Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Train Robbery

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to appeal the penalty fare I was unfairly issued with on 28th October, 2008 at Brighton Station, after taking the 19:36 train from Falmer to Brighton (see enclosed). It says on the notice I was given that I “have been unable to show when requested either a valid ticket, or other authority to travel, for your journey.” This is untrue. It was I who requested to buy a ticket, and was refused, and instead told that I would be charged a fine.

I had arrived at Falmer Station with my colleagues shortly before the train arrived, and thus went straight to the ticket machine on the platform to get a ticket. The gate for the platform bridge did not take me through or past the ticket office and I did not notice if was open or not. I found the machine unable to take cards, with a coin slot too narrow to fit pound coins in, and, after several tries, unwilling to accept paper money either.

The train arrived quickly, and we boarded and sat down. I am not a frequent user of this route, preferring the bus. However, I had taken this train in similar circumstances at a similar time two weeks previously, and had found no ticket machines at all – I was assured that I would be able to buy my ticket at Brighton, and indeed was able to without any trouble. Naturally I assumed that this would again be the right course of action, and assured my companion, who also had no ticket, that we could get our tickets at Brighton. After getting off the train, we went straight to the office next to the barriers and asked to buy tickets, and were refused.

We were told that the ticket office at Falmer was open (I do not know if this was true, but there was some controversy), and that we should have gone to the conductor and got our tickets. If I had known this was the case, I would have done so, but because of previous experience, I waited. It appears my only crime was to ask the wrong person for a ticket. This was abundantly clear to the officers who issued me my penalty fare, but it seems they were not in a position to make judgments on individual cases, but had to follow procedure. So here is my appeal, I trust it will be evaluated fairly, and my fine will be waived.


Roger Johnson

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dixon, Illinois: Reagan's Small Town

(Last week, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman's election blog. I submitted this as well, but it doesn't seem to have made the cut. The shame! Amiable Dunce, though, is still a reliable host for my writing.)

At the dedication of his Presidential Library, Ronald Reagan took the opportunity to muse on his past and its contemporary relevance:

I grew up in a town where everyone cared about one another because everyone knew one another, not as statistics in a government program but as neighbours in need…Our neighbours were never ashamed to kneel in prayer to their makers nor were they ever embarrassed to feel a lump in their throat when old glory passed by. No one in Dixon, Illinois ever burned a flag and no one in Dixon would have tolerated it.

This was in 1991, in the midst of the culture wars that swamped American politics as the Cold War drifted into history. Patriotism and American values as defined by rural and small-town life defined conservative rhetoric in the renewed battle against liberalism, and Reagan here was asserting his continuing loyalty to the cause (incidentally, out of the five Presidents at that ceremony, only one place his hand on his heart during the national anthem – Jimmy Carter). Today, seventeen years later, such reminiscence would delight the GOP crowds who continue to turn out for a campaign which increasingly defines itself around the symbol of the small town. Here tradition and morality and independent conservatism thrive in apparent cohesion with the vision of the iconic President Reagan.

Reagan, though, had more to say about Dixon and the place of small towns in the American fabric. Peggy Noonan, in her memoir of the Reagan White House, recalled a meandering Oval Office conversation on economics and the changing shape of the family in the 20th Century. Reagan reflected:

It was the rise of the city, too…You know, those sleepy old towns where generation after generation lived. And then those kids in the Midwest left; there was nothing in those towns – Lord, that’s why I left! And they wanted to see the world, so they went to the cities…

Reagan escaped from Dixon, Illinois. He aimed for Chicago, ended up in Des Moines and before too long found his way to Los Angeles. Hollywood celebrated the small town, and in those days wore a rigid fa├žade of wholesomeness, but it was there that Reagan was trained in the big city values of celebrity, vigorous creativity, vibrant commercialism, and active, progressive politics. While he was to give up on the latter, or turn it into something else, it was still the city that made the Reagan who became President, and which made him a heap of money. The shining city secured him the American dream, which he proceeded to promote for the rest of his life. It is not just that McCain/Palin marginalise large swathes of the American people with their narrow focus, it’s that they ignore this vital aspect of American mythology, the cities which forged the nation’s ideas, images and dreams, leaving their vision strangely stagnant.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Would President Reagan Have Knelt Before Zod?

