Monthly Archives: September 2005

Muhammad Ali, boxing links, morality

Nigel Benn lands a punch on Gerald McClellan in McClellan's last tragic fight in 1995
We watched Michael Mann’s Ali on the TV. We love Muhammad Ali in our house. He’s such a huge figure – an Elvis, a Churchill, a great big, Shakespearean hero/maniac.

So I found myself looking up boxing stuff: an amazing (and, I don’t doubt, very accurate) boxing records database, maintained by enthusiast-editors around the world. A superb 1992 review of Ali books from the sport’s most eloquent fan Joyce Carol Oates and Ian McNeilly’s moving first-person account of the awesome and heart-breaking 1995 Nigel Benn/Gerald McClellan fight during which McClellan’s brain was damaged beyond repair.

Boxing’s a difficult enthusiasm. I’ve never been better than a half-hearted fan but I’ll always defend the game’s right to exist. I was in the second row at the Benn/McClellan fight and came home to find my white shirt spattered with McClellan’s blood. Anti-boxing types say that it’s base, animalistic, immoral – two men reduced to lethal physical aggression as spectacle.

The truth is that modern boxing is the opposite of an animal pursuit. It’s all about constraints, about an elaborate legal code superimposed on and countermanding the pre-legal, pre-human nastiness of unsupervised physical combat. Boxing is about the triumph of the human over our unevolved, animal selves. Ali represented (represents) some kind of pinnacle of that evolution.

Slowing down

A Soviet-era Zil Limousine
Don’t get me wrong. I like cars (I think I’ve told you before about my perfect, photographic recollection of every car made anywhere in the world before the Clash’s third single). But I’m also the crazy fuck standing on the kerb outside his house in his pyjamas yelling at the ladies in their black-windowed 4x4s (because you need absolute privacy on the school run) as they speed up the hill, gunning their torquey five-and-a-half-litre V8s to overcome the nasty 1-in-40 incline. Because I am prematurely old and because, when behind the wheel, I already so pathetically hug the underside of the applicable speed limit as to make even my smug self feel slightly sick, I want cars to slow down.

They go much too fast. We’ve surrendered our streets to speeding half-guided weapons, armoured shrines to luxury, seclusion, individual liberty and generalised disregard for others. I’m no knee-jerk green or slow-witted communitarian (really, I’m not) but we’ve got this seriously wrong. Cars are now so large, so heavy, so powerful and so lethal on contact with anything softer than, well, another car, that they’ve caused us to suspend centuries of fragile urban civility in favour of a kind of low grade warfare – and we barely notice because we know no better. We can’t imagine our streets and lanes without nose-to-tail Vectras and Freelanders and Mondeos.

The balance of power on our streets is now so uneven that a walk to the shops for me and my kids is a miserable, stressful ordeal when it could be a rewarding interaction with our otherwise-quite-nice semi-rural environment and an opportunity for conversation, play and friendship. No such luck. Roads are important – they make possible trade, movement of labour and ideas, communication between communities (which is what keeps the inbreeding under control) but in their present, terrifying form they’re rigid and divisive and socially unhelpful. The stream of over-specified, over-powered and over-weight cars that fills them needs to be slowed down: we need calmer, more friendly and usable streets and a change to our attitude to getting around. If we can adjust to travelling more slowly (at least by car), I imagine a generation of cars built to a different standard: a capped maximum speed of 10 or 15 mph will mean there’ll be no need for Euro NCAP ratings, airbags or safety cages.

Cars will change radically: the dominant design metaphor won’t be the bathysphere or armoured car or cruise missile on which most cars are modelled but something lighter and less forbidding: cars will be made from folded waxed paper, parachute silk, porcelain, lacquered wood, wicker. Temporary cars of papier maché, spun sugar, ice or woven reeds will come and go like Mayflies before being folded into the recycling bin. The dead art of coachbuilding will be revived: your hydrogen-powered chassis will get a new body once a month – something seasonal, perhaps something you knitted yourself or grew in the garden or whittled in the shed. We’ll be less precious about our cars, too: jamming your squashy, wipe-clean, Liberty print motor into a parking space that’s actually a bit too small will cause no stress at all and nobody driving a blue plastic car (purchased from Ikea) at 5mph can succumb to road rage. Of course, a big, cultural change like this would probably cause Jeremy Clarkson to emigrate or throw himself from a bridge but there’s probably a downside too…

