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A Modest Proposal

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 19 - 03:23

Greece is the Word

I have a modest proposal that might simultaneously celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens, strengthen Britain’s low stock in Europe and allow us to help a dear friend in terrible trouble.

Perhaps the most beautiful and famous monument in the world is the Doric masterpiece atop the citadel, or Acropolis, of Athens. It is called the Parthenon, the Virgin Temple dedicated to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom who gave the Greek capital its name.

Parthenon - west side © A Sampson 2009

The Acropolis contains other temples and represents in the minds of scholars, historians and all who care about our past and the source of our civilisation, the pinnacle of Athens’s Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles; that period of peace between the wars against Persia which they won, and the wars against their neighbours Sparta, which they lost.

For students and lovers of architecture the Acropolis (over which I made a spectacular fool of myself some years ago) will always remain one of the most perfect examples of the Doric order ever constructed. The Romans and Arabians later added arches, ogees, domes, pendentives, barrelled vaults and squinches to the basic elements of architecture, but the Parthenon’s grace has never been surpassed. Its influence is all around us. Pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, entablatures, triglyphs and metopes may sound strange but we see them every day in high street buildings, town halls, 18th century churches, squares and crescents. Some people who spot trains or birds are called sad. I am a sad corbel, buttress and apse spotter – one who loves that there is a name for everything in architecture, a full and rich anatomy.

© A Sampson 2009

Doric elements were not the only thing that came from Greece. 5th century BC Athens was a city state that gave us Aristotle and his devising of logic, categories, ethics and poetics; Plato and Socrates led ceaseless quests for the discovery of the truth behind people, phenomena and politics. Their refusal to take as true any baseless, unprovable assertions made by priests, tyrants and hierarchs but instead to examine honestly from first principles took nearly two millennia to be rediscovered by the renaissance and then enlightenment philosophers who shaped our modern world very much with Periclean Athens in mind. Euclid and Archimedes are to this day heroes to all mathematicians and engineers. Their blend of rationalism and empiricism is at the heart of all science and sense. The sheer magnificent beauty of Euclidian geometric theorems and their proofs, has never, most mathematicians would agree, been surpassed.

The duty of Athenian citizens to play a part in justice through the tribunals on the Areopagus Hill was taken seriously, as was democracy in the form of regular voting: there was even an agreed assumption that theatre as a total art form that combined mask, dance, poetry, drama, history, music and religious ceremony was an essential element of public life and formed part of an open analysis of Athenian identity. As Nietzsche pointed out in his supreme The Birth of Tragedy, the Greek people had gone from tribal blood feuds, war and savagery to a peak of civilisation in a very short time indeed. Nietzsche chose the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of the two sides of the Greek (and of course all human) character. One part harmonious, reasonable, artistic, musical, mathematical and idealistic, the other consumed by appetite, lusts and loss of reason through desire, greed and ambition. Whether we call these Freud’s ego and id or Forster’s prose and the passion, which we must “only connect”, no civilisation I can think of seems so clearly to display through its art, rhetoric, philosophy and politics just what it is to be a human, a social and collective being, what Aristotle himself called in a phrase almost worn away by universal use, “a political animal”.

Of course we are not talking about an ideal society. Slavery, the subjugated role of women, open paederasty and xenophobia, helotry and harlotry – these are not things wholly in tune with the temper of our own times. Read E. R. Dodds’s masterly The Greeks and the Irrational and you will see they weren’t all algebraic geniuses with a bent for brilliant oratory and logical exposition. But Athenian education, open enquiry, democracy, justice and a harmony of form in sculpture and architecture were quite new to our world and indeed their ability to question themselves is one of the things for which we are most indebted to them.

We have them to thank for the Olympic Games too, and the next Olympiad of the modern age will of course be held in London in 2012, and very excited and pleased about that I am. Excited and pleased because I love sport and always and automatically want to line up on the opposite side of cynics, curmudgeons, wet-blankets, pessimists, and (literally in this case) spoilsports.

I am also excited and pleased because the occasion — the largest regular gathering human beings on the face of the planet — offers…

A) a remarkable opportunity to appease the dead spirit of the great Hitchens

B) to make up to some small degree for our recent devastating and pathetic humiliation in Europe

C) to redress a great wrong and

D) to express our solidarity with, affection for and belief in Greece and the ideals it gave us.

The Hellenic Republic today is in heart-rending turmoil, a humiliating sovereign debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of absolute ruin. This proud, beautiful nation for which Byron laid down his life is in a condition much like the one for which he mourned when they were under the Ottoman yoke in the early nineteenth century, taking time off from the comic ironic tones of his ottava rima masterpiece Don Juan to insert this mournful threnody….

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace,

Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!

Eternal summer gilds them yet,

But all, except their sun, is set…

And where are they? And where art thou?

My country? On thy voiceless shore

The heroic lay is tuneless now—

The heroic bosom beats no more!

And must thy lyre, so long divine,

Degenerate into hands like mine?

‘Tis something, in the dearth of fame,

Though linked among a fettered race,

To feel at least a patriot’s shame,

Even as I sing, suffuse my face;

For what is left the poet here?

For Greeks a blush–for Greece a tear….