Following a several month long hiatus, I have decided to resurrect this blog for three reasons.

1) It is a useful means of procrastination.

2) To plug the possibly short-lived Three Weeks in America, the musings of my sister as she ambles round the States.

3) Because the presidency looks like it will be getting some attention in the near future, and I may as well Be Part of History as well.

So anyway, we all get much of our understanding of the presidency from its on-screen representations. Clips such as the one below inform us about how the office works, how it reaches decisions and acts upon them, as well as inform American identity with dramatic representations of important historical moments:

So this raises a few questions. How would Senators Obama and McCain act in such a situation, and do we want a president who would, in the end, kneel before Zod? Personally, I am surprised this wasn't raised in any of the debates - it's an important foreign policy issue. Reagan talked often about the potential of an extra-terrestrial threat, though this was in the context of how it might unite the interests and identity of the US, the USSR and the world in general. He never specifically addressed how he might act, as far as I know, in the face of an invasion by rogue Kryptonians (he did watch Superman II, though, at Camp David on 16th June, 1981). I suspect it may have been much like in the film: try to fob the alien off with Mike Deaver, then submit with an air of noble defiance. Pretty much the best you could hope for in that situation. Maybe Reagan, though, would never have allowed Superman to wander off and give up his powers in the first place.

I have a feeling that this might be Obama's course of action as well, while McCain would try something more reckless and angry, maverick if you will (is he even able to kneel?). But then what have you got? One dead president - and the choice between millennia of Kryptonian tyranny or President Palin. You decide.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


If Barack Obama becomes the candidate and wins the election he will be the first president since Kennedy with more than two syllables in his name. He will also be the first president to begin with an 'O'.

American lingers on the verge of history.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Huck Me

Mike Huckabee has won the most recent poll - I have decided that the "don't know" voters don't have a voice. Amiable Dunce officially endorses Huckabee for Vice President of the United States.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Standing Athwart History, Yelling "Stop!"

"Listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered!"

This was directed at Gore Vidal in a live TV debate at the 1968 Chicago Convention and was clearly not one of William F. Buckley's finest moments, but it was the first that came to mind on hearing today that Buckley had died, age 82 (The encounter can be read about, and apparently downloaded, here).

It is unfair to open with this spat, because although it brings to mind the dreadful, shouty bickering that seems to characterise American political discourse, Buckley deserves credit for his articulate, intelligent and determined efforts to confront and change the American political mind. For over fifty years, Buckley has been a leader of American conservatism, taking it from the fringes into the forefront. While Reagan took his confrontational conservative ideology to public office, articulating it in consistent popular rhetoric until it represented the mainstream, Buckley was of the elite, the now-maligned intelligensia, articulating his conservatism in its terms through his journal, The National Review, which challenged the weighty institutions of The Nation and The New Republic. Equally, this eventually became a standard in American political thought. This is from the first issue of The National Review, November 19, 1955:

We begin publishing, then, with a considerable stock of experience with the irresponsible Right, and a despair of the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country; and all this in a world dominated by the jubilant single-mindedness of the practicing Communist, with his inside track to History. All this would not appear to augur well for NATIONAL REVIEW. Yet we start with a considerable — and considered — optimism.

An optimism that, it seems, was well placed. But now, with both Buckley and the Communists out of the way, perhaps our current despair at the intransigent beneficiaries of his (and Reagan's) success can make way for a bit of optimism.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Culture and Stuff

I have now got my greasy hands on my housemate's shiny copy of Iain M. Banks' new novel Matter, the first new story of the Culture in eight years. The Culture, for those who don't know, is a galaxy-spanning anarchist civilisation who roam the stars free of disease, danger and possessions, interfering quietly and not-so-quietly in the affairs of less advanced and less well behaved societies. See here, if you want the details without the hassle of having to follow a story at the same time.

