kenny hodgart

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On the question of dogs

This article appeared in The Herald

In his memoir Fast and Louche, Confessions of a Flagrant Sinner, the writer Jeremy Scott, whose father was an Arctic explorer, begins: “On Easter Sunday Father shot and ate a dog.” The heroic age of Arctic exploration being over – many people now find paying for a gym membership and going once satisfies their thirst for adventure – it is probable that few dogs perish this way these days.

In the west sentimentality for dogs, cats and even inconsequential things like rabbits is one of life’s constant tyrannies, but the Koreans, apparently, have a taste for canine flesh. Indeed, considered from a Korean point of view, the resources put into rearing dogs in other nations must seem like an enormous waste given that the blighters don’t end up on the table.

If the charity the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) is to be believed, 35% of dogs in the UK are now obese, that figure rising to 37% in Scotland. In a mere three years, according to their calculations, it could be 50%. But what should be pointed out whenever a Korean person brings these statistics up is that even if a dog is too fat to pick itself off the floor and go for a walk, it can hardly be blamed for its condition and therefore shooting it seems a bit on the harsh side.

Presumably there is a link between the weight of a dog and the weight of its owner, but the PDSA does not provide this information. What can safely be concluded, however, is that if dogs whose forebears rollicked about all day can no longer lift a leg at a lamp post, the case for obesity having to do with one’s genes starts not to look so convincing.

Another recent study suggests that a great many dogs suffer from depression. This may or may not be because they are self-conscious about their weight; my guess is that they simply find their masters odious.

In America, where dogs are presumably fatter even than Scottish ones, many owners now take their pets to special church services to give them a better chance of making it into heaven.

Christianity does not traditionally apportion animals with souls, but now it seems the modern dog, bloated by sugary snacks, must grapple with such matters as to whether salvation is to be attained by good deeds or faith alone. Little wonder that sometimes the hand that feeds is bitten.


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Schleck must be more ruthless

This article appeared in The Herald

One incident above all in this year’s Tour de France, which finished in Paris on Sunday, provoked obsessive debate among cycling fans: an alleged breach of etiquette by the ultimate winner Alberto Contador that allowed him to gain 39 seconds – the margin of his eventual victory – on his rival Andy Schleck after the latter’s chain came off in the Pyrenees.

The argument that had Contador stopped riding and waited for the Luxembourger he might not have been in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees is at best a facile way of looking at a 3600km race. Schleck may have seemed like the stronger rider throughout the race – by Saturday’s final time trial stage Contador was suffering from a fever – but little has been made of the fact that his rival was not without mechanical troubles of his own during the Tour: on the cobbles of northern France in the first week, he rode 30km with a back brake rubbing against his wheel. No-one waited for him then, and indeed for all those queuing up to condemn the Spaniard, there are plenty former riders who admit observance of the convention has always been the exception rather than the rule.

In any case, it was the Team Saxo Bank rider’s own poor decision to make a big gear change when he did that caused his chain to come off, and a certain lack of astuteness has plagued the 25-year-old’s career to date. After finishing 12th in his first Tour de France, in 2008, however, he has improved year on year: this year’s gap from the now three-time winner Contador was a significant improvement on the 4 minutes 11 seconds by which the latter beat him into second last year.

Race director Christian Prudhomme has wasted no time in identifying the beginnings of a captivating new chapter in the history of big Tour rivalries. For him the pair are the new Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana, or Bernald Hinault and Greg LeMond. “They are almost at the same level and that promises new, extraordinary duels”, he said at the weekend, throwing in the names of another pair – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – just in case non-aficionados weren’t paying attention.

One name he failed to mention – perhaps because he was later implicated in a doping scandal – was that of Jan Ullrich, one of the youngest Tour winners ever in 1997 but then never able to repeat the feat once Lance Armstrong started his run of seven wins in a row from 1999. But the Anquetil-Poulidor rivalry may be the one Schleck has most to worry about replicating: Anquetil won the Tour five times between 1957 and 1964; Poulidor was the eternal podium bridesmaid, coming second on three occasions and third five times.

