Thursday, 13 November 2008

The fate of the transgressors

In the wake of the Enlightenment and the banishment of God from the European mind, the logical positivists of the 19th century created a religion of humanity to extol the virtues of ‘science’ and ‘progress’. Adherents set up temples to the worship of mankind and adopted practices such as pressing their fingers to their heads in order to stimulate the areas of their brains connected with progress, benevolence and order according to the new science of phrenology. Chief among their interests were the canals and waterways being dug out by colonising empires around the world. ‘Now that we have canals, human beings will no longer fight one another’, they would say; ‘now that we have canals bigotry will wither away’; ‘Now that we have canals there will be no more tyranny. In the next century those same canals would carry men, machinery and armaments around the world in the two greatest conflagrations in human history. The technology changes but the crooked timber of humanity remains the same.

What was said of canals is now said of the internet, which it is hoped will become a vehicle for the enlightenment of mankind. Instead it serves as just another landscape over which human folly and ineptitude can work its predictable course. It also presents a variety of dangers for those of us who lack the blessing of concentration. A misplaced click on your Facebook homepage and you might accidentally announce the breakdown of your marriage to your friends and family, a clumsy mouse point on the wrong link in your google mail and you may mistakenly convert yourself to scientology. Some weeks ago I noticed an intriguing item on my news ticker informing me that two bulls had taken it upon themselves to copulate in and destroy a shop in Volgograd, presumably in defiance of both humankind and Mother Nature. My curiosity stirred, I clicked on the link only to watch on in horror as my ageing laptop was dealt a mortal death blow by a Russian computer virus. Worst of all, the story about the mating bulls proved to be nothing more than a cunning deception designed to hoodwink gullible westerners. Often, when you think something is too good to be true, it usually is.

Deprived of the pleasures of aimless internet browsing I have taken to watching the box. Sadly two things have contrived to spoil my enjoyment. The first is one of those public information adverts our Stalinist government seem to enjoy rolling out these days in order to keep the masses in a state of state sponsored terror. The broadcast is a sort of modern-day medieval morality play in which a man who hasn’t paid his road tax decides to take a drive. As he motors around in the evening dusk, he begins to hear a strange beeping and, looking round, he beholds a large rectangular object which appears to be stalking him. Spooked, he drives home, parks his car and heads over to his front door, only to hear the same beeping behind him again. Turning around in a state of wide eyed alarm he beholds the black box standing in his driveway. The tag line then appears, ‘You can’t escape the computer!’. All very David Lynch. It transpires that the large rectangular object is the ‘Driver Vehicle Licensing Authority’s’ road tax computer used for checking up on violators, although here it has been re-imagined as some malevolent stalker reminiscent of M. R. James’s ‘A warning to the curious’.

The second fly in the ointment is a rather visceral advertisement, again government sponsored, which forms part of the new ‘wear your seatbelt campaign’. When I was a young lad, these sorts of accident prevention things were demonstrated with a couple of smiley cartoon figures and perhaps a happy jingle or two to hammer the message home. Having decided that the message needs to be suitably hard hitting, these now seem to take their inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. The advert begins with a man driving down the street when a disembodied voice interrupts the proceedings to say ‘It wasn’t hitting the windscreen that killed Nigel that day’. I can’t stress this enough. If you happen to be driving along and an announcement cuts in with news of your imminent demise, it might be a good idea to stop and take the bus instead. In all likelihood, the voice in question is heralding the fact the government has offered you as a human sacrifice on the altar of road safety; not a fate I would wish upon anyone. In the course of events the poor chap manages to ram into the car in front, his head rebounds off the windscreen and in graphic detail his heart is shown being punctured by his ribcage. As his blood washes over the screen the words appear with searing clarity; ‘wear a seatbelt!’.