The Guardian Again


Speaking of The Guardian, I spent part of Wednesday afternoon in a private room at The Ivy, judging the web site category of the 26th annual Guardian Student Media Awards. As I did not fail to point out to everyone present, the last time I ate in that room was at a dinner thrown by Maurice Saatchi to celebrate his investment in my first Internet business, Webmedia, in 1995 (Ivan and I got more than a bit drunk, as far as I remember). Explaining this to the callow designer next me at Wednesday’s lunch (he was judging Best Designed Student Publication) was tricky. He didn’t quite believe that there could have been such a thing as a web design firm as long ago as 1995…

Media I have loved

Listen. I don’t want to get all sentimental here but The Guardian has always been pretty important to me. My Mum & Dad – working class lefties and trade unionists of the old school (unless they’re reading this, in which case they’re the bastards who ruined my life) – brought me up on the Grauniad (and The Eye) and the family’s dedication to the paper meant that, in the Seventies, when the paper hit a financial crunch and a merger with The Times was narrowly averted, my Mum bought two copies every day. How’s that for loyalty?

Anyway, the ‘Berliner’ redesign is a thing of beauty and the proof is that all the other broadsheet-turned-tabloids now look grey and dowdy and lost. The Guardian, once again, trumps the lot. Well done, you lot! I can still remember the thrill and tension of the 1988 redesign and this one’s better. I’m proud of you all. My friend Vic Keegan’s minute-by-minute launch day blog is really thrilling.

As I’ve said before, the other thing my parents (those bastards!) did for me as a kid was force-feed me the BBC’s most perfect offspring, Radio 4, so this moving celebration of 50 years of From Our Own Correspondent (you’ll have to download this MP3 since the original has been overwritten now), presented by legendary contributor Charles Wheeler, practically had me weeping on the Edgware Road the other day. I remembered all but two or three of the voices featured and many of the actual reports.

Will Self in The Wood Between The Worlds

I’m reading the kids the first three books from The Chronicles of Narnia at the moment and very very brilliant and engrossing they are too (never read them before). From his Independent column I learn that Will Self’s a C.S.Lewis fan. The good thing about the paper’s otherwise-annoying paid-for service is that the free taster is just long enough to include the punchline of a very good coincidence gag (but not the part where he talks about Narnia and The Wood Between The Worlds, which sort of makes this whole entry pointless, I suppose. Sorry).

Save these gadgets for the nation

The disbursal of the Steve Bowbrick Media Technology Museum Cemetery continues apace. Charming but obsolete gadgets like this 1980s Sony portable shortwave receiver and this terrific battleship-grade piece of German optical engineering are going under the hammer over at eBay as we speak. We’re having a bit of a domestic over whether I should unload the Newtons, one of which, the largest and least useful PDA ever made, the Apple eMate, would probably fetch a few quid as an oddity. Juliet thinks I should keep them. I’ve just spent a fortnight adjusting to the grief their departure will cause so I want to get it over with. Watch this space retro-gadget fans.

Katrina’s consequences

How do you govern a country (and prosecute a costly foreign war) when the complacency and incompetence of your administration has just caused thousands of your citizens to be drowned? God knows.

The British media’s almost gleeful schadenfreude over Katrina’s aftermath makes me sick (they love it: incompetence, anarchy, overflowing toilets, race fear, natural disaster. What a combination!) but I’m sure that America, now, in the recovery phase of this catastrophe, will shine. Americans are good at rebuilding and they will, I’m just as sure, do so thoroughly, even-handedly and with the kind of generosity that shames miserable Euro-gloaters (can you imagine mean, introverted British communities taking on tens of thousands of refugees in the big-hearted way the people of 19 American States have?). New Orleans, Biloxi and the whole benighted coast will probably come out of this horror stronger than they went in.

The damage, though, is done. Katrina – not the police or FEMA or the State Government – singled out the poor for misery last week and that produced the political catastrophe Katrina is becoming for George W because it made visible America’s barely-suppressed racial hang-ups. We’re learning that, in the evacuation phase, no special provision was made for the poor, for the old or the ill. A mandatory evacuation order was issued but nothing was done to ensure that those without cars or places to go or frequent flyer miles were actually removed. Result: thousands (thousands!) of dead poor people and second-term meltdown for the administration.

Katrina may have produced the conditions for this political crisis but hapless Bush will inevitably pay the price. Can he really, once the bodies start to pile up in the region’s morgues, escape the consequences of such epic neglect? I suspect the answer is ‘no’.