Conceivably, Contador and Schleck might continue their rivalry for another decade: the Astana man is the senior competitor at just 27. But will their relationship ever be reversed? And will Schleck have a better chance of winning than he did this year? “This race has been so close not because Andy has been a lot better, but because I’ve been a lot worse,” was how Contador saw it on Sunday, his greatness now beyond doubt after his latest victory placed him in a select group of riders (including only himself, Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx) to have won all three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least once, and the Tour de France at least three times.

One reason he has given for being “worse” than last year was the fact that he was on a course of antibiotics the week before the race. But Schleck also had another mitigating factor to contend with: his team-mate and brother, Frank – whose attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees would doubtless have tired Contador – crashed on the cobbles on stage three and had to retire from the race.

The younger Schleck’s own tactical naivete didn’t do him any favours, either. He failed to sense that Contador was tired and so failed to attack until the last kilometre in the first mountain stage, Morzine-Avoriaz, and could have again made time on the stage 17 Tourmalet summit finish if he had only made another charge after he and Contador went clear in front together. “He was too clever for me”, Schleck admitted that day.

Laurent Fignon, the two-time Tour winner, gave his own assessment in yesterday’s l’Equipe. “Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level,” he opined. “He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.”

The message was clear: Schleck must be more ruthless. Champions tend to be capable of learning from their mistakes. It’s up to Schleck to do so now.

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On the causes of socialism

This article appeared in The Herald

The term “right-wing” is hardly used in Scotland other than as an insult these days. It is, therefore, hard to quantify what support there is for rightish sentiment, as poor right-wingers are forced to keep quiet about their political leanings. Left-wingers are, generally, much easier to identify. Often they are devil-may-care types, have great taste in music and great sex lives. They are also deeply moved by images of polar bears, see discrimination in a handful of dust and think competitive school sports days are a bad thing.

In polite society, right-wingers have a way of keeping the conversation on an even keel, often to the extent that their lack of concern for polar bears is all that gives them away. They also tend to be less fashionably attired than their left-wing friends, would rather not be pestered into giving money to causes and are appalled by people crying on television.

I was quite sure these distinctions were fundamentally sound, but some academics have thrown a spanner in the works: a new study has revealed that significant numbers of middle-aged people may be left-wing “by mistake”. Having dabbled with radical left-wing views as students, they still define themselves by those views now, even though the business of holding down a job and raising children has actually led them to be rather more conservative.

The implication is that many people hold centre-rightish views but fail to notice that their outlook has shifted, often because they associate only with others of like mind. Marx, who is thought to have been fairly left-wing, was rather taken with the idea of false consciousness, but I do not think this is what he meant. Later, an Italian fellow, Antonio Gramsci, said that for Marxists to win the political war, they would first have to win the cultural war and, at his suggestion, the left set about infiltrating campuses, the arts and the media, ingraining the idea that to be even remotely right-wing was proof of moral deficiency.

It would be uncharitable not to have a degree of sympathy for the faux left-wing middle classes: in renouncing themselves, they would probably have to forego their good taste in music and their great sex lives. Theirs, though, is the generation that spent all the money, thus requiring their children to be altogether more enterprising and self-reliant, if not actually, openly, right-wing.

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An interview with Neil Hannon

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It’s usually deemed the height of bad manners for journalists to leave their mobile phones on during interviews, but when my Blackberry starts ringing as I’m sitting down to talk to the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, it’s something of an ice-breaker. He recognises the ring tone straight away as Ann Dudley’s theme from the early-1990s TV serialisation of Jeeves and Wooster featuring Stephen Fry as PG Wodehouses’s ingenious valet. It’s Hannon’s kind of thing – there’s something Wodehousian, indeed, about the wordplay and whimsy in some of his own vignettes about oddballs and eccentrics – and it gives me the opportunity to quote to him from a recent review in the News of the World in which he was described as “the Stephen Fry of pop.”