I can’t help wondering what happens if you neglect to pay your road tax and fail to wear a seatbelt. Perhaps the disembodied voice cuts in, your internal organs are mutilated in the resulting crash, and then the dark malevolent road tax computer wades in to trample on what is left of your remains in a final act of retribution. Such is the fate of the trangressors.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

On the nature of things

And so the recession is finally upon us like an apocalyptic tidal wave, sweeping along with it all the property shows, home improvement magazines and ‘buy a new place in the sun’ paraphernalia that has been ubiquitous over the past decade. In much the same way the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah must have gossiped excitedly at drinks parties about the meteoric rise in value of their riverfront property, oblivious to the deluge of fire and brimstone sweeping up behind them. Despite innumerable warning signs, the collapse of the sub-prime market and the accompanying economic downturn were not expected by many people and were met with incredulous disbelief. My theory is that this is due to a secular reinterpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had directionality and a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. In the enlightenment this idea was hijacked by intellectuals like Rousseau, Saint-Simon and Comte who instilled the belief that civilisation is moving towards some kind of a global society based on science. In the 21st century, having shorn the past and future of its metaphysical significance, people seem to believe that history’s goal is to increase the value of everyone’s house, ever onwards and upwards till we reach some glorious utopian future where the British middle class are enthroned as the privileged aristocracy of Europe, all the menial jobs are done by Polish wage slaves and everyone owns a second home in Bulgaria and the Algarve. In pre-Christian Europe and eastern cultures, human life was understood as a series of cycles and history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. I would argue that in terms of economics this view is of considerable merit. Events such as the ‘South Sea Bubble’, the ‘Dot.Com’ boom and the ‘House Price’ revolution can best be understood as a series of tragic-comic cycles with people becoming overexcited and irrational about the value of their over inflated assets, only to be brought back to reality with a resounding thud once the market begins its customary plunge. The nature of the economic asset changes, whether it be shares in non existent companies, barrels of oil or bricks and mortar; but it is usually accompanied by the same cycle of greed, volatility and hubris; and finally nemesis, decline and eventual collapse.

The central tragedy of my life is that people are always phoning me up to ask me questions on topics I couldn’t care less about. Perhaps the best example of this occurred a couple of years ago when the office switchboard number was mixed up with the information line for Marks and Spencers travel insurance. As a result I was subjected to a torrent of enquiries from holidaymakers looking for information about their potential coverage and eligibility. When I told them that I couldn’t help them they sounded deeply wounded and had enormous difficulties coming to terms with the fact that they had the wrong number. Above all they were extremely resentful, as if, despite not being an employee of Marks and Spencers, I should at least have the decency to find out something about their travel insurance to pass on to them, or that I had fooled them into calling me through some piece of Machiavellian trickery. If anything I should be the one who is justified in feeling aggrieved. I would have few complaints if my number were to be advertised as ‘The Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow hotline’ or the ‘Battle of Stalingrad information desk’, as then I would have something to say to people. As it is, people assume I must be the world authority on such matters as ‘the availability of parking spaces in the vicinity of Edgware high street’ or ‘the layout and topography of British motorways’ but are loathe to question me about things I actually have some knowledge of. Unfortunately tedious information is the currency of the universe.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

As some of you might be aware my wife is an American citizen and therefore regarded as suspicious and ‘foreign’ by the U.K’s bureaucratic establishment. As penance for this we have had to undergo many hardships, including queuing up with the asylum seekers at UK Customs and immigration in Croydon and having to shell out vast sums of money to get permission from the state to marry, live in the same country and, most ignominiously of all, to take the UK Citizenship test. This vile assessment contains such questions as ‘How much does a colour TV licence cost?’ and ‘What percentage of the UK’s population are Catholics?’. I find it hard to see why knowing the extent of the UK’s Catholic community is in any way a useful requirement for being a fine upstanding citizen. The only scenario I can envisage is if I happened to be reincarnated as Oliver Cromwell and charged myself with exterminating the ‘ungodly papist religion’. One wouldn’t mention this in the citizenship test of course because it would almost certainly fall foul of the new laws governing incitement to religious hatred; especially ironic given that our constitution and national identity were mainly founded by inciting religious hatred. All one had to do in the 16th century to be a good citizen was to own a well-thumbed copy of ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’. In the 21st century the only things you really need to be able to call yourself British are an unquenchable sense of self-loathing and a hatred of ones entire history and culture.

