and brings about a tragedy.
Yet, at the end of the novel, the author invites the reader’s sympathy for his protagonist, making his last words in the book: “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.”
The author also invites the reader to explore and even share in the obsession of the protagonist, Kemal, by filling a house with objects supposedly collected by Kemal and associated with the object of his obsession, Fusun. This house is the eponymous “Museum of Innocence”, to which I gave a rave 10/10 rating in an earlier review.
The case containing 4,213 cigarette stubs in The Museum of Innocence (Photo: Robert Pimm)
I wrote in my review of the Museum: “The story… is told in the first person by Kemal, a spoiled, wealthy 30-something year-old from Istanbul. Kemal narrates the story of his obsession with Fusun, a younger woman, over a period of nine years. During that time, Kemal discovers that one way to salve the ache of loss when Fusun is not present is to handle objects associated with her. So he begins to steal items from her family. These objects form the nucleus of the museum.”
I also wrote that “Kemal is beyond creepy”. But he may also be interpreted as a prototypical man.
So: do the ghastly actions and self-justifications of Kemal depict a warped misogynistic monster? Or is author Orhan Pamuk simply laying bare with unprecedented honesty how all men really think – and act, if they are given the chance? (more…)
A man buys a house in Istanbul in order to turn it into a museum, filled with objects collected by an imaginary character in a novel which the man plans to write later.
That man is Orhan Pamuk, Turkish Nobel prize-winning author, about whose awesome productivity I’ve written before.
The museum, and the book, are called The Museum of Innocence.
A display case in The Museum of Innocence (Photo: Robert Pimm)
I hesitate to review The Museum of Innocence. Others have done a brilliant job already. For example I recommend this superb 2012 piece by Elif Batuman in the always-crushingly-intellectual London Review of Books.
But I felt it might be worth alerting people to two aspects of The Museum of Innocence.
My father died on 29 November 2013.
He left behind many wonderful memories and made many people’s lives better.
But this blog isn’t about him; I’d need a book for that.
This blog is about a list he left written on a tiny scrap of paper:
In his later years my father, a biblio- and logophile, occasionally left the odd piece of paper unfiled or perhaps in a place that was not obviously logical.
So it was my mother, as she sorted through his countless documents, who – rather astonishingly – discovered the scrap of paper; and brought it to my attention recently, thinking I might be interested.
I was fascinated. People love lists.
This one is headed “How to work better” and reads as follows:
- Do one thing at a time
- Know the problem
- Learn to listen
- Learn to ask questions
- Distinguish sense from nonsense
- Accept change as inevitable
- Admit mistakes
- Say it simple (sic)
- Be calm
When I entered the Warner West End in London’s Leicester Square, the movie I’d come to see had sold out.
So I chose a random feature which was about to start: Risky Business, starring what now seems an astonishingly young Tom Cruise.
I found it hilarious, cunningly-plotted and elegant. It includes one of the great lines of all time: “Who’s the U-Boat commander?”
Sixteen years later, at the Sony Centre in Berlin, the same thing happened. This time, the not-sold-out-picture I ended up seeing was The Sixth Sense. I found it spooky, shocking and exhilarating.
Two of the films I’ve enjoyed most in my life. I often thought it was because I had zero expectations.
One of my most popular ever blogs was called: Spectre: 5 reasons to miss it & 5 reasons you’ll see it 4/10.
A wise person commented thus:
“We thought a sixth reason to hate the film might be the completely useless portrayal of all women. The incredible number of perfectly coordinated outfit changes that the main Bond girl managed after leaving her workplace without any luggage was incredible. It also failed the Bechdel test.”
Lea Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann (Copyright: United Artists)
The casual sexism of most early Bond movies grates on many modern audiences, although some argue Skyfall was a notable exception.
Spectre (2015), too, has a nod or two towards equality. The love interest, played by Lea Seydoux, is supposedly a doctor, although she spends more time pouting (21 minutes – I may have made that figure up) than healing (0 minutes – I’m pretty sure about that one). In one scene she actually (more…)
How many children (defined as people aged 0-15) lived in the world in the year 2000? Answer: two billion.
How many are there now, in 2015?
And how many will there be, on present trends, by the year 2100?