I am a few chapters in and things seem suitably byzantine and set up for excitement, and I have already had to make several detours to the seventeen-page glossary handily placed at the back to remind you which character is which, what species your dealing with, and what certain arcane, alien or techno-babble means. Here are some samples:

spore-wisp - plasma seed of a stellar field-liner

Despairationials - extremist group, Syaung-un

Stalks - slightly derogatory term used for landgoing peoples by aquatic peoples

Tubers - black hole smoker species

Godded - a Shellworld with a Xinthian at its core

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No We Can't

It tears me up to see people make fun of Republicans, but this also makes fun of Barack Obama's "spontaneous" celebrity schmaltz video.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Miracle Mike

Huckabee comes through with a real contender for Best Quote of the Campaign:

"Folks, I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles and I still believe in miracles."

This was to the Conservative Political Action Conference, and appears to be a scrubbed up version of an earlier, and even more special remark to a reporter:

"I was never that good in math. I'm more into miracles than math. Miracles, I understand. Math is a little harder."

The Governor graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in 1976, after majoring in religion.

(I'm having some trouble accessing the page of the Ouachita Mathematics Department - Any reason why their server might have crashed?)

Friday, February 8, 2008

John McCain and Republican Values

John McCain: An Elephant

McCain, barring the wrath of God, has the nomination. This is another surprise of the race, and a happy one. I confess to being pleased that the GOP has chosen its best candidate, a pleasure that is in no small way heightened by the snub that it delivers to those Republicans who have done their best over the past decades to make their party and their country ugly and vicious. Such types are railing and whining and threatening revenge, but to me it seems like so many hollow tantrums. Anne Coulter makes drunken boasts on Fox TV; so what? Rush Limbaugh rages on the airwaves about events out of his control and beyond his comprehension; what's new? Dare it be suggested that this wing of so called 'ultra-conservatives' and 'culture warriors' are not as dominant and widespread as everyone imagined? Yes, they have shouted the loudest and got the attention and, indeed, changed and debased American political discourse in recent years - but what electoral power have the religious and radical right really demonstrated? They have something of a candidate in G.W. Bush, but he was scraped in by a whisker in 2000. Reagan's success laid as much in his cross party appeal, than in the evangelicals and ideologues he attracted.
Since Reagan, conservatism has been mainstream in America and despite G.W. Bush, it probably still is. But John McCain is a conservative, and possibly one more representative than Coulter et al. McCain, after all, succeeded Barry Goldwater, who vitalised outsider conservatism in the GOP before spending much of the eighties berating Jerry Falwell and his authoritarian fellow travellers for trying to bring moral and social issues to the federal table. If McCain can run as a less cranky, less frightening Barry Goldwater, he could capture the support of a large number of Americans, with or without the lunatic fringe. After Goldwater won his nomination through a fierce battle with the old establishment, moderate Republicans, it is ironic that McCain now heads to the presidency over the bodies of those who claim conservatism for themselves (despite their frankly radical agenda). Of course, McCain will have to reach out to the erstwhile supporters of Romney, and to Huckabee's constituency, but I expect that nine months is enough for him to convince them, and that he can do it without posturing, as Romney did, for a handful of votes.
I may be wrong, of course, McCain may flip like a trained seal when the whip is cracked, but I expect that as soon as they see him beating up on a Democrat on the campaign trail, the vast majority of the natural party, and likely more, will fall in behind him. Anyway, the moonbats can perhaps take comfort in the idea that this is all God's plan - as soon as the old, decrepit, electable McCain is sworn in, he will be struck down to make way for President Huckabee...

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Reagan in the Race

Barak Obama and Mike Huckabee have received an equal number of votes in the contest to be crowned The Next Reagan, maybe some sort of broader system of elections should be organised to figure it out.