Two years ago a new and beautiful Acropolis museum was completed, allowing visitors a much more intelligent enlightening, captivating and informative journey through the history and meaning of the Acropolis than the rather rocky hillside rambles of the past.

View of the Acropolis (south) taken from the balcony of the museum. © A Sampson 2009

A year earlier, in 2008, the Italian and Greek Presidents had taken part in a ceremony in which a fragment of marble sculpture taken from Greece and left in Italy 200 years earlier was returned to Athens. This small fragment had been taken by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin.

The greater part of the haul was taken to England where they have been housed in the British Museum in London since 1816 under the now highly charged name of the Elgin Marbles. Even at the time plenty of Britons thought the Ottoman Empire’s granting permission to take so many elements of the Parthenon (and the stunning Erectheum, the temple with its famous caryatids further down the hill) away from their home and into London was little short of looting.


What has all this to do with Christopher Hitchens, polemicist, shamer of Clinton, Kissinger and Mother Teresa, champion of Orwell and Payne, scourge of tele-evangelists and mountebanks everywhere? Well, in 1997 Hitchens wrote a book called The Parthenon Marbles, the Case for Reunification. In it he lays out how, inspired by reading Colin MacInnes (of Absolute Beginners fame) on the subject, he threw himself into finding out more about the marbles and came to what he saw a frankly irrefutable case for their return.

Parthenon Marbles - west pediment. © A Sampson 2009

It was, as the author Simon Raven pointed out, the Greeks who maintained that anyone who tells you what happens to a person after they die is either a fool or a liar. The speculation over Hitchens’s soul’s fate has been as disgusting and degrading as the age of indulgences, sold pardons and chantry chapels, but comes as no surprise to anyone. His legacy however, his doctrine of decency, his war on bullies, tyrants, liars and frauds, now that can be honoured and it can be called, if you wanted to do so, his imperishable soul.

Arguments for keeping the Elgin Marbles in the BM usually boil down to:

A) If Elgin hadn’t appropriated them they would probably have rotted or crumbled away so we saved them and deserve to keep them

B) Once you go down the path of museums returning ransacked treasures to their countries of origin then all the great museums and galleries of the world will have their collections dispersed to the great detriment of scholarship, visitor access and common sense

C) Every year, more people see them in the British Museum than visit Athens, so to move them would be to reduce their availability to be seen.

Argument A is most peculiar. As Hitchens put it, if you rescue furniture from a neighbour’s fire and keep it for them while they rebuild their house you then give it back, you don’t claim rights over it. Hitchens points out in his book how gracious Greece has been about the whole affair. It was Melina Mercouri (at whose funeral he was a pall-bearer), the actress, singer and politician, who really got the campaign going and always conducted it, on her part, with great good grace.

The British Museum has been utterly intransigent over point B. “Over my dead body” appears to be the view of each successive Director. The current chief, Neil MacGregor has had a brilliant tenure but is quite as foursquare against the return of the marbles as his predecessors. It is axiomatic that no museum or gallery ever likes to de-acquire. “What next?” they cry. “Every mummy, every Babylonian pot, the Rosetta Stone? The Royal Game of Ur? The Madonna of the Rocks and Rembrandt’s self-portraits at the National? Cleopatra’s Needle?”

Well, the answer to that is NO. We are discussing a specific part of an existing building, which we now know can be properly and professionally curated and displayed. The argument “Oh, once you go down that path…” has never held water. The weirder kind of libertarians said it about seat belts. “Oh, once you make people wear seat belts it’ll be helmets and roll bars next…” that kind of drivel. “Once you ban hunting, they’ll ban fishing.” If you ban citizens from owning Uzi machine guns it doesn’t mean you’re “going down the path that will lead to the banning of shot-guns and peashooters. Get a grip everyone.

Humans have will. We can go down a path and then turn left or right, or turn right round. Legislature is, perforce, nuanced and (we trust) skilfully drafted precisely so as to introduce regulation with the minimum loss of wider rights and liberties. “Going down the path” of the return of the Elgin Marbles need not be fatefully precedential. We could decide to let it not be. Of course plenty of countries will seize their chance to have a go at demanding returns of this artefact or that, but this is happening anyway. The Parthenon affair is a special case. Italy returned their fragment two years ago and haven’t been badgered, bullied and ballyragged since.

Parthenon Marbles - east pediment. © A Sampson 2009

Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for its return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more. And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right.

As for Point C, visitor numbers, well that is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, not to mention a counsel of despair. As Kevin Costner almost said, ‘If you move it, they will come.”

Not everyone likes the new Acropolis museum it must be admitted: apparently its construction flattened the musician Vangelis’s charming house and the reinstalled friezes would, say some scholars, be hardly more ‘authentic’ in their new home than they are in Bloomsbury. But the stone quarried from Mount Pentelikon, the dazzling white pentelic marble from which the Parthenon is made, is for Greece what the marble of Carrara was for Michelangelo and it belongs in its homeland, it expresses it. There really is such a characteristic as terroir. Which is why something as disgusting as retsina tastes so delicious on a beach in Patmos and so horrific in a warm kitchen in Wincanton.