The answer, according to Swedish statistician Hans Rosling in this compulsive communications masterclass, is: there are two billion children now, and there will still be two billion in the year 2100. We have passed “peak child”.
By 2100, he forecasts, the world population will have increased from today’s seven billion to around eleven billion.
But, Rosling says, because rising living standards and better education are cutting fertility rates, population growth between now and 2100 will all be among older people; and by then, the world population will be tending towards stability.
What percentage of the world’s population are literate? 20%? 40%? 60%? 80%?
How many babies do women have on average in Bangladesh? 2.5? 3.5? 4.5? 5.5?
Rosling presents a slew of statistics using everything from graphs to building blocks to communicate an optimistic assessment of future growth trends, while noting that even on these figures, we risk destroying ourselves with climate change.
You may disagree. But for a masterclass in communication you can’t do better than this.
For: informative, entertaining, and occasionally jaw-dropping.
Against: we all know the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
PS the phrase “Don’t Panic” is of course central to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although its most famous proponent (as noted by Richard in comments below) is possible Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army.
P.P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please friend me on Facebook or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see the “click here” blue button). Check out the range of writing on this site via the sitemap and guide.
Let’s cut to the chase. If you haven’t discovered the novelist Anthony Trollope, you should start reading him. Today. Here are 11 life-changing reasons why:
(i) the six Palliser novels, starting with Can you forgive her, are literature’s best guide to politics and power. Why did Lord Acton say “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men“? Trollope explains, long before Acton said it;
(ii) Trollope writes perceptively about relationships and sexual politics. His novels boil with strong women, from the indomitable Lady Glencora to my favourite, Miss Dunstable (an heiress who will not be pushed around by any man – not even the all-powerful Duke of Omnium). Many Trollope women feel more emancipated, or tormented by their lack of emancipation, than their sisters in some contemporary novels;
(iii) Trollope is brilliant on religion and its relationship to the state. (more…)
What if the cure for coronavirus is worse than the disease? What if after COVID-19 we have COVID-21, COVID-35 and COVID-42? How will coronavirus change society, and the world? Try Coronatime.
I wrote a while ago about “7 ways to explain the meaning of life” (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).
I said that the meaning of life would emerge around 80% of the way through my novel Coronatime; and that it involved “Come Celebrate with Us” and “The Kiss”.
Wiener Secession, 2015 – Photo: Robert Pimm
I live in Vienna. Since I lived here in the ’80s the wonderful Secession building built in 1897 by Joseph Maria Olbrich has a new basement housing Gustav Klimt’s magnificent Beethoven frieze, (more…)
How is the coronavirus changing the world? In addressing how everything may be affected by coronavirus, Coronatime examines existential questions such as the relationship between time and money.
I wrote in my blog Red London buses and the meaning of life (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site) how we all have a limited number of years, months, weeks and days to live.
My blog Read this now – before you waste more of your precious life pointed out that most of us feel short of time; and are not sure how to spend what time we have.
So what would happen in a world where some people were able to live for hundreds of years. What leisure activities would they seek? Read on:
Edited excerpt from “Coronatime” Chapter 15
KY Sutanto had visited London many times. But this was his first venture to the district called “South of the River”. (more…)
What if the cure for coronavirus is worse than the disease? In addressing how the world may be affected by coronavirus, Coronatime examines existential questions such as: when is the next bus coming?
We all have a limited number of years, months, weeks and days to live.
So why should we spend that time waiting for a red London bus?
My recent blog Read this now – before you waste more of your precious life pointed out that most of us feel short of time; and are not sure how to spend what time we have. I also noted that my novel Coronatime (hit link to read) explored 5 ways wealth and creativity can’t mix (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).
The conclusions of Coronatime are good news for poor people.
So where do London buses come in? (more…)
My novel “Coronatime” creates a post-coronavirus society where the relationship between time and money has crystallised into a way to trade life itself. A post-pandemic world will tell us a lot about our existing world’s obsessions.
Have you ever wondered: “what shall I do today?”
Or even: “what shall I do now?”
It’s one of life’s mysteries that:
– we all have a limited number of years, months, weeks and days to live;
– we all want to make the most of that time;
– many of us feel short of time to do the things we want;
– and yet… when we do have some free time, we’re not sure what to do with it.