The memory of Ronald Reagan has been alive in the presidential race, with candidates in each party bickering over who likes him most. Clinton and Obama have clumsily accused each other praising him and his legacy, which bizarrely demonstrated the absence of of any Democrat leader of the past forty years with whom the candidates could identify to their benefit. Instead, they must disassociate themselves with the political trends of their age (Bill Clinton presents a problem for each: Hillary faces an increasing and multifaceted danger of being seen merely as Clinton II, or a stepping stone back to the White House for Bill, while any attempt by Obama to appropriate Clinton would just be insane - for now at least). It is of course in the GOP race where Ronnie gets the most action.

Before last week's debate at the Reagan Library, the LA Times drew up this little chart showing how many times each candidate had mentioned Reagan's name in previous debates (their chart, if you look, is really dull, so I jazzed it up a bit):

Andrew Malcolm suggests that considering Giuliani's glorious crash and burn, and Romney's faltering campaign, Reagan's name must not be as popular as once assumed. I'd argue that the numbers instead show which of the candidates are most comfortable with projecting their own distinct (conservative) image. Giuliani, being a useless vessel of ugliness and sheer ambition, had little to show for himself and thus made the most effort to cloak his shallow, mean soul in symbols of the past - 9/11 and Ronald Reagan. Dr. Paul, conversely, needs little imagery to shore up his own special brand. He has though, in I think one of the more interesting invocations of Reagan, argued that the Gipper's hasty withdrawal from Lebanon is the perfect model for his own isolationist designs.

In Wednesday's debate, Reagan was summoned again. McCain mentioned four times that he was a "foot-soldier" in the Reagan Revolution, marching happily under that sunny banner, bayoneting liberals this way and that. Huckabee assured us that he would not question Reagan's decisions in Reagan's own temple, (blasphemy I will be sure to avoid when I make the haj later this year): "I'm not that stupid. If I was, I'd have no business being president." Romney declared that Reagan would find McCain's campaign tactics "reprehensible."

To the final question - "Would Ronald Reagan endorse you? And if so, why?" - Romney gave a creeping, arrogant and intellectually hollow answer:

Absolutely. Ronald Reagan would look at the issues that are being debated right here and say, one, we're going to win in Iraq, and I'm not going to walk out of Iraq until we win in Iraq.

Ronald Reagan would say lower taxes. Ronald Reagan would say lower spending.

Ronald Reagan would -- is pro-life. He would also say I want to have an amendment to protect marriage.

Ronald Reagan would say, as I do, that Washington is broken. And like Ronald Reagan, I'd go to Washington as an outsider -- not owing favors, not lobbyists on every elbow. I would be able to be the independent outsider that Ronald Reagan was, and he brought change to Washington.

Ronald Reagan would say, yes, let's drill in ANWR. Ronald Reagan would say, no way are we going to have amnesty again. Ronald Reagan saw it, it didn't work. Let's not do it again.

Ronald Reagan would say no to a 50-cent-per-gallon charge on Americans for energy that the rest of the world doesn't have to pay.

Ronald Reagan would have said absolutely no way to McCain- Feingold.

Much of this is news to me, and I expect few in the GOP will be impressed by such shameless appropriation. There's no argument behind his claims, no sense of familiarity with his hero, no respect, Goddammit! Huckabee gave the best answer, one that actually displays some elements of Reagan's style, and importantly, an understanding of why it is that Reagan's memory so dominates Republican discourse:

I think it would be incredibly presumptuous and even arrogant for me to try to suggest what Ronald Reagan would do, that he would endorse any of us against the others.

Let me just say this, I'm not going to pretend he would endorse me. I wish he would. I would love that, but I endorse him, and I'm going to tell you why.

It wasn't just his specific policies, but Ronald Reagan was something more than just a policy wonk. He was a man who loved this country, and he inspired this country to believe in itself again.

What made Ronald Reagan a great president was not just the intricacies of his policies, though they were good policies. It was that he loved America and saw it as a good nation and a great nation because of the greatness of its people.