As it happens the British Prime Minister’s office and the Department of Culture , Media and Sport are, even as we speak, planning a ‘Great’ campaign in which they wish to show the world what is Great about Britain (in fact the Great is really of course is a geopolitical term, as in Greater Manchester, not a profession of superiority, but never mind). I am patriotic I think. I fact I know I am. And like most people who truly love their country, I don’t think it perfect but want it always to strive to be better, nobler, kinder, smarter. I want to be proud of it. Some will see the ‘Great’ campaign as a Ladybird Book version of Blair’s embarrassing Cool Britannia ‘initiative’ back in the 90s. A step back to a heritage museum Britain where we’re all the best of (Julian) Fellowes and grandeur parallels diversity, tolerance and innovation. I wish them well and offer this thought:

What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its time of appalling financial distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy. The City of London whose “interests” Cameron wishes to protect, but which independent observers say is now if anything less secure in its hegemony than ever before, has buildings in which people sit all day betting “against” Greece, or “taking positions” as they would rather put it. In other words they get home from the office happy in the thought that their transactions have hurled another thunderbolt into the land of Homer and Plato, Themistocles and Pindar. May they rot.

There is much talk of “repatriating powers” from Europe amongst Eurosceptic and even middle-of-the-road politicians. To repatriate a power takes treaties, rows, enmities, alliances and betrayals. To repatriate a collection of stolen marbles take good will, moral courage and a decisive belief that right can be done. Oh, and I suppose a Hercules transport aircraft or large ship. Rope, voiding, bungees, castors. That kind of thing. Bean-shaped foam too I shouldn’t wonder.

How can we British be proud until we sit down with Greek politicians and arrange for the return of their treasure? It would be a dignified, but a thrilling celebration. No need for head-hanging apology or anything silly, just a recognition that the time is now right. Remember that dipping of the head, that bow, made by the Queen to the fallen of Ireland on her last visit there? Symbols mean a great deal. If the Hulture Secretary, Jeremy … oh, you know who I mean … or the Prime Minister or his Desperate Deputy did have the grace and guts to make this gesture, perhaps at the opening of London 2012 and then following it up in Athens with a full reinstallation it will achieve many things: it might remind us of what we all owe Greece, it might encourage us to visit the country and spend a little tourist money on its ferries, islands, temples, attractions and dazzling beauty: those blue seas, the warmly hospitable people, the theatres, temples, statue, beaches and bottles of resinated Domestika.

Such a fine gesture might also help make the rest of Europe decide we are not always the perfidious Albion they have traditionally believed us to be. I believe we would gain far more than we lost. A simulacrum in plaster or resin could hang in the BM where the real ones now do and an series of photographs could display the process of the return and the history behind it.

I certainly wouldn’t rename them the Hitchens Marbles, Christopher would bridle and writhe at such a thought, but those who wanted to, might discover the part he played in this long struggle and know that he wasn’t all about trashing icons, vilifying statesmen or taunting faith-healers. He once defined an educated person as one who knows the limits of their knowledge. His own self-professed philhellenism stemmed as much from the great gift Greek civilisation had given him and has given all of us– the confidence to doubt, to reason and openly to question. To know how little we know. To be curious about ourselves.

It’s time we lost our marbles.

x Stephen Fry

Categories: Blogs

A London secret shared

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 5 - 08:42

I believe every great country should have a great capital. Naturally, a metropolis will absorb plenty of resentment and bitterness from the provinces, that’s as true of London as it is of Paris and Rome, Washington, Moscow and Madrid. But as a provincial boy growing up in Norfolk, I dreamt of London almost every night as I tried to fall asleep. Reaching it seemed like an impossible dream. I am tired of having to apologise for it. It is one of the wonders of the world.  I love Norfolk no less, nor Yorkshire nor Gloucestershire nor Burnley. But hell, what a city London is.

This is a Britain where metro-hatred and provincial arse-licking has led to such fatuous absurdities as the farcical moving of the entire BBC sports department to Salford months before the Olympic Games come to London. Read that back twice and forbear to weep, groan, roar or wet yourself laughing.

Where does one begin with the BBC’s “regionalism”? They destroy local radio but move to Salford to “appease” the North. As if “the North” is one place! Do they think the citizens of Sunderland and Leeds are cheering because there’s a new BBC media centre in Salford? I should think even Mancunians are pissed off by it, let alone Geordies or Lakelanders. In-fucking-sane. But don’t get me started. Oh – you did.

Takes deep breath. Calms down.


Central London, like all great capitals, has its grand cathedrals, palaces, memorials, parks, public spaces, fashionable shopping districts and wild Bohemian quarters.

But also, like most great cities, it has its hidden secrets. Tiny little gardens, yards, alleyways, statues, institutions and passageways that maybe just metres away from the thronging concourses of Leicester Square or Cheapside, and yet are as quiet and undisturbed as a village churchyard.

One of my favourite areas of London is St James’s, that area bounded to the north by Piccadilly, to the south by the Mall and St James’s park, to the east by Haymarket and to the west by the Ritz and Green Park. Of course the very name summons up the worst images of elitism, aristocracy and old-fashioned, self-serving grandiosity. This is London’s clubland. Whites, Brooks’s, the Carlton Club, Boodles, Bucks, the Reform, the Athenaeum, the Oxford and Cambridge, the Travellers and even Pratt’s (it’s true). For all but a tiny percentage of you reading this, such places are at best amiably preposterous hangovers from a bygone age and at worst a symbol that Britain is still the same hide-bound, class-bound society it ever was.