“That’s uncalled for,” he softly demurs. “Really, he’s one of the few people that, if he died, I’d be really upset. I mean, from the celebrity order. It would be a bloody state funeral, I would have thought.” Hannon says he was delighted when he learned that Fry had “said a nice thing” on Twitter about the Duckworth Lewis Method – an album of songs entirely about cricket, which he made last year with his friend Thomas Walsh from the band Pugwash. He also met Fry once but was lost for words. “We’re talking about a man with a monster intellect,” he says.

Bashful and modest is not entirely what I expected of Hannon. The Divine Comedy released their tenth album, Bang Goes the Knighthood, earlier this summer. But the plural possessive has always been misleading: Hannon, give or take a co-composer here or a backing band there, is the Divine Comedy. And in truth he’s one of our most erudite songwriters, the purveyor of a strain of off-beat, literate pop that’s equal parts Burt Bacharach, Noel Coward, the Electric Light Orchestra and Chopin.

It’s all too clever by half for some tastes, but ever since the 1996 release of Casanova – the album which landed “chamber pop” in the charts and coincided with his adopting the dress sense of a Regency dandy – I’ve been rather in awe of him. There can be few pop artists, after all, who think it a good idea to quote from Horace or EM Forster, or to adapt the words of Dickens (“it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”), as Hannon did on a track called In and Out of Paris and London, to describe the joys of sex.

His father a Church of Ireland bishop, Hannon was raised in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, a middle class boy in a largely working class town who dreamt of pop stardom. “I was living through the golden age of British pop music, ’78-’82”, he says. After his first attempt to get the Divine Comedy up and running as an indie band foundered, he locked himself away and wrote Liberation, which, paired with its follow-up, Promenade, established him as an artist whose baroque pretensions won the praise of critics but failed to register much in terms of sales. That all changed with Casanova – all of a sudden he was selling out the Albert Hall, touring with REM and, unwittingly or otherwise, riding a post-Britpop wave. The album’s title, and the single Becoming More Like Alfie (another song about fornication), saw him cast in the role of suave womaniser by the scene’s media cheerleaders, and for a time he seemed happy to play up to a certain foppish persona.

“If you subscribe to the Adam Ant pop handbook, you can’t just do the music,” he confides. “I was down with that. I agree. I think it’s nice to have an overall kind of image; it makes everything more palatable. But I wasn’t very good at it. Basically the height of my image was to wear some nice suits and shades [lately on stage he’s been wearing a bowler hat and carrying a pipe] and kind of pretend I’d read a lot of books. In reality, I was not some kind of crazed dandy.”

More hits followed: wry, three-minute numbers like Generation Sex, a song about tabloid prurience and the death of Princess Diana, and National Express, the use of the word “arse” on which the BBC saw fit to censor on a Top of the Pops performance. By 2001, however, Hannon had tired of being arch and jaunty. He ditched the Savile Row wardrobe, lowered his eyebrow a notch and hired Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich to make his most introspective album to date, Regeneration. When it flopped commercially, he declared the Divine Comedy were finished, but has since delivered three more records under the name besides involving himself in collaborations with Ute Lemper and Air and writing songs for Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

In the aftermath of Regeneration, he also moved from London to Dublin, where he still lives. He has a daughter, Willow, with his ex-wife Orla, and is happy in a new relationship with the singer Cathy Davey. Lyrically, he seems to have relaxed a bit, too: Bang Goes the Knighthood is his least “conceptual” album. There’s the odd moment of anxiety or self-examination, but on the whole there is a feeling of contentment running through it, allied to a resounding rejection of the bohemian life.

Has he become a Young Fogey? “Well, I’m not young anymore. I’ll be 40 later this year. But I’m certainly no thrillseeker. In fact, I actively avoid thrills. There’s a song on the album (Down on the Street Below), the basic thrust of which is about getting to a certain age and trying to work out what you’re really after. In the second verse I’m at one of those rarefied parties (‘the clientele straight out of this month’s Vanity Fair’), and it’s about how I sort of realised a few years ago that I’d rather be at home with a cup of tea watching the football. It’s just not me at all.”

