Comic Book GuyAfter the episode in which Homer was raped by a Panda; the episode in which Marge got breast implants and the episode in which Lady Gaga visited Springfield we have an episode in which the characters of Family Guy meet the Simpsons. This is fitting. While Seth MacFarlane’s abomination of a series drew heavily on Groening’s classic, the latter has turned into its bastard offspring. Mean-spirited yet moralistic; unhinged in its absurdity and broad to the point of comic corpulence, it has been dreadful for as long as teenagers have been alive. Among the tragic declines in American public life, it sits somewhere between Phil Spector’s and the city of Detroit’s.

Ah well. It is just a programme. But you have to ask yourself how much lower it can get. What depths are there to sink to? I don’t know, but I have a few predictions…

  • Marge becomes a backup dancer for Miley Cyrus, and Homer learns the true meaning of tolerance.
  • Moe falls in love with his car. Featuring Cate Blanchett as “the car”.
  • The Simpsons are going to Dagestan!
  • Bart is arrested for Internet trolling.
  • Homer provokes a fatwa. Reza Aslan guest stars.
  • After an accident involving a rhinoceros and a bolt of lightning holds up their pizza delivery guy, the Simpsons tell themselves stories about waiting for things.
  • Comic Book Guy appears on The Biggest Loser.
  • Bart and Lisa are entered into the Hunger Games. Lisa wins after pretending to be in love with Ralph.
  • Groundskeeper Willie votes for independence from Springfield Elementary School.
  • Professor Frink invents a suitcase nuke. It blows up. All are killed. Ken Jeong guest stars.

Tasty BurgerCarnivorism is becoming cooler.

The paleo diet crowd appeal to intellectuals, with their nutrition science, their evo-bio and, of course, that aura of contrarianism and masculinity that appeal to the ego as well as the brain. The foodies, meanwhile, try to poeticise eating itself: babbling about the flesh of songbirds and the testicles of goats in terms that bards used to reserve for Queens and Goddesses. For less refined hipsters, there is meat porn: that strange genre of television that offers its viewers large helpings of carnivorous greed along with the faintest sprinkling of irony. Its heroes are people who consume meat in huge amounts while attributing orgasmic qualities to its smell and taste.

Its leading practitioners on the Internet are the men behind Epic Mealtime – a series in which people create and eat meals of such outlandish proportions as a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a pig. To my shame, I once found its audacity entertaining but this paled even before I remembered that meat comes from sentient creatures rather than vending machines on legs. There are, after all, only so many animals one can put inside other animals. What has kept the show alive is the attitude of its hosts: a comically overblown demeanor of brash aggression.

There is nothing aggressive about Adam Richman. The host of Man v. Food just emanates warmth, and infects the viewer with good cheer. Like his grunting cousins in Epic Mealtime, though, his gimmick is to munch his way through burgers the size of blimps and steaks the size of submarines; all while talking as if it is a challenge that affirms his manly credentials.

All this contributes to the fetishising of meat products in popular culture. We have not merely observed ice creams and cocktails made from bacon but coffins, alarm clocks and brassieres constructed from it. The inventor of this garment called herself a “bacontarian” in Bacon Today. Yes, she did. And, yes, that is a real publication. Three weeks out from International Bacon Day, meanwhile, people are already planning their festivities. It is not enough to convert one to Islam, but even disregarding the ethical implications it is enough to inspire one to sympathise with Scruton.

What is behind this? I may not partake of pigs but I will not pretend that their flesh does not taste appetising. Have you ever consumed a BLT, though, that inspired you to moan, exhale and spew admiring adjectives as if William Wodehouse, in a field, on LSD? Sex must have been a huge disappointment for these guys.