I’m not going to go into all that. I’m just speaking of one who loves to wander around. I love to glance up at Blue Plaques and try to recreate in my mind the days of horse: when phaetons, landaulets, berlins, curricles, stage coaches and grand equipages dominated the streets that are now owned by vans, Boris bicycles, motorbikes, taxis and cars.

Let us just look at St. James’s Square in particular. Whenever I pass the north east corner I marvel that the memorial to WPC Yvonne Fletcher is never unattended. There are always fresh flowers and hand-written notes. In 1984 a member of the Libyan mission shot and killed her from a window of the embassy during at anti-Gaddafi demonstration which she was helping to police. The murderer got away, such are the laws that govern diplomatic immunity. It is hard not to whisper now, as I pass, “Don’t worry. He’s gone now.” If I thought that way, I would fancy that she is now sleeping more soundly.

Just next door to the ex-embassy is the house where Nancy Astor lived and entertained. It now has an “IN” painted on the left hand column of its portico and an “OUT” on the right hand. This is typical English eccentricity. I’ll tell you how it came about.

Lord Palmerston, the 19th century prime minister, used to live in a fine mansion on the north side of Piccadilly called Cambridge House. It was so grand it that it had a carriage sweep, with one gatepost marked IN and another marked OUT to prevent collisions and assist the flow of arrivals and departures. After Palmerston’s death the house was sold and turned into a club, called the Naval and Military (not to be confused with the Army and Navy or United Services or Cavalry Club, oh no siree. This is clubland, nothing’s that simple). The Naval and Military club’s nickname, on account of the gateposts, was “The In and Out”.

Fast forward many decades and the Navy and Military moves to Number 4, the old Astor homestead in the North east corner of St James’s Square (by the way, note that it is always St James’s ­– never just St James). These new premises have no carriage drive or gateposts, but the Naval and Military painted up a completely meaningless “IN” and “OUT” either side of the front door just so that it can keep its affectionate nickname. Batty but  somehow adorable.

Even battier is the name of just one of the other clubs in St James’s Square. The East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools. I mean, what? You couldn’t make it up.

Elsewhere it’s all a bit corporate. BP have their HQ there as do Rio Tinto Zinc and other so-called “blue chip” companies. The address still has great cachet around the world.

On the north west side is Chatham House, Britain’s leading foreign office think tank. William Pitt the Elder (later Earl of Chatham) lived there. You may be familiar with the “Chatham House Rule”, a protocol agreed at meetings between politicians (or indeed businessmen or any other group of people). The rule is understood to mean: “whatever is said here can be repeated outside this room, but you can not say who said it or who was present at the meeting.” They use this phrase around the world now I believe.

But I want to concentrate your attention to the building in the north west corner, between Chatham House and the afore-giggled-at East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools Club.

The London Library.

The London Library is, I believe I am right in saying, the world’s largest independent lending library. Which is to say it is not affiliated to a university, it is not owned or subsidised by any local council, by government or any public body. It was founded by, amongst others, that monumental man of letters Thomas Carlyle. The list of current and past members is astonishing. Darwin, Dickens, Gladstone, Thackeray, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, J. B. Priestley, T. S. Eliot … and these days members include its president Tom Stoppard, and writers like Sebastian Faulks, A. S. Byatt, Claire Tomalin, Simon Shama and, even, er, me.

You wouldn’t believe that its modest entrance (well I agree it’s a grand address, but there is a more discreet back door in Mason’s Yard behind) could reveal so remarkable and beautiful a building.

There are fifteen miles of shelves containing over a million books dating back to the very beginning of printing: you can clamber across the marvellously mysterious original 1890s catwalks and gantries or luxuriate in the light and modern Art Room. They never throw a book away and there are NO FINES! You can keep a book as long as you like or until another member asks for it, in which case a polite letter will ask if you could return it at your earliest convenience.

Art Room of the London Library © Paul Raftery

You don’t have to live in London, in fact a third of the over 7,000 members live outside the city. There’s a postal loans team who’ll send you the book you want, and there are unique internet archives (including every past edition of the Times newspaper as well as dozens of scholarly journals and databases).

One of the miracles of this unique institution is the quality of the staff. They seem to know where everything is and will hunt down what you’re after with zeal and good humour. Some of the cataloguing is inspired. The Science and Miscellaneous collection is especially highly prized. Books about Coffee, Explosives and Dreams jostle happily alongside works on Home, Duels, Yachts and Cheese.

You can bring in your laptop and find just the cranny, desk, table or sofa where it best suits you to work, study, chase ideas or dream.

The London Library is one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Because it’s private there is an annual fee, which is reduced for young people, but which I won’t pretend is a small consideration. Nonetheless the advantages are enormous and just think what a present it would make for someone you love. Subscription to a place that can become a mixture of college, West End Club, snug, den, writing room and welcoming island – and all just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus.

London Library Lightwell © London Library 2011

I know that municipal libraries are feeling the pinch horribly. Feeling the punch might be more accurate, right in the solar plexus, and of course many of us are anxious to believe that public libraries have a real future in the internet age. The London Library may seem like an elitist enclave, but actually it is just another example of what great cities can achieve over time and can keep alive with care and continuity. Its existence isn’t a threat and never has been, to public libraries, or to the great British Library in St. Pancras. It costs no more than many gyms, and what gyms can do for your body, this magical place can do for your mind.

