Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Exquise de Corps

"Mr Amin was then banished to Gaafaru island and later brought back to vihamanaafushi island (Now Kurumbaa Island Resort and at that time it was an uninhabited island). Mohamed Amin ,Once a loved and respected leader passed away in that island on 19 January 1954 at 1:05 am. He was 44 years old. Before his death he Forgave every Maldivian except Mudhimu salih and Mudhimu Dhon thuthu,the two brothers who harmed his genitals."

Thus, with a coda worthy of Joyce's Ulysses, ends an early version of a Wikipedia article on the first president of the Maldives, Mohamed Amin Didi. When people I know, blog visitors and even strange men in the park ask me whether I find Wikipedia useful, I always refer them to these words; they seem to set like the Sun over Kaafu Atoll.

Reactions to Wikipedia fall into three broad categories:

  • Those like the Mighty Oliver Kamm (and where's his knighthood, Mr Cameron?), who regard it as a populist "affront to the notion of disinterested intellectual inquiry";
  • Others like the Mightier Prof Norman Geras, (and where's his peerage, Mr Brown?), who see in it a handy reference tool if used with care; and
  • Viewers of daytime TV, who think it's got something to do with pagan child-molesters and promptly shove excrement into the disk-drives before setting their computers alight.

Kammo is right. A scholar or journalist who relies on Wikipedia might as well start scanning the BBC job ads now, as its clumsy carpentry buries errors and omissions deep beneath planks of plausibility. I recently checked two references in two separate Wiki articles. Both were sound sources, and both were quoted inaccurately - in one case disastrously so.

Nonetheless I'm also with Norm, as there's still nothing like Wikipedia for humbling you on a matter that you thought you'd mastered.

For example, I am a student of Russian history and considered myself au fait with the career of Alexander Kerensky, the doomed leader of the 1917 Provisional Government. My professors said he went on to teach at Stanford, but only Wikipedia told me he was also the "Star League general who liberated Terra from the rule of the usurper Amaris" in the BattleTech wargaming universe.

This must have come as a comfort to the ageing tribune, and a source of pride to his family - in particular to the hitherto obscure Natasha Kerensky, a "bioengineered Warrior from Clan Wolf".

Moreover, simply by appearing in Wikipedia a genuine fact can acquire a curious taint. An interest in paranoiacs of the Carribean took me to the biography of Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo and the surprise news that he had a small part in the film Casablanca. This is also reported on the International Movie Database and so ought to be true, but it still has the Wiki ring of brass bollocks about it.

Wikipedia's appeal lies in this unattributable triviality. Pacifist précieux Nicholson Baker likened it to "some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks". His is a generous spirit. I would rather peer down at the Wikitties through a magnifying glass and cackle "You scurry through your tiny world like ants! Ants!" before letting the Great Luminary do its work, but then no one invites me to dinner parties.

Baker treasures the gentler corners of the Wikiverse, and calls for an accessible archive of deleted items. He is right, for this is the vein of fool's gold that runs through the whole enterprise and provides its true value. I would add that the deepest joy comes from perusing earlier versions of apparently sane articles. The current redaction of President Amin Didi's ill-starred life is unremarkable, but a Fantastic Voyage into its fundament reveals the surreal delight with which I began.

An article about last Irish Governor-General Donal Buckley (Domhnall Ua Buachalla - "politician, shopkeeper and member of the First Dáil") shows how spurious anecdote can be incorporated without debasing the currency of knowledge:

One myth according to The Cynics guide to Irish History regarding the abolition of his office, was that de Valera had called Ua Buachalla over the telephone. De Valera simply said to Ua Buachalla; "You're abolished". Because of Ua Buachalla’s failing hearing, he had misinterpreted what de Valera had said and replied, "You’re an even bigger one."

This nonsense is clearly sourced to a disreputable publication, as it should be. That steers the careless reader away from error, while giving him an entertaining and dubious insight into the tensions between Sinn Féin and the institutions of the Free State in the mid-1930s - as well as a quick lesson in Hiberno-English insults.

An august Erse correspondent has noted that an equally useless source (The Round Table journal, vol 90, March 1933, p 291) also recounts the story but gives Buckley's reply rather lamely as "And you're one too". I'll go with the Wikipedia, and believe neither.