And if we can recapture that, that's when we recapture the Reagan spirit. It's that spirit that has a can-do attitude about America's futures and that makes us love our country whether we're Democrats or Republicans. And that's what I believe Ronald Reagan did -- he brought this country back together and made us believe in ourselves.

And whether he believes in us, I hope we still believe in those things which made him a great leader and a great American.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Roger Johnson on the State of the Union

Who is this odd-looking person writing for the New Statesman?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Recollections of Notable Cops

"I knew cops who were matches for the most learned and unscrupulous lawyers at the Baltimore bar, and others who had made monkeys of the oldest and crabbedest judges on the bench, and were generally respected for it. Moreover, I knew cops who were really first-rate policemen, and loved their trade as tenderly as many art artists and movie actors. They were badly paid, but they carried on their dismal work with unflagging diligence, and loved a long, hard chase almost as much as they loved a quick, brisk clubbing."
H.L. Mencken (Newspaper Days, 1942)
One imagines that Mencken would be as impressed as any with The Wire, now into its fifth and last season, though it is another question whether he would recognise its depiction of his city a century on from his first days as a Baltimore journalist. While the massive, rotting projects and their sprawling, grinding heroin trade might represent something new to him, it's possible he would appreciate its portrait of bloated institutions and failing systems marred by conflict and grubby motives. This new season might be of particular interest to the great hack. After absorbing not just the intricate rivalries of the drug gangs and the police departments, but the starved, corrupt docker's union, the vicious politics of the City Council and Mayor's Office, and the creaking public school system, The Wire now shifts its attention to the workings of The Baltimore Sun, Mencken's old paper. We can expect more subtle comedy and morose reflections as the journalists work a losing battle against cutbacks and disinterest, and the manipulations of the city's other fine institutions. These hacks are well aware of their illustrious predecessor. In the latest episode, a recently laid-off Sun journalist recalls over a beer the epitaph: "If ever I depart this vale, and you wish to remember me, pardon some poor sinner and wink at a homely girl." "Fuck Henry Mencken," sympathises his colleague.

We are all blessed in that the new season was wrapped up in time to avoid the writers' strike, but I am already mourning its end. To be honest, it's probably even better than Deadwood. Here's Charlie Brooker explaining why.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Vital Commentary on the Primaries

Yes, it's finally happening. Some two weeks after the Iowans caucusly shuffled and strutted across their floors of democracy, and a week after the New Hampshireites (is this really what they're called? New Hampshireans? New Hampshiremen?) braved the snow to surprise John Zogby, I have come online to share the news on my half-arsed opinions.
One of the drawbacks of democracy is that I generally hate elections. Not the voting - that's fun - but the horrible, queasy entropy of the weeks, months, and now apparently years of campaigning that precede it. Fortunately, I am quite enjoying the US presidential campaign so far. This is largely because none of its outcomes are by any means a foregone conclusion, save that it heralds the end of George W. Bush's presidency. It's been surprising, exciting and weird, and it's also happening far away so I don't have to pay attention if I'm getting upset.

I'm a bit out of practice at blogging, so I'm already getting a bit tired, and will thus reduce the potential reams of insightful analysis to a few snappy predictions and observations:

  • Barack Obama and John Kerry are in love, and want to be running mates
  • Ron Paul should run as an independent, cause a big scene, and then retire quietly to his network of caves in South Texas.
  • I will support whichever GOP candidate can prove that he loves Ronald Reagan the most, preferably through the art of poetry.
  • Hillary Clinton should probably not hold up Lyndon Johnson too much as a president she wishes to emulate - though she should start to curse like him.
  • Fred Thompson is leading the competition for best quote of the campaign with: "I can out-poor any of them. I grew up under more modest circumstances than anybody on that stage."
  • I loathe Rudy Giuliani so much that I sometimes wonder if it stems from a Hollywood-inspired, irrational fear of Italian-Americans, until I remember that Mario Cuomo should have been president.

That's enough for now, though I shall endeavour to keep up the coverage.