The most infuriating part of the test is having to shell out for ‘Life in the United Kingdom, a Journey to Citizenship’, the official government booklet which has all the questions and answers. On the first page The Home Secretary, John Reid’s ugly bald head stares back at you with a short forward written underneath. I regard the first paragraph as a personal insult. It reads

‘The first edition of this handbook became a best seller when it came out towards the end of 2004. Some people will have bought it out of interest, or a wish to know more about the United Kingdom’s history or institutions. And many more will have obtained it as a study guide for the new tests for knowledge about life in the United Kingdom, which we brought in during 2005 for people who want to become British citizens’.

Well yes, it is a best seller, in the same way that Chairman Mao’s little red book sold between 5.5 and 6 billion copies, partly because if you failed to produce it you were liable to be belaboured around the head and genitalia by Red Guards and sentenced to years of hard-labour. It’s certainly no cause for self congratulation.

To me the citizenship test is oddly reminiscent of some of the first IQ tests, which the United States brought in at the height of the worldwide Eugenics movement during the 1920s. These were drawn up in order to allay fears that the "American" gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, who were thought to be ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble minded cretins’ and ‘moral defectives’. Upon the ‘discovery’ by H. H. Goddard that all immigrants, except those from Northern Europe, were of ‘surprisingly low intelligence;’ tight immigration laws and IQ testing were enacted in the 1920s. These tests were also influential in some states for legitimising forced sterilization of ‘defective’ individuals who had scored badly. The tests themselves that were introduced were very crude and culturally specific; immigrants tended to do very badly indeed. Sample questions included ‘who won the baseball batting title in 1925?’ and ‘Which one of these is a stop sign?’. As a result 87% of Russian immigrants and similar numbers from other nations were found to be feeble-minded, a result so ludicrous even H. H Goddard couldn't believe it. Eventually the same test was introduced to estimate the intelligence of the armed forces and so many of the people serving were found to be imbeciles and idiots worthy of sterilisation – a lot of them war veterans - that the test was immediately ditched.

I move that the present day UK citizenship test be similarly scrapped, and in this particular incidence the only person that should be sterilised is the Home secretary.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Our place in the Cosmos

The great paradox of humanity is that all the greatest of our intellectual endeavours are perversely mirrored by a crippling diminution of what it is to be human. Having emerged by a slow, bloody march from the primeval slime of the earth we are informed in gloating terms of our complete and total insignificance. Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the universe, Darwin told us our closest ancestors were ‘damn dirty’ apes and Freud told us we all secretly fantasise about sleeping with our mothers; although that last vignette might tell us more about the scale of his cocaine habit than the state of the human condition. We should remind ourselves that all these facts are only unsettling because they are viewed through the ghastly prism of our species’ inherent sense of self-loathing. Perhaps disgusted by its capacity for greed, hate, genocide, and inclination towards such perversities as sado masochism and the covert sniffing of other people’s under garments, Homo Sapiens has a peculiar capacity to see itself in terms of some destructive virus, unworthy of existence and something to be abhorred. Even our predominant vision of the afterlife isn’t some Olympian paradise where our spiritual doppelgangers parade themselves majestically in the company of the gods, but one where we grovel submissively in front of a celestial super-being who then chastises us for the worldly activities of our sex organs. Some segments of humanity look forward to a glorious utopian future, but in my experience the vast majority look forward longingly to the next apocalypse, whether it be via nuclear annihilation, a seven degree increase in global temperature or an angry swarm of killer bees.

In the 1980s the cosmologist Carl Sagan released the TV series COSMOS, a show which aimed to bring the light of scientific truth to the world but ended up being a shameless rehash of enlightenment mythology. In one episode he claimed that the Medieval natural philosophers were conceited for suggesting that the sun and all its planetary bodies revolved around the earth. ‘How could then have been so arrogant!’ he said with the kind of smugness which accompanies the abuse of hindsight. Sagan clearly never bothered to read any history of science but if he had he would have realised that in the medieval worldview the earth’s position at the centre of the universe was not in any way celebrated. In fact it was universally believed that the centre was by far the worst place to be. According to the accepted cosmology of the period our miserable sphere was located at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy, considered too unworthy to be part of the heavens due to its imperfect and sinful nature and with hell and purgatory placed at its core. Our planet stood in dismal contrast to the heavenly firmament above, a realm of perfection derived from Plato's Theory of Forms with the realm of God beyond. Out of all celestial bodies our earth was emphatically the Middlesborough of the Cosmos. As Michael de Montaigne wrote:

"The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man and withal the proudest. he feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch"

The Copernican revolution, rather than knocking us from our celestial pantheon, rocketed us up to join the lofty heavenly firmament above. Consequently, if you read through the literature of the time you rarely find people complaining about being dislodged.

Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, was Copernicus the hard-headed rationalist of popular myth. This becomes immediately apparent when reading De revolutionibus, which reads more like something one would find in the ‘New age and Spirituality’ section of Borders than a scientific textbook. The aim of Copernicus was to demonstrate that the heavens worked in a way consistent with their creation by God – ‘The wisest and most orderly workman of all’. Like many Christian humanists of the time he dabbled in pagan ideas, in particular the occult writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistos or "the thrice-great Hermes", a syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. Influenced by Platonic mysticism, Hermeticism placed considerable emphasis on the source of light, the sun as an object of worship. In De revolutionibus 1:10 Copernicus says:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing.

It is considered likely by historians that Copernicus took Hermeticism and the notion of ‘divine simplicity’ as his main sources of inspiration. This is consistent with the fact his model raised some serious problems -for example, if the sun is at the centre of the universe, why doesn’t everything fall into it- and owed more to aesthetics than anything else. Copernicus’s explanation for this was that ‘earthly things’ tend to fall towards earth, solar things tend to fall towards the sun, Martian things tend to fall towards mars and so on and for forth. What he meant was ‘I haven’t a bloody clue’, thus demonstrating a good scientific theory doesn’t always need to make any sense, nor does it have to be inspired by reason.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Hubris and Nemesis

Commentators reflecting on the massacres committed by the communist regimes of the 20th century were fond of quoting the 16th century proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. What is true of Marxist genocide is also true of plastic pot plants. Whoever masterminded the decoration of the lobby of the contemptible 1960s office building I work in was in all probability motivated by feelings of human solidarity and desired to create something that would infuse the buildings inhabitants with something akin to a state of spiritual nirvana. This, they reasoned, could best be achieved by creating a display of fauna in the entrance hall that would bring Mother Nature’s wonders to an otherwise soulless patch of concrete. Something was lost in the execution. Instead, following a series of compromises, the space was populated with a series of grotesque plastic trees, which resemble cast-off props from ‘Day of the Triffids’. Over the years the dust has accumulated so that this ghastly spectacle has even lost its kitsch appeal. Far from attracting onlookers towards its beauty and away from the boxy architecture of the building its blackened forms present themselves as a forest of death. The ghastly display fulfils the same role as the decaying victims of medieval hangings, chilling onlookers with its spectacle of decay and forcing them to reflect on the transience of existence.

Recent events have forced me to reflect on the plausibility of robot sex slaves. If, like me you follow the scientific press with a sort of horrified fascination, you can hardly have failed to notice the surge in wildly speculative literature regarding the imminent symbiosis between man and machine. This trend is best embodied by the figure of David Levy, author of such titles as ‘Love + Sex with Robots’ who claims that by 2050, machines will be able to serve as human like lovers and ‘not just mechanical sex slaves’!?!. He predicts that within the next four years advanced robots will be sold as sex toys and will possess sensors and electronic speech abilities to make them seem real, when a human touches their ‘sensitive zones’. All this gives you some idea of what St Augustine was talking about when he spoke of ‘the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible’ from which arises ‘incitements to vice and, indeed, vicious desires’. Leaving ethics to one side for the moment, I find myself worrying that the introduction of this additional household appliance might result in a number of nightmare scenarios, such as returning home to find your mechanical husband embedded in your fridge in an act of ill-conceived copulation. It also requires a tremendous leap of faith just to trust a computer to take care of my sales proposals let alone let it in close proximity to my genitalia; especially if it is running Vista. Another commentator, Kevin Warwick of the university of Reading has gone in a slightly different direction, claiming in his book ‘The March of Machines’ that by 2050, if current progress continues, the robots will have taken us over. Presumably in this scenario, the tables will have turned and the remains of humanity will be subjugated and bred as sex slaves to the robots, thus leaving David Levy with egg on his face. These are the consequences of hubris.