Voyagers conversant with foreign languages have new satellites of folly to tread in the shape of the vernacular Wikipedias. Gyppo Byard, who has acquired a whorehouse smattering of various eastern tongues, assures me that the Acehnese Wiki is a bijou box of balls written by a pious Pooter. The concise article on Animals, for example, tells us that they are "among Allah's creations" and seems pretty much satisfied with that.

This, as you might expect, does not apply to the German Wikipedia, which is rigorously patrolled by Dozents and Doktors and therefore crying out for some methodical sabotage. Perhaps someone ought to intersperse Yiddish exclamations here and there:

Die Etat-Kürzungen an den Hochschulen haben dazu geführt, dass Lehrbeauftragte auch eingesetzt werden, um Kosten zu sparen. Die Vergütung liegt meist erheblich unter der Bezahlung hauptamtlich Lehrender. Dies ist insbesondere bedenklich, da nach einer Studie über die Arbeits- und Lebenssituation von Lehrbeauftragten[1] 46% der Lehrbeauftragten in Berlin angaben, dass Lehraufträge für sie die Haupteinnahmequelle darstellen. Nu, bistu nun ingantsn farblonjet?

A worthwhile Wikipedia article ought to have a whiff of Breton's exquisite corpse. A solemn, sourced opening will pass from hand to hand, as if unseen, picking up fact and fancy along the way. Like the farmer who turns over a clod of earth to reveal the aspect of an emperor on a lost coin, the reader can profit greatly from this exercise. Not least of all by investing in some books.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


I nodded in casual agreement with the whole of music-loving, non-Tantric humanity as The Daily Mash recorded a popular wish for Toyota not to fix the brakes on Sting's car.

Still, I rather enjoyed some Police tracks, in particular the robust "Dead End Job", and began to wonder when did Sting change from being just one more puncheable peroxide ponce among many into the most reviled musician, activist and erotic explorer since Arthur Askey.

Are all the bêtes noires of our modern menagerie putrid from their first plunge into the pool of publicity, or does the sewage seep slowly, like water under a picture frame, until an idolised image is washed away?

One of my Russian literature tutors used to set us students the task of trying to spot the moment when the anti-hero Hermann in Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" turns from being your average callous Guardsman into an hallucinating madman.

Hermann becomes obsessed with an elderly nobleman who is said to know a winning gambit at cards. He seduces the countess's ward in order to gain access, then scares the old lady to death. Thereafter he descends steadily into insanity, seeing his victim's ghost everywhere.

We all had our pet theories, and mine set the moment of madness at the point when he started quoting French novels. Mr Williams, however, was right to say it came as Hermann stood outside the countess's house in the early hours, wondering whether he might become the octogenarian's lover.

So subtly has Pushkin lured us into Hermann's hermit mind that we barely register how barking the boy has become.

The same applies to Sting, minus the talent and granny-groping. That first solo album of his was "jazz-influenced" - a 1980s term for anything with a saxophone in it - and heralded the horrors of "Ten Summoners' Tales", "...Nothing Like the Sun" and other hey-nonny nonsense.

(Note to all musicians: just as putting brackets in your song title guarantees quality, ellipsis spells more than a slight pause in your career.)

But the element of crime came much earlier, even before the primary-colour Jungian daubs of "Synchronicity". Incidentally, it's a shame The Police didn't dally with Adler, as I might have bought the LP of "Gesundheitsbuch für das Schneidergewerbe".

But no. It was when young Sting was crafting "Don't Stand So Close To Me" in 1980 - and if any song title needed a pair of brackets, by the way, this was it. The Devil perched on his shoulder and whispered "Need a rhyme for 'cough', Gordon?"

So Nabokov took the former English teacher on a trip of three steps to the Fitzcarraldo folly of his Amazonian adventures, where piranhas, blow-pipes and those tiny fish that burrow up your Jap's eye patiently await.

There's a fine Stanley Kramer film from 1961 called "Judgment at Nuremburg". In it lawyer Burt Lancaster acknowledges that Nazism made him betray everything he had stood for. He said he didn't know it would come to that. Judge Spencer Tracy replies "It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent".

So, what was Bono's capital crime?