PJ O’Rourke Evacuates from Bowels of World Book Club

November 25, 2010

Last night I was part of an audience for a recording of BBC World Book Club featuring PJ O’Rourke talking about Eat The Rich, his book on economics, published in 1997.

My question was:

You list the following as the foundations of a modern industrial economy: hard work, education, responsibility, property rights, rule of law, and democratic government. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American standard of living has been falling since 1973. In which of these six areas do you think the United States has changed for the worse, and what could be done to reverse the trend?

He didn’t much like that one, and slipped off the hook by disputing government statistics as a whole. He pointed at the preponderance of electronic entertainment devices – from music players to flat-screen TVs – as evidence of an advance, then sought refuge in the rise of single parenthood, marital breakdown and the rise of drug abuse as evidence of a fall in societal standards. He deftly declared psychology and sociology beyond his remit or knowledge to try to avoid further discussion. Harriett Gilbert, WBC’s marvellous host, did try to pin him back on the hook, but PJ’s a wily fellow.

A question from my friend Efua Meadows Smith in Ghana was a good one:

Ghana is rich in mineral resources, particularly gold. Recently we discovered large oil reserves off the coast. Given that we actually have an honest government which has been stamping out corruption, what would you recommend we do with the extra money in order to secure our future economic wellbeing; spend it on health, infrastructure, or education?

PJ talked knowledgeably about unnecessary mortality due to diarrhoea, and the cheapness – 35c per instance – of the cure. Education was his investment of choice, using Scotland in the Eighteenth century as an example.

I stayed to talk with Harriett and then realised that I was the only ‘civilian’ left. PJ revealed he’d been up at five that morning due to mild food-poisoning. Whilst we waited for the lift I entertained him with an old joke from university days: the questions in the Economics exam are the same every year; only the answers change. The lift arrived. I remarked that it was signed as being the evacuation lift, and that his bowel problems should thus be cured instantly. I’m glad to report that he roared with laughter at my gags. Apparently he’s the second most-quoted person in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (Oscar Wilde being number one). I’ll keep an eye on any new additions…

The show airs on February 5th, 2011, and will be available to download as a podcast.

An American Convert in London

November 24, 2010

There are two quintessentially British comedy shows on Radio4: I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute. I was fortunate to see a double recording of the latter at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. On Monday 22nd I had two tickets for another double recording; the first ever at the British Library. But who to invite? The answer was an American friend from my old comedy improvisation group, who’s been living here for six years and is currently applying for British citizenship. The show’s marmite in nature, so I was concerned he might have to tough it out for ninety minutes.

Just a Minute

Nicholas Parsons introduces Just a Minute at the British Library

I explained the rules: panellists have to talk without hesitation, deviation or repetition for sixty seconds. Bonus points are available for correct interruptions as well as humour. Panellists were Paul Merton, Giles Brandreth, Sheila Hancock and Ian McMillan.

I needn’t have worried. Ed didn’t need to understand the rules – this kind of classic humour encompasses everything an American loves about British comedy: clash of wits, spontaneous dazzling one-liners, clashes of power and personalities and general all-round silliness.

Suffice to say, Ed’s a convert. The poor guy’s studying a book half an inch thick for his citizenship test. I told him he should qualify for bonus points for having been to a live recording of Just a Minute.

Pope Changes Guidance on Safe Drinking Water

November 22, 2010

Yesterday the Pope issued new guidance on drinking water in response to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Previously, the Catholic Church had forbidden the boiling of water, on the basis that it was not taught in the Bible. Health advisers and aid workers had been frustrated by the Vatican’s hardline stance on safe drinking water for decades. “Cholera didn’t exist in the Palestine of Christ’s era,” said one doctor in Port-au-Prince. “We’ve always viewed it as absurd that an old man with a safe water supply and the best healthcare available should dictate sanitary practices to those in developing countries. Cholera is a preventable disease spread by poor hygiene and ignorance.”

But the doctrinal change is causing confusion amongst the clergy. “His Holiness seemed to imply that water should only be boiled when being sold to strangers. It doesn’t say whether water used within families should be boiled or not,” said one priest. “So I’m recommending that married couples continue to drink filthy water contaminated with raw sewage. Unlike Aids, death is often rapid – sometimes in as little as four hours – and excruciatingly painful. Far better for you and your children to die of cholera than to risk breaking Papal edicts and going to hell, or living long enough to think about using a condom during sex.”

Quantitative Easing Explained

November 16, 2010

Check out this brilliant video. It explains Ben Bernanke’s brilliant intervention strategy. Gut-wrenchingly funny.