Happily the current state of play in artificial intelligence gives one no reason to worry about such alarming predictions. In the preface of Mark Tilden’s book ‘Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels’ he recalls the story of his attempt to make a robot butler for his household. Having designed such a complicated and expensive machine he was bemused to discover on returning home that it had been outwitted by his pet cat which had walled it in with play furniture and left it spinning hopelessly in circles. If this anecdote is any indication, the robot menace of the future will more resemble the Daleks than Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Terminator’, with our mechanical counterparts capable of unspeakable evil but unable to climb the stairs without falling over. It also proves the maxim that if you really want to create artificial intelligence you would be better off having kids than fiddling with wiring and AND gates.

And so big brother has returned to our screens, a show I affectionately refer to as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. Many people elucidate a sort of dripping elitist contempt when they hear that this programme has returned for its latest season. This I think is misconceived. Television never has been and never will be intellectually stimulating and long may it be so. Having said this, I am slightly concerned about the values it promotes, or perhaps brings to the surface. For example, it has become clear to me that amongst Big Brother contestants, being rude to someone’s face when you don’t like them or ‘telling it like it is’ is considered a virtuous act. Whilst talking behind someone’s back is considered shameful, actively confronting the object of your displease and lecturing them on faults in their personality is the height of good manners. Things have obviously moved on since Lady Troubridge’s rules of etiquette.

Once you accept this as a guiding moral principle, Adolf Hitler begins to look positively virtuous. His 1926 work Mein Kampf - or to give its original title ‘Four and a half years of struggle against lies stupidity and cowardice’ - is a perfect illustration of how one should ‘tell it like it is’, detailing his intentions to overthrow the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles, wage war against France and destroy the ‘Judeo Bolsehvik’ regime in the east to create the desired living space for the Aryan master race. No room for ambiguity there. This book by the way was not the publishing flop of folklaw. It sold over 10 million copies by 1945 was translated into many languages including Braille; it also caused alarm in 2005 by topping the bestseller list in Turkey following a flurry of sales. Despite these explicit intentions Stalin remained convinced that the Nazis would remain pre-occupied with the west and even admired Hitler for his brutality, remarking ‘What a great fellow! How well he pulled this off!’, when news came of the night of the long knives. Hitler for his part described Stalin as ‘one of the greatest human beings since , if only through the harshest compulsion he has succeeded in welding a state out of this Slavic rabbit family (Kaninchenfamilie)’. Its strange to contemplate that in another reality these guys could have been drinking buddies.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Rotten Fruits of Progress

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ wrote Dylan Thomas while contemplating the slow decline and death of his father, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’; but the bard was guilty of failing to practice what he so eloquently preached. The man who famously declared that ‘An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do’ stumbled into the Chelsea Hotel in New York on the 3rd of November 1953, uttered the immortal words ‘I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a new record!’ and expired at the tender age of 39. Reciting poetry boisterously in the pub and drinking yourself to death strikes me as a singularly ill conceived method of halting the dying of the light, in fact, its more akin to replacing every light fixture in your abode with Tesco ‘energy saving’ bulbs and then grumbling incredulously as one by one they fizzle into impotence. I tried this the other day in a brief moment of eco-religiosity and was subsequently returned to the dark ages as the purchased lightbulbs burned with the kind of feeble effervescence one would associate with manufactures assembled by downtrodden wage slaves in some god forsaken corner of the Orient. As a result of this, the eighty watt bulbs have been returned to their fittings where they will remain proudly until the day of revelation when the prophesies of Al Gore, Lord Stern and the IPCC will be fulfilled and the earth’s population will be purged for its eco-sins. The world may be engulfed in floods, tidal waves, swarms of insects and whatever new cataclysm is cooked up in the tabloid-esque pages of ‘The New Scientist’ but at least I will be able to find my pants in the dark recesses of my bedroom.