If the subscription is beyond your reach I’m sorry to have tempted you, but maybe it won’t always be thus, and maybe you can save up or hint to an aunt or uncle… there are student prizes offered too.

Anyway. I have no vested interest in getting you to join other than the enthusiasm that anyone who enjoys something is anxious to communicate.


Stephen Fry

Their website is London Library and, bless them, they’re on Twitter and their Facebook page is You can also Email: [email protected] for news of free guided tours.

Categories: Blogs

Smartphones Arms Race

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 1 - 15:41

For some weeks now my jacket pockets have been bulging in an unsightly manner as I have gone about the world with a BlackBerry Bold 9900,  two HTC Android handsets, the “Rhyme” and the “Sensation XL with Beats Audio” and the all new Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows for Mobiles 7.5 “Mango”.

Nokia Lumia 800

What’s the smartphone world up to at the moment? Well, mostly we have had to witness the sorry spectacle of patent suits and counter-suits between Samsung, HTC, Apple, Google, Nokia – in fact all the big players in the game, each of them shelling out huge sums in lawyers’ fees for cases where they are fighting each other or those creepy companies who have invented and given the world nothing but stealthily bought up patents over the years and now hope to rake in many tens of millions. By way of retaliation and to prevent more of this, a consortium consisting of some of the biggest beasts in the jungle – Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion amongst others – paid four and half billion dollars for Nortel, while Google splashed out even more impressively, paying twelve and half billion for Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents. Yes, 17,000. How many patent lawyers charging how much an hour will it take to work through that portfolio? The mind boggles.

Do we remember any of this happening in the auto industry? Does whoever came up with the limited slip differential get a licence from every car that uses one? Or the inventor of fuel injection, the overhead camshaft or the wishbone chassis? Did it happen in the manufacture of radio and television sets? Maybe it did but we just didn’t know about it. To the outsider the current situation resembles nothing so much the bloodiest kind of shark feeding-frenzy.

Large corporations can at least look after themselves. The problem is that smaller, ever creepier parasitic corporations, “patent trolls”, have been currently making life hell for individual third-party app developers too, bombing them with Cease and Desist letters asserting that the app they have designed has used, probably in all innocence, some algorithm, routine or in-app purchasing technique that has been sneakily hoarded by the company – an algorithm, routine or technique that would certainly have been independently invented by hundreds of different app developers anyway. Earlier this year it seems that in the case of the most notorious of these companies, Lodsys, Apple stepped in on behalf of the developers

Well it’s not an area I have any expertise in, but it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Of course original creations and inventions should be protected, but as with the case of musical copyright I would argue (as I did here  at the iTunes Festival in London in July 2009,  the periods of greatest creativity have been those where weak copyright has prevailed. It is, to (mis)quote, the fencing master in Scaramouche, like holding a bird. Clutch too tight and you will crush it, too loose and – pah! – she will fly away.

Anyway, while all this goes on, the multi-billion dollar business of trying to get you to buy into a smartphone continues apace. There are, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, four big players here. RIM, who make the BlackBerry that once dominated the business world almost entirely, Apple, whose iPhone utterly transformed the idea of what a smartphone could be, the Google Android Open Handset Alliance which was (cough) inspired by Apple to produce their own not strikingly dissimilar operating system and finally, last year, Microsoft, who threw their hat in the ring with Windows Mobile 7, now called just plain Windows Phone.

They all take apps, they all can play YouTube films, but only the Android devices have Adobe Flash – and most Androiders will try and avoid using it very much. Everything Apple said about it when Steve Jobs declared the iPhone would never carry it has turned out to be true and Adobe themselves have finally come to realise this and to accept the inevitability of HTML 5 constituting the proper way forward.

There is a core of must-have productivity apps these days that is beginning to dominate: every operating system has its version of Kindle and Evernote for example, or Dropbox (in the case of Windows Mobile only a free client app at the moment) – the latter two cloud-based utilities allow users to ensure that the files they create on their laptop or desktop are also available on their tablet or smartphone. And vice versa. If you get me. Plenty of  security or photo utilities like 1Password or DropImage for example, are beginning to get a similar kind of traction, by being Dropbox savvy.

So in the end, what I suppose I am trying to say is that these phones I have been using are all converging somewhat. I find I am using email clients on all them that are intelligently plugged into Gmail and allow me to do anything in terms of archiving and drafting that I could do with a desktop app like Sparrow or by Gmailing on the web. I use Dropbox on all the devices, and I use Kindle and Evernote too. Each system has its official Twitter app and a variety of third-party options available through their App Store, Market, Marketplace, App World or whatever they might choose to call it.

Little arms races take place between the systems: Apple released the iPhone 4S complete with built in voice recognition for every app that uses a keyboard, as well as the much feted, mocked, loved, tolerated, abused, seduced and shown-off Siri, “your personal assistant”. Just yesterday an Android equivalent Cluzee was announced (who dreams up these names? Are they paid? No, I mean in actual money. Really?).