It depends how you look at it. Anish Kapoor in Istanbul. Photo: Robert Pimm
Part of the problem is excess choice. Twenty years ago, I had a job where I flew regularly between London and the Far East in business class. I had a busy job, and I used to relish the thought of a 15-hour flight with no disturbances and a host of pleasures on-tap. But when I settled down into my comfy seat on the plane, I sometimes found myself overwhelmed by a kind of existential panic. Should I (more…)
My post-pandemic comedy, thriller and love story “Coronatime” looks at how a world after Coronavirus will be shaped by our obsessions with beauty, wealth and staying alive.
What do Peter Pan and Steve Jobs have in common?
Answer: they both help explain why wealth and creativity cannot mix.
There is a reason for that stereotype of a starving artist in a garret. Need, and monomania, sharpen the senses. No wonder millionaire rock stars have trouble re-creating the catchy tunes which made them famous. Why should they get out of bed in the morning?
My post 7 ways my sci-fi novel Coronatime explains the meaning of life (bold italics are to other posts on this site) contrasts how you might behave if you suddenly found you had only six weeks left to live with how you would act if you learned you were immortal.
In the first case, we’d all try to enjoy an intense six weeks.
Me aged 1 (in pram) with elder brother – both rich in Biotime
How will coronavirus change our world? Maybe our post-pandemic future will be like the worst features of today’s world, but much, much worse.
You know that stereotype of the starving artist in a garret producing a masterpiece?
It appeals to starving artist types. It also appeals to comfortable well-off types who think that maybe if they were skinnier and hungrier they’d be creative too.
All I need to be the next Toulouse-Lautrec/Stevie Smith/[fill in name] is a garret!
Like many stereotypes there’s a grain of truth in it. But why?
You can find a philosophical and intellectually robust exposition of why wealth and creativity don’t mix in my novel Coronatime.
Coronatime looks at how coronavirus may change our world
You can read the first part of the novel on this site. The whole novel is not yet available. So for now, here’s a summary of 5 ways Coronatime shows wealth and creativity can’t mix:
I had the honour and pleasure recently to go for a walk with a bunch of creative types on a sunny spring day near Cambridge. The landscape looked like this:
As we strolled in the bright sunshine I mentioned my Seven Hotel Stories.
I said I was proud of the stories, and that they sold in good numbers. Someone asked: why is that?
I said: “I guess it’s because the Hotel Stories can improve your life. Here’s how: (more…)
Why do terrorists carry out terrorism? What are the goals of terrorists? How can you stop terrorism? How can you achieve the goals of terrorism without so many people getting hurt? “Coronatime” explains.
It’s time to start unpacking the box.
Let’s have a look at an excerpt from my new novel, Coronatime.
What motivates terrorists? In another of my novels, Blood Summit, I point to the importance of the Herostratus Syndrome, as explained in the excellent book by Antony Borowitz (long title: “Terrorism for Self-Glorification: The Herostratus Syndrome”). In the foreword I quote Mark Twain: “One of the commonest forms of madness is the desire to be noticed”. I also quote Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: “I was an acute nobody… I was ‘Mr Nobody’ until I killed the biggest Somebody on earth.”
Part of Coronatime is set in Vienna – Photo Robert Pimm
In the dystopic world of Coronatime, terrorists are motivated by money and by the urge to show their lives have meaning. Here, in an excerpt from the book, our heroes Jake and Sandy meets a member of terrorist group The One Life Army.
Coronatime: an excerpt. The One Life Army
‘We are not terrorists, or freedom fighters. Actually, we see ourselves more as a pressure group which is not afraid to apply real pressure.’
By Robert Pimm
Financial Times, August 8, 2003
I’m out on a launch in the Havel, the ribbon of lakes that bounds Berlin to the west, with Erika and Juergen. Juergen’s a retired fireman, he’s been messing about in boats for years.
“In the old days there was an imaginary line down the middle of the water,” Juergen says. “If you sailed across it the East German police would arrest you and impound your boat.”
Berlin Wall running through Potsdamer Platz, 1980 – Photo Robert Pimm
All around us, pleasure craft bob in a bowl of blue and green. (more…)