If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 50s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will probably feel more than a little twinge of disappointment at the news that our latest step in the march of progress is to send a flimsy robot to Mars equipped with a drill – not to conquer the Martian microbes in some glorious neo-colonial escapade but for the unglamorous task of looking for ice. Aside from the prospect of using this minuscule portion of the Martian Ice sheet to create the world’s most expensive dry martini, this story has nothing of the high drama and epic adventure which earlier writers expected of the 21st century. Even browsing the science journals merely hastens the onset of disillusionment. ‘Enlightened’ 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot scorned the medieval scholastics of the Middle Ages for their turgid debates on the nature of the trinity and the number of angels that could feasibly dance on the end of a pin - and yet, among the most popular scientific theories at the dawn of the 21st century are that our universe is part of an infinite multiverse in which multiple copies of Elvis exist, that human beings are ‘nothing more than’ blindly programmed sex robots infected with mind viruses and, amusingly, that the universe is shaped like a doughnut, and will presumably meet its apocalypse when it is finally spotted by a universe shaped like Homer Simpson. All these make the metaphysical musings of figures like St Thomas Aquinas look positively sane and one is tempted to reach in disgust for Occam’s Machete. According to the over enthusiastic science fiction writers of yesteryear such as Issac Assimov this was to be the time when machines finally achieved human like properties, acting as our trusted servants and making the course of our lives effortless. Well here we are in the 21st century and the closest object I have which resembles this vision is my Wii Fit and accompanying balance board. This rather paternalistic object mocks my portly frame, labels me as obese and make me insert pre-programmed excuses into my ‘weight chart’ when I consume one two many bevies at my local. Its rather like inviting a 17th century Puritan into your house and then having him chastise you while your perform sit-ups. As a result I am racked with guilt when I over indulge in life pleasures. My customary pint of Stella and accompanying packet of salted peanuts on a Friday night turns to ashes in my mouth when I reflect that the following morning, ‘the machine’ will reprimand me for my gluttony and instigate an overly harsh weight loss program. Such are the rotten fruits of progress.

When the word ‘balderdash’ is mentioned to me it conjures an image in my imagination of an elderly and eccentric character from a P.G Wodlehouse novel, who might possibly use it in the context of an unusually heated discussion at the dinner table or perhaps a dispute with his gardener. It is a quaint and seldom used expression, a remnant of Olde England, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be used by the world’s most unhinged oriental despotism. And yet, last month the North Korean ‘news’ agency released this gem of a statement:

“…the U.S. let loose a spate of balderdash against the DPRK, terming it "closed" and "highly militarized society" and "dictatorship." The U.S. had the impudence to find fault with the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and slander the Korean-style socialist system centered on the popular masses”

It is gratifying to see that whilst in the country we insist on polluting our own language with vulgarities, the international appeal of English is such that words which fall out of favour here are being resurrected on the other side of the planet, albeit by the axis of evil.

I was amused to see that there is a new book out written by the last surviving member of Hitler’s bunker entourage. According to the book, Hitler was always playing humorous japes on his colleagues. His favourite victim was Herman Goering, who was notoriously fond of awarding himself medals and designing his own uniforms. Hitler was fond of recounting how Mrs Goering found her husband waving his Field Marshall’s baton over his underwear in the bedroom and asked him what he was doing. "He replied: "I am promoting my underpants to OVERpants!". Evidently Hitler was so proud of this joke that he had medals made from gold and silver paper for Goering to wear on his pyjamas. Reviews of this new contribution to our understanding of the great dictator were far from impressed by his sense of humour, but its worth recalling that Hitler was a comic genius compared to Lenin. In 1920 the pompous British Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell spent five weeks in Bolshevik Russia as part of a Labour party delegation. The delegation naively expected to find a socialist utopia brimming with milk and honey and with contented workers spontaneously breaking into choruses of the Internationale. Russell first realised all was not well when a ragged group of what he presumed were beggars turned out to be distinguished mathematicians keen to pay homage. Lenin granted Russell an audience as he posed for a portrait sculptor. At first Russell thought how friendly and jolly he was. But a question cropped up about Communism and agriculture. Lenin described with gusto how he brought about a vast improvement in agricultural practices by inciting the poorer peasants to murder the richer ones – “and soon” added Lenin “the poorer peasants hanged the richer ones from the nearest tree. Ha Ha Ha!”. He then broke out into a fit of ghoulish laughter, oblivious to the fact he had just committed something of a public relations faux pas. Russell returned home in disgust to denounce communism in his ‘Theory and Practice of Bolshevism’, perhaps reflecting that on the whole it is not a good idea to meet ones heroes in the flesh.