No, it goes beyond taste. I think people enjoy indulging their bumptious, macho impulses, and displaying them to others, and it is a convenient outlet for these feeling as one need not go through the hardships of other activities with manly implications: working out; playing sports; defending a person or principle. Moreover, it offers a means through which to show off masculine behaviour while staying within the boundaries of political correctness. One can eat a burger and feel primal and macho while avoiding the often unpopular patriarchal, competitive and violent features of male archetypes.

This is ironic because unlike many rhetorical and attitudinal offences that arouse the ire of liberal moralists, avid carnivorism does actual harm. The mountains of meat that are conquered with such enthusiasm are stripped from animals as intelligent as the cats and dogs that run about the viewer’s feet; animals that spent their lives crammed into boxes, fed on grains and drugs, before being herded into abattoirs to have their throats slit.

Most if not all forms of carnivorism depend upon the exploitation of the pain of other beings, and while this may not be a self-evident case for abstention it inspires us, at the least, to begin stumbling towards ethical positions. What these trends promote is obtuseness: a self-conscious zest that can only be sustained through ignorance of the pain that it is built upon. I am sorry to hold as well-meaning a programme as Man v. Food up as being some kind of malignant force but, hell, sometimes being moral is no fun. I think gladiatorial bouts could have been thrilling if one didn’t care that slaves were fighting desperately for their lives.

Old WomanLike you, I read the Mail Online. It is a sewer, of course, but so much of it appeals to my morbid curiosity that I delve in regardless. It was there that I learned of a 71-year-old woman who strode out onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and bellowed a tuneless number titled Kiss My Ass. The clip is available on YouTube, and features thousands of young to middle-aged people shrieking with laughter as the grey-haired songstress yells out Bart Simpson’s favourite noun.

The rude old person has become a feature of the cultural landscape. Agnes Brown, the matriarch of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, curses her way through episodes of Britain’s most-watched sitcom. The Catherine Tate Show featured an old woman who did nothing except swear. Little Britain offered a sketch devoted to a young man having a sexual relationship with a grandmother. It was a recurring sketch. Did Father Jack start this? I hope not. I liked Father Jack. But perhaps he was a bad influence.

I have no wish to tell old people to conform to special standards of propriety. If they are going to warble on about pecking posteriors I am not going to bully them. Yet it would be great if younger people stopped cackling like idiots at such behaviour.

The septuagenarian singer was described as an “inspiration” by the botox businessman. Some might claim that this was for having the guts to perform, except that he had looked disgusted as she walked onstage; perhaps fearing that she was going to have the shameless audacity to try and show musical talent. Some might hold that it was because of her energy and spirit, but if singing R&B was enough to defy his preconceptions of the powers of the aged he cannot be acquainted with many old people. The reason he and the audience loved her was because she was being coarse, and, thus, defying those staid old values we associate with age. Reserve, politesse and prudence are disdained by our exhibitionistic culture, and old people are only welcome in the public eye if they are members of the royal family or behaving like young people. It is our world now and they are only welcome if they are trying to match our standards.

Of course, in many ways I think it would be great for us to encourage old people to regain their youthfulness. Few could match Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing novels at 90, or Robert Marchand, breaking cycling records after he has broken triple figures, but when the aged make use of the knowledge and resources available to us they can often retain and regain mental and physical abilities that allow them to live more pleasant and productive lives. What they need inspiration to do, though, apparently, is to say “ass” and mention oral sex. We don’t have enough references to the backside nowadays.

Dad's ArmyI’ve been watching Spiral. It is a fantastically grim French series that not only includes the exploration of murder, rape, domestic violence and child abuse but is filmed in such a grimy, frenetic style that its authors could have based it at the Great Barrier Reef and it would still have looked ugly. Given this, and the fact that my post-Christmas reading list largely consists of books about the Nazis and the Mafia, I have needed some entertainment that cheers me up. This has been Dad’s Army.

I, like everyone, had always known that Dad’s Army was good. I had not appreciated, though, quite factor good it was. Which factor sets it apart? How about the fact that while most sitcoms struggle to maintain a cast of four substantive characters Dad’s Army had at least ten? It was the diversity that this offered its writers that allowed them to maintain high standards over nine series.