New ways of integrating GPS, mapping and intelligent shopping, parking, sight-seeing, navigating and trekking come along all the time, but to be perfectly frank things have got to the stage where each of the four systems can be said to offer broadly the same functions and capabilities. Which leaves us, as it always did, with the question of preference. Which experience is most satisfying, most fun, most reliable and most desirable? Or to put it another way, which is the least fiddly, the least flaky and the least intuitive? I can’t claim to have a definitive answer for that. It would be like telling you which breed of dog is best. Opinion, emotional attachment, aesthetics, social pressure and cost will always come into play quite as much as functionality.

We live in hard times and these gismos are not cheap. Your network operators offer upgrade paths that may seem slow to those who want the newest phone now, but it is worth either phoning up or going in to your local store and turning on the charm. One hears stories of  some lucky people getting upgraded because the assistant they spoke to seemed to be in a good mood while others whose accounts were identical have been met with nothing but blank indifference.

So to the devices themselves.

BlackBerry Bold 9900

Recent news has been bad, very bad, for RIM. I have tried to like their terribly flawed Playbook tablet, but failed to find it had any part to play in my life. I have always thought their original Bold handset was as perfect in its day as a phone could be, and was pleased that after the catastrophe of the Storm and the ho-hum of the Torch they finally produced a month or two ago their Bold 9900, a phone that seamlessly blends touchscreen and keyboard capabilities in a totally satisfying way. If you are a happy BlackBerry fan this will be the phone that you want. Battery life used to be the BB’s great selling point when compared to power-hungry rivals, but what with the way apps use 3G and Wi-Fi and mapping and GPS and Bluetooth, you can easily find yourself out of juice half way through the afternoon if you’ve been hitting the phone hard. But this is true of all the devices under consideration. Blackberry, like the HTC devices, can at least offer removable batteries. The new Bold is also one of the first to offer “Near Field Communication”, a standard yet to be widely implemented that will allow the phone to activate other devices close to it, such as smartpay machines and, of course, other phones or computers.

In the wider corporate context, the world of Enterprise which has been the bedrock of BlackBerry’s business success has been slowly slipping away from RIM. As a result they announced only yesterday that they will be allowing their Enterprise Management Suite to work with other platforms. A sign of weakness, but also a recognition of the inevitable, as most commentators have agreed. This move may allow them to stay in the game, even if they will never again be quite the force they once were.

The two HTC phones I’ve been playing with reveal the startling turn around rate that goes on in Taiwan, where HTC are based. They seem to bring out new Android and Windows phones four times a year. It is getting very hard to tell which kind of Desire or Sensation you have and what the difference between them is. The Sensation XL With Beats, is as big a phone as I’ve seen in a long while. For all its size, the 4.7” LCD screen doesn’t excite with colour richness in quite the way that the AMOLED displays of many rivals do, I’m thinking of the Samsung Galaxy for example. There’s an 8 megapixel camera, all the HTC Sense scenes and widgets and pages full of the useful free bundled software that Android users have come to expect. There’s a video store called Watch which has a reasonable selection of films for downloading and, most importantly of all, there are the Beats that give the device its strange name. You will probably be aware of Dr Dre and his Beats earphones; well, a pair of these come with the Sensation XL and baked in is his personally tweaked “Beats Audio Technology”. I have absolutely no interest in such things to be honest. The sound appeared to be excellent, but maybe it suits someone with a different kind of music collection.  I don’t suppose the hip-hop legend had Wagner and Glenn Gould in mind when tweaking the audio for HTC. With a single core 1.5GHz and 768MB or RAM such a large phone seems significantly underpowered. And when the next flavour of Android comes out (mine is running Gingerbread 2.3.5) it will be a question as to whether this behemoth will be up to the task of coping with whatever demands Honeycomb and Icecream Sandwich make of it (in case you wonder what I’m drivelling about, Android name each full new release after a cake, ice-cream or pudding. We started with Cupcake, Donut and Éclair who knows where we’ll go after Honeycomb).

HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio™

So, not a bad phone, but not a great one. Its slightly smaller sister, the dual core Sensation SE seems a more sensible solution to me, a very similar device but with just a bit more oomph.

Compared to either the Rhyme seems absolutely tiny, although in truth it is about the size of an iPhone. I can’t quite make the Rhyme out. It has two new hardware features; one is a docking station that turns it into a beautiful alarm clock if you locate it on your bedside table. The other is most extraordinary. It is a long string with a small white cube on one end and a mini-jack on the other. The idea is that when your phone is in your bag, you attach this “glowing purse charm” into your earphone socket and leave the white cube outside the bag. When the phone rings the cube glows and you can follow the string down into your bag and find your phone. Here’s a film if you can’t make sense of the way I’ve tried to explain it.

HTC Rhyme

This accessory and the fact that the default colour of the phone is a lush kind of purple alerts us to the distressing truth. HTC is making a phone for women. Women are always fiddling about in their bags for their phones and so they need a “glowing purse charm” to help them out. At least, this is the implication: but let’s be frank, the sight of women diving into their bags trying to locate their phones is not so rare. Motorola didn’t do too badly with Razr devices aimed squarely at pink-loving, fun-loving ladies, and far be it from me to decry HTC’s attempt to attract a female following too. As a phone the Rhyme is not a stand-out. It is perfectly fine, it is, as are all Androids, especially those front-ended by HTC Sense, much more customisable and pimpable than rivals, so if you don’t like the default screen you can easily change it. Well, fairly easily – there is a shallow but undeniable learning curve and I have seen people throw their Androids across the room because they couldn’t work out how to get two clocks with two different time zones onto their home screen at once.