Which is not to say that he has somehow beaten a retreat from the world. The response of most songwriters to the economic upheavals of the last couple of years has been silence. Hannon, on the other hand, sat down and wrote The Complete Banker, a chirpy, music-hall composition, the very chirpiness of which belies a rather biting set of lyrics – “I’m a conscience-free, malignant cancer on society”, declares Hannon’s assumed character, a generic City high-flyer laid low by the crash. “That song is in the grand old tradition of satire, working from the inside out and inhabiting a character you’re trying to vilify,” he says. “Political songs per se are not good, I don’t think, but I wrote that one because I felt angry.”

With uncertainty gripping the markets again this summer, Hannon will be performing at the Days Off Festival at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on July 8, followed by an outdoor gig at Somerset House in London nine days later. The former will be his first show in Paris since September 2008, when he played half a set of French cover versions – including Joe le Taxi, je changerai d’avis by Francoise Hardy, and Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam – live recordings of which were released on CD2 of the limited version of Bang.

It is a gesture that might seem a little arbitrary, but in fact Hannon has been infatuated with France for years. “Definitely France, yes, but also with Belgium,” he says. “Jacques Brel always really inspired me and the look of the new album [Hannon is pictured on the cover of Bang sitting in the bath, bowler on his head] was influenced in part by Magritte.

“After the first incarnation of The Divine Comedy fell apart I retreated to my parents’ house for a while. I watched a lot of French art house films on late night television, listened to Serge Gainsbourg and generally soaked up French culture. I think those influences really informed Liberation and Promenade and when I started playing in France the press picked up on that and supported me. No one was paying much attention in the UK at the time, so without France I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep making records.”

Success came later, he insists, as an added bonus. Now, having sampled a degree of pop stardom, it is almost as though the experience taught him to renounce such reckless folly, to “plough my own furrow” as he puts it in a song on the 2006 album Victory for the Comic Muse.

“People who go on X Factor and its ilk have this total belief that if they win their lives will be transformed,” he says. “And it’s just bollocks, because for the vast majority life could effectively be worse than before. It’s sad because they want to be famous, but they haven’t worked out why or what for. They don’t care. For me, fame was just an interesting by-product, and now that the pop star thing has all but disappeared I’m just slightly notorious. I much prefer it that way.”

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A whole lot of Globish

This article appeared in The Herald

George Bernard Shaw was an early advocate of simplifying English spelling. It wasn’t one of his better ideas, but if the entries on, oh, online football message forums, say, are anything to go by, it is one that has been belatedly taken up. English, meanwhile, continues to be mangled in other ways: only this week I saw water coolers bearing the legend “water with integrity”; when using ScotRail’s services, one frequently hears the word “detrain” put over the Tannoy; and the Americans are never done bastardising things.

It is doubtless a comfort to many native English speakers that there is no real call for them to learn other languages. The Labour MP Chris Bryant was wrong to say that French is a “useless” language – certainly, schoolboys can use it to try and chat up nice-looking French girls when they are in France – but it is true that English, or at least a form of it, is the nearest thing we have to a modern universal lingua franca.

The journalist Robert McCrum has just written a book, Globish, about how English, shorn of its complexity, idioms, cultural baggage and about 648,500 words (the OED contains 650,000) has given non-native speakers a common currency in the context of international business, politics and so on.

In a whiggish sort of way, he seems to be rather taken by this, the simplification of English on the net and in the boardrooms of the world being tantamount to hobbling “elites” – in this instance those of us lucky enough to know more than 1,500 words.

The term Globish was, in fact, dreamed up two decades ago by a Frenchman, Jean-Paul Nerrier. Having noticed that non-native English speakers found it easier to do business with one another than with native speakers, he saw there was money to be made from knocking up a list of words and phrases that would serve their needs while simultaneously striking a blow against Anglophone hegemony: if people learned Globish, he reasoned, they wouldn’t need to bother learning English.

I don’t know whether “detrain” would be considered Globish, but look online (80% of websites are said to be in “some kind of English”) or lift the phone to Mastercard and you may well encounter it.

Meanwhile, the French expunge their own language of words such as “weekend” and “toaster”, and the advances of Anglophone suitors continue to be met with shrugs.