How about the fact that its actors so perfectly embodied their respective roles that it is hard to think of them as anybody else? It it is fantastic how perfectly they suited the production. John Laurie, for example, brought not only his thick Highland tones to Private Frazer but the maniacal bombast of a thespian who had performed Shakespeare alongside Olivier. Watching Sergeant Wilson grimly bear a tempestuous relationship with Mrs Pike, meanwhile, I have to wonder if Jimmy Perry and David Croft had John Le Mesurier’s string of wives in mind as they were writing.

How about its balancing of silliness and subtlety? We all know of the bombs in trousers and sardonic “stupid boy”s but I could spend hours marvelling over the delicate beauty of a line like, “There’s a voluntary church service on Sunday, so I expect you all to attend”. There is a Wodehousian quality to the delight its authors took in the potential of character and language, and the product has the same simple appeal and complex artistry of the great man’s works.

Well, yes, all of that made it the achievement it was. What makes it unique, though, more than anything else, is the warmth of its heart. As good as Father Ted, Fawlty Towers and at least two of the Blackadder series were they were all somewhat misanthropic: populated by self-serving cynics and complete buffoons. Dad’s Army adopted a benevolent perspective on the failings of its characters. They were often foolish but this was an endearing, enthusiastic foolishness; often allied to bravery and kindliness. They could be unpleasant but this too was cast as foolishness, and a foolishness that one could empathise with: the arrogance and coldness, for example, that are born out of reactions to insecurity. In the naive, muddled yet unfailingly exuberant manner in which they clubbed together to face their unfathomable and terrifying predicament they will always appeal as examples of the human condition.

The HoodSo. Farewell then, Gerry Anderson. Thunderbirds was important to me but not for the reasons one might expect. I never dreamed of being a superhero or even an astronaut. What distinguished it was the character of the Hood. A bald villain of ambiguous oriental origins, he was the eerie foreign contrast to the upstanding heroes. His eeriness transcended the cliches it sprang from and, for a kids’ series, was striking.

I was raised on Looney Tunes, in which the villains were morons forever being outwitted by the mischievous protagonists. It was the same in Tom and Jerry and Asterix and Obelix. The Hood, though, was a powerful man who acted through the creepy means of brainwashing International Rescue’s hapless servant. While his plans were inevitably thwarted I always felt as if he had the edge over the Tracy family because they remained pitifully ignorant of the fact that he had a man in their camp.

This ability to create sinister villains was also demonstrated in Captain Scarlet. The eponymous hero always seemed rather dull for the simple reason that his powers ensured that one could not even delude oneself into believing its conclusions were in doubt. That inextinguishable sod was never going to lose. The ghostly Mysterons with their sonorous threats, mind-altering abilities and unconventially substantive grievances were a far more affecting presence.

Such characters gently exposed us to the reality of maleficence; duplicitousness; evil. They demonstrated its ability to exploit human weakness and to fester in dark emotions. It is, perhaps, a shame that the pure-hearted heroes did not show similar nuance in demonstrating the nature of their virtue. Then again, perhaps I would have been to busy hoping they’d go down those slides to have noticed.

I can’t be the only one to notice the Bieberisation of male presenters in cultural programming? Everywhere you look on BBCs 2 and 4 eyelashes are being batted and fringes are flip-flopping. Brian Cox, the physicist girls want to get physical with, is the most prominent example. He’s a smart advocate of naturalism but to have a mop like this at 44 surely defies scientific explanation?

Brian Cox

There is also Simon Reeve, the travel documentarian who was last seen offering a paean to Cuba’s economic reforms that was so gushing it made one feel tempted to offer the Simpsonesque question, “Are you going to marry capitalism?” He is sporting a touch of face fluff him but still, at 40, could be mistaken for a Sixth form commoner.