And so we come to the most important (in terms of corporate destinies at least) phone of all. The Nokia Lumia 800.

The story of Nokia’s rise from lumber, wellington boot and lavatory paper company to world domination of the mobile phone market is the stuff of legend (and admirably told here, should you be interested. The inexorable relaxation of their grip as Apple’s iPhone reshaped the world of mobile telephony has been a sad sight to behold. Their venerable Symbian operating system was a miracle of compactness, reliability and power economy and is still in use (and will continue to be) in fantastical numbers around the world. But their share price has slipped as their market share has fallen here in the west and grim prognostications were being made about the Finnish giant.

They bit the bullet last year and realised that they were going to have to play or leave the table. An alliance with Microsoft was announced. Here were two corporations who understood all too well the pain that comes when what seems like unassailable domination turns with such dizzying speed into a humiliating downward spiral. Neither had reached anything like rock bottom and they were cash rich enough to invest in their new partnership. The hope of each CEO, Stephen Elop of Nokia and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, is that Nokia’s brand reputation as a reliable builder of phones and Microsoft’s reach and penetration as a software provider will allow the alliance to face up to Apple and Google and carve a share in this quite unbelievably valuable market. The stakes are very very high.

I was present at the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 7 last year. I liked what I saw and was happy to say so. There were many similarities with the release of the iPhone in 2007. No microSD slot, a GUI precisely governed by MS, at launch no cut and paste and naturally a very small choice in third party apps… but there was much to like. The smoothness and glide, the cleverly baked-in social networking elements, the (only to be expected) quality of MS Office and Xbox Live compatibility. LG, Samsung and HTC were the two major manufacturers for the OS then and they each did a good job.

And now Nokia has stepped in with two models, the Lumia 800 and 710. I haven’t had any experience of the latter, which is a more affordable version of the 800, with 8 GB of internal flash memory to the 800’s 16.

Now, Microsoft’s approach has been ever more “walled garden” than Apple’s, and Windows Phone devices are the least pimpable of all. You can change the colour of the signature tiles that make up the GUI, you can have a black background or a white background. You can certainly introduce wallpaper, but that is about it. Ringtone customisation has arrived and the app Marketplace is filling up with well designed version of old friends like Angry Birds and IMDB as well as the essentials like Evernote that I’ve already discussed.

So all I can do when I describe the Nokia is tell you that it is an elegant candybar (familiar to those who remember the N9) it has a very bright and likable AMOLED screen, a rear 8 megapixel camera (no front facing one) and the obligatory three touch screen buttons at the bottom: Back, Home Screen and Search.They have decided against the removable batteries found in HTC and Samsung Windows Phone devices.

Nokia have added their own goodies, Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps and Nokia Music. Nokia Drive is a turn-by-turn GPS navigation system (with selectable voices) which works extremely well and is certainly enticement enough to buy the phone, given the cost of some GPS apps. Nokia maps seems an oddly redundant replication of what MS’s Bing already offers, but it’s there, along with something called “Local Scout” which is yet another way to see where the nearest Flat White or pizza parlour might be. Nokia Music would seem to be in direct competition with the Zune based music store that’s also a de facto presence in all Windows Phone handsets. I dare say Stephen and Steve banged heads a bit over that one, but compromise seems to be the order of the day. No harm in more choice.

Mango, which is the codename for the latest version of the OS is slick, smooth and a pleasure to play with. If you are of an Android turn of mind you might find the inability to pimp frustrating, but for the minimalists of this world the cleanness, the slide, glide and flow are sumptuous and delightful. It’s easy to get connected via a Windows Live or Hotmail account (indeed that’s a necessity if you want to take advantage of all the social networking features) and to set up a Gmail or any other email account is straightforward too. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can all be embedded into your identity allowing seamless transitions and postings. An ever changing display of your friends faces (if like me you add pictures to your address book) will greet you every time you fire the phone up. The feature that will grow with Windows Phone is “live tiling” which will allow tiles to alter according to need or notification. A BA app tile will turn into a boarding pass QR code when you check in for example. Multitasking has arrived too, after a fashion. It seems to apply to some apps but not others and I haven’t figured out how to quit an app that’s running in the background. That’s probably just my stupidity, and I certainly haven’t found speed in the least compromised by having four or five apps running at once.

The Lumia, like the iPad and iPhone, takes a microsim card, though in the Lumia’s case via a rather fiddly system of flaps that have to pressed and slid and prodded and poked. Each time you connect your USB cable the flap has to be popped and lifted and I fear that many phones will have lost theirs after just a few weeks. Nokia have rather overdone their attempt to be entirely sleek and finished here.

I should imagine the closest rival phone to the Lumia 800 is the HTC Titan, which offers very similar specs. I wish Nokia well. For them to fall by the wayside would be sad indeed. They have produced a phone here that should have great appeal to first time Smartphone buyers who are comfortable with the name Nokia and pleased by the elegant simplicity of Windows Phone.

