John Walsh: What an insult to Swift's grand vision

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The Independent Online

When I resolved, at 14, to give up reading Agatha Christie, Molesworth and novelisations of TV spy shows, and to get some serious books under my belt, I began with Gulliver's Travels.

Though I wasn't wholly equipped to appreciate Swift's satirical attacks on George I and the leading lights of the Whigs and Tories, I loved the cleverness of his writing. I loved the Lilliputians' attempts to deduce the exact nature of Gulliver's spectacles (the first mention of eyeglasses in English prose), his pistol and bullets, his tobacco and keys. I was startled by Gulliver's relentless, close-up inspection of giant human bodies in Brobdingnag, so that even the prettiest and comeliest young inhabitants of the place became, to the perspective of the six-inch onlooker, gross, humungous landscapes of smelly, hairy fat.

And I loved the Houyhnhnms' puzzlement over human misbehaviour – they had no word for "lying", and had to resort to the phrase "to say the thing that is not". Explaining the "real" human world, in terms that made it sound bizarre and ridiculous, was the real joy of the book. It was the first sighting of Martian poetry.

So naturally I rushed to see the new movie, starring the gurning midget Jack Black. Unfortunately I failed to realise it's a film for seven-year-olds, topped and tailed in modern-day Manhattan, co-starring a job lot of ubiquitous British actors (James Corden, Catherine Tate, Billy Connolly, Emily Blunt) with embarrassingly little to do.

The film is short on wit, plot or humour (though there's a funny scene, from the original book, in which Gulliver pees all over the king's chamber to put out a fire,) but it's really huge on product placement. Much of it is an advertisement for the Guitar Hero video game, but there are Coke cans and iPhones, Macbooks and Burger King references too, along with a blizzard of cultural allusions to hit Broadway shows and Hollywood films.

If the film makers had cared tuppence for the spirit of the book, they could have had some fun by making Gulliver explain to the Lilliputians the nature of modern Western objects: "This sir? Why, a device that enables humans to communicate with each other telephonically at great distances; yet also allows them to play a game in which they hurl poultry at a house where dwell evil pigs who have stolen their eggs..." How could they have missed such an obvious trick?

"It is called a burger, your Majesty, a comestible snack made from the flesh, organs, hooves and brains of beef cattle, ground together to form a flat and tasteless circlet, traditionally served with a noisome sauce in a bun in a cardboard box..." But I guess they were never going to risk upsetting the guys who spent all that money on getting their electronica all over the screen.

Mr Darcy reveals much about the partisan mind

Colin Firth has a lot to answer for. When the actor was guest-editing Radio 4's Today, he commissioned a study of 90 students at University College London to determine whether political allegiance had anything to do with the shape of the individual brain. His intention was only half-serious – but the results have startled neuroscientists.

Right-wing people, it seems, have a more pronounced "amygdala" – a hard-to-pronounce bit of brain that's associated with emotion – while left-wing students had thicker "anterior cingulates," bits of the brain which steer rational cognitive functions such as decision-making, anticipation and reward.

If I can decipher this accurately, right-wingers are more weepily passionate people, driven by the moment, while lefties are more coldly analytical chaps, driven by the anticipation of reward – surely the exact opposite of popular belief. Was the French Revolution really started by a lot of rational thinkers, coolly planning how a future government might work? Were the Nazis secretly an extreme party of emotional cry-babies, easily overwhelmed by their feelings? The findings of Mr Firth's survey have confounded us all. And there's one further mystery: where did they find 45 right-wing students at London University?

Arise, Sir Keith? Not likely

The New Year Honours List is about to be revealed in its glory, amid rumours that Bruce Forsyth may miss his knighthood once again, but we may have to endure the horror of a Sir Simon Cowell. An unusual recommendation turned up in the papers on Tuesday, when Boris Johnson demanded to know: if Mick Jagger can be given a knighthood, why shouldn't Keith Richards?

The Mayor has been reading Richards's autobiography, Life, and concludes that the Stones guitarist "deserves recognition from the country that made him". You can tell that Boris doesn't really mean a word of what he's saying because he calls the great man "Keef" throughout, and is hilariously subversive, in his Crikey-I'm-baffled way, about Keith's cultural importance: "Just read the long and technical passage in which he describes how he learned his own method of playing the 5 chord, the B chord, in the key of E, and you can understand why Rolling Stone rated him one of the 19 greatest guitarists of all time."

But some may take Boris seriously. In which case, we must refer them to Keith's own response, in his book, to the prospect of being dubbed. He has no intention, he says, of being associated with the untrustworthy and duplicitous establishment. Keith has been on Planet Keith for 50 years, a rebel ever since his voice broke and he was kicked out of the choir.

All his fans know – all right then, trust – that he'll remain a rebel until his dying breath. If the drugs, the guns, the cold-turkey clinics, the police, the Mounties and the toxic girlfriends couldn't claim him, I don't believe Mr Cameron and the Queen have much chance.