Simon Reeve

Some of you might have missed Alastair Sooke’s How the Devil Got His Horns… but it was ironic that he should choose this subject because his features are positively angelic.

Alastair Sooke

I’m not trying to – what’s the word? – objectify these men. They are all extremely clever and suitably personable. Reeves’ series on the Indian Ocean was fascinating, and How the Devil… was among the best documentaries of the year. Yet I hope the unthreatening charm that’s incidental to them is not promoted at the expense of the older, gruffer great uncle model of man. It is in that spirit that I say…

Patrick Moore


BiafraThe Trouble With Aid was a formidable achievement on the part of its creators. An analysis of the rise of humanitarianism, it exposed the many incidents in which aid work has complicated rather than solving problems: from Biafra, where offerings of Westerners strengthened secessionist forces and extended the war, to Somalia, where charities called for troops to protect their convoys and were answered by American forces who promptly worsened the conflict.

A veteran of aid work commented that many saw their humanitarian efforts as being comparable to fighting in a war in which you did not have to kill anyone. Children of the 60s strode off into the third world to fight. Suffering was their foe, and food and funds were the materiel with which they hoped to battle it. It is striking, indeed, how their rhetoric could mirror that of warmongers: crises demanded an urgency that sometimes obscured the need for realism; enemies were so dangerous and appalling that attempts to construct nuanced analyses of their causes and forms was almost disreputable; arresting their consequences was a simple matter of trying to directly remove them.

These saviour narratives, however, could result in their blinding themselves to complex political and social realities. In Ethiopia, for example, the oppressive government made charities complicit in a brutal resettlement programme that masqueraded as humanitarian assistance. Estimates suggest that between fifty and a hundred thousand people died as the result of actions Bob Geldof somehow never had the time to say “fuck” over.

To the doubters, brash humanitarians like the almost Hitchensian Geldof had a blunt moralistic response: we’re trying to help starving kids; what are you doing? While many of the blunders of charities were consequences of well-meaning people being understandably ignorant of situations that had never been encountered there was also a streak of egotism running through them. A red-faced Bernard Kouchner yelled at the filmmakers that intervention in Somalia was worthwhile if it saved even one child. Hundreds of people, which doubtless included children, died in the violence that resulted from that intervention.

Things had become even more dangerous as the line between humanitarians and militarists disappeared. Aid workers, faced with rebels and dictators instead of famines and floods, presumed that Western military power was a convenient tool with which to solve crises. They soon realised, however, that it was impossible to control and liable to have an effect more comparable to a backhoe than a surgical instrument. The faith in the power of military intervention – which, I should admit, counted me among its believers for a short period years ago – persists in the celebrities whose eyes grow moist over Darfur and the teens who share indictments of Joseph Kony.

In New York a policeman became famous for buying a pair of shoes for a cold homeless man. The tramp, however, did not actually wear them. He feared that someone might kill him in an effort to steal them. If such apparently simple generosity can have such complicated underpinnings it should not surprise us that crises involving millions of people in societies with significant and often unfamiliar political and cultural peculiarities are hard to understand and dangerous to negotiate. The Trouble With Aid was a necessary reminder that the sentiment that inspires people to do good in our world must be allied to realism that ensures that good intentions do not in fact lead to harm.

A final thought. I wonder if the rise of humanitarian thought has focused our efforts on ameliorating conditions in places where the worst suffering can be found at the expense of the places where the most good might be done. Staggering resources have been expended in attempts to change some of the worst dictatorships and theocracies of the world but these are also places where it’s hardest to do good. In the meantime, stable if struggling nations risk being denied the ideas and support that could aid them in developing their economies, securing their resources, stabilising their demographics and giving future generations the chance for a better standard of life or, at least, a better chance of avoiding the sort of catastrophes that might inspire belated responses. Ultimately, micronutrient interventions and family planning might not sound as romantic as ending wars and toppling tyrants but they seem more liable to effect positive change.

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