Windows Phone Mango looks and feels great, it is simple and yet – the more you drill down and play – remarkably flexible and versatile.

It is an anxious time for the corporate chiefs in Finland and Redmond, WA. Much gnawing of nails. If the Nokia gains momentum and is a sales success this Christmas, if the number of Windows Phone users increases, then so will the variety of apps, and that critical mass will also increase the resolve of Microsoft to keep innovating with their tiles and their widgets and encourage Nokia to produce new and ever more interesting and desirable devices.

If, if, if …



Categories: Blogs

Mel on Radio Again

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 26 - 12:25

  Please note that the wonderful CBC IDEAS programme on Mel, “Citizen Mel” will be rebroadcast   this Thursday and Friday at 9p.m. on CBC radio. Jillian

Categories: Blogs

“Let Them Eat Dirt.”

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 17 - 23:02

  Senate reform? I say dump it and add seats by proportional representation to the House of Commons. Harper’s present plans will result in U.S.-style dysfunctional government with an undemocratic Senate blocking House of Commons legislation,  Severe, lengthy periods of legislative deadlock. Who needs it?  Mind you, the present 10 Senators each for Nova Scotia [...]

Categories: Blogs

Lawrence Martin “Hurtig Lecture” A Great Success

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 12 - 11:18

The Hurtig Lecture at the University of Alberta was a great success.  It will be broadcast by CBC’s IDEAS programme soon.  I’ll let you know the details.  In the meantime, here is an article that you should find interesting.

Categories: Blogs

Chris Hedge’s “The World As It Is” / Disgraceful Child Poverty / Harper and Stupidity

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 5 - 01:02

  Now available in Vintage paperback Chris Hedge’s excellent book Death of the Liberal Class. “An important book” by a Pulitzer Prize winner. Do try to read it. Hedge’s new book is The World As It Is.  Good stuff!! Did you read the Vancouver Sun article about the disgraceful level of child poverty in her [...]

Categories: Blogs

Canada Continues to Spiral Down – New OECD Comparisons

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 21 - 09:41

  The following is from the new OECD publication , Society at a Glance 2011, which is the OECD annual publication of leading social indicators.  This is a reminder that there are now 34 countries in the OECD. Looking at median income in OECD countries, Canada is now in 7th place.  Bear in mind that [...]

Categories: Blogs

Voter Turn-out / Extreme Poverty in the US / The Truth About Canada

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 19 - 10:50

  The voter turnout in the recent Danish elections was 87.7%.  Aren’t you ashamed of our terrible Canadian record by comparison? I am. Next time you hear someone complaining about Ottawa, ask them if they voted in the last election. If they didn’t, you know what to tell them. *   *   *   *   * There [...]

Categories: Blogs

We Just Keep Falling Behind…

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 13 - 09:09

  Next time you hear Stephen Harper boast about what a great job he and his friends have done managing the Canadian economy, consider this: Canada’s government debt (84.2%) as a percentage of GDP in 2010 was far higher than the OECD average of 74.2%, and our gross national savings as a percentage of GDP put [...]

Categories: Blogs

Some Interesting Facts…

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 5 - 10:56

  The August 20th Economist tells us that the U.S. mission in Iraq has so far cost over one trillion $ and just under 4,500 American lives.  It costs about $1 million as year for every U.S. soldier in Iraq. *     *     *     *     * About one third of Canadians want us to ditch the monarchy, [...]

Categories: Blogs

Tribute to Jack Layton

Mel Hurtig - 2011, August 23 - 16:50

  There have been so many truly wonderful tributes to Jack Layton  -  editorials, columns, letters etc.-  that it’s difficult to add more without covering much of what has already been said. One thing we can all see is just how much the man has been loved by so very many of his fellow Canadians.  [...]

Categories: Blogs

Linux Virtualbox images

Craig Jones - 2011, August 10 - 09:53

A very cool website has a bunch of Virtualbox images of different linux distrbutions one can download and try out.

Categories: Blogs

Many Thanks for the Great Feedback!

Mel Hurtig - 2011, July 12 - 08:35

  First, many thanks to all of you who wrote or phoned about the two CBC Ideas programs. The response has been wonderful and I am most grateful, especially grateful to Kathleen Flaherty and company who put so much time and effort into producing the shows. They did a truly splendid job. Many of you [...]

Categories: Blogs

Obvious Interview Mistakes

FoxSuit - 2010, June 29 - 13:24

You may be concerned that your rehearsed response to the question, “What is your greatest weakness as an employee?” is far from perfect, but at least you know well enough not to ask your interviewer to buy you a lunch. Get some laughs from the Wall Street Journal’s Big Blunders Job Hunters Make. Need more? Check out CareerBuilder’s Top 10 Interview Mistakes.

Complaining about your previous employer is probably the one mistake that I see smart people repeat. Focus on why the job you are interviewing for is right for you, not the reasons why your old job was wrong. If asked during an interview why you left your previous position, you can answer honestly, but don’t go on at length.

Other clueless mistakes that I’ve seen that were not mentioned:

  • Casual swearing
  • Chewing gum

If you’ve ever beat yourself up over an interview misstep, some of these major lapses-in-judgment ought to make you feel better.

Categories: Blogs