Tuesday, 31 August 2010

No mermaid, no murders, plenty of Aquavit

We’re just back from a long weekend with friends in Copenhagen. We liked the city, we liked the atmosphere, and we liked the Danes: friendly, warm and without exception fluent in English. That made me feel the way I do in Holland, acutely embarrassed at expecting people in their own country to communicate with me in my language, not theirs. The worst of it is that they do it so well: why, they were able to banter with us, for God’s sake.

Everyone who goes to Copenhagen naturally sees at least two things: the Tivoli gardens and the little mermaid. The Tivoli Gardens is an amusement park and I have to confess that none of us felt in the least bit inclined to try any of the rides. So we decided to save the entrance fee, particularly as my good friend Ronnie and I were of the view that the money would be better invested in Aquavit, from which we got a buzz much more suited to our temperaments.

Acquavit is one of those terms, like the French eau de vie or Gaelic usquebaugh (whisky) which just means ‘water of life’. Curious, isn't it, that we tend to think of strong spirits as an essential element for the good life? A waiter told us that Aquavit induced ‘a special kind of drunkenness’, which he presented as a desirable goal to pursue. Personally, it put me to sleep, but quite pleasantly, which suggests that whether or not it’s the water of life, it’s certainly effective as an anaesthetic against any of life’s pain.

As for the Little Mermaid, she simply wasn’t there. She’d gone to Shanghai for the world exhibition. I guess everyone needs to be able to travel away from time to time, and I suppose when you’re half a fish anyway, being stuck on a rock must get frustrating after a while.

Incidentally, the Danes had had the decency to set up a screen at the spot where she usually sits, with a live feed of the mermaid in Shanghai. You may find this hard to believe, but we weren't wildly keen to get across the city to watch a screen display of a statue some 8000 km away.
With such defenders, why should Denmark tremble?

So we didn’t see either of the key sights of the city, but we did see lots of other things. Soldiers in bear skin hats marching through the streets. Beautiful buildings. Lots of water, some of which we travelled along. We had plenty to enjoy. 

A city that takes spirits and spirituality seriously: even the church spire looks like a corkscrew

Water, water everywhere, but this wasn't the water of life we wanted to drink

We even had a day out in Malmö. I didn’t realise just how close Sweden was. There’s a fabulous bridge across to the other side and, though we took passports just in case, no-one even checked our papers. It’s like the crossing between Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany: it takes you between nations that in the past fought brutal wars with each other over territory, and now allow free passage across agreed borders. Why, one wonders, did they fight each other in the first place? And why on earth do countries like the UK and, even more tiresomely, the US, make their immigration procedures so difficult? I don’t believe that the security problems of Denmark or Sweden are any worse.
The bridge to Malmö

If we'd wanted to, we could have stayed on the train beyond Malmö and travelled to Ystad, but I was relieved to get off the train when we did. Do you watch the Wallander crime series on TV at all? The Swedish version is good entertainment (far better than the weak English version, where Kenneth Branagh just can't get the grim and unapproachable air of the Detective Inspector from Henning Mankell's novels).

The series is set in Ystad, on the surface a sleepy market town of 17,000 souls in Southern Sweden. It seems that it is in fact the homicide capital of the world. A new psychopath sets out on a trail of serial killing there every single week, leaving at least three bodies and often more. Fortunately, in Wallander and his team, the town also boasts one of the world’s most effective police forces. They successfully solve the crimes and arrest (or kill) the psychopath every single week, within the allotted hour and a half of the episode. I can tell you, it’s a tremendous relief each time we get to this happy resolution.

In any case, you can imagine that none of us was anxious to expose ourselves to the kind of risk that a visit to such a town implies. So we got off at Malmö instead, and had a good time there. 
Malmö windmill: sticking to safer places than the crime centre at Ystad
The danger to which over-indulgence in Aquavit might lead seemed quite thrill enough for one visit, without getting caught up in any murders.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The popular pastime of foot-shooting

If we conjure up a mental image of a target, I suppose most of us think of some kind of disk with rings of alternating colour around a bull’s eye at the centre. Perhaps a more appropriate image would be a human foot, since shooting yourself in the foot is the traditional metaphor for a self-inflicted wound. And it’s extraordinary how often we inflict them on ourselves, with decisions taken without properly considering all the facts, leading to months or years of regret as we struggle to correct them.

Picture a bridge across a river on which the calm of a late afternoon in September is beginning to settle.

On the bridge, there’s anything but calm. In the middle, carpenters have built a square enclosure, with doors facing either bank. Two men with ten companions each are due to meet here to try to overcome their mutual antagonism and unite against a third. The negotiations should have started at 3:00 and it’s a measure of their mutual distrust that they’re already two hours late.

In the event, the meeting takes minutes. One leader makes a gesture which someone who wants to pick a fight could interpret as threatening. There’s a shout and a man moves in and strikes a fatal blow with an axe. Contrary to the agreement, his side has left its door unlocked so more men pour through and the fighting becomes general.

The year was 1419 and the murdered leader was John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The man he had come to meet was his cousin the Dauphin or Crown Prince of France, later Charles VII. The third figure was one of England’s more successful soldier kings, Henry V, whose forces were at the gates of Paris.

The Dauphin had stood by while the assassination took place, and he had plenty of time to regret his inaction. The war ended with a French victory, but it took another 34 years. Why so long? He had forfeited the support of Burgundy which instead sided with England against him. Killing John might have seemed an expedient move to rid himself of a dangerous rival, but it cost him decades of struggle against an implacable enemy.

A century after the murder, King Francis I visited Burgundy where a monk showed him the skull of John the Fearless and pointed to the wound made by the axe. ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘this is the hole through which the English entered France.’

Roll forward some centuries. The Saville enquiry recently reported on the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings of 13 civilians by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland. The objective was to arrest troublemakers, which is a police job. Paratroopers are highly trained and fully equipped for one job only, killing people, which they do extremely well. Use paratroops instead of police and you really have no excuse for being surprised that the result is dead bodies.

The outcome of these events is summarised perfectly by the Saville report:

‘What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.’

Someone thought that teaching these people a sharp lesson was a good idea at the time. Looking back at the quarter century of violence that followed, we can see that perhaps it wasn’t that bright.

In Britain today, we’re living under a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Now it has to be understood that the Conservative or Tory Party is the natural party of government here. They provided Prime Ministers for nearly two-thirds of the twentieth century, Labour and the Liberals having to share the rest. So the Tories define British politics: you vote for them or you vote against, which generally means either Labour or Liberal Democrat.

But by joining the Conservatives in government, the Liberal Democrats have closed off one of the options for an anti-Tory vote. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that their standing in the polls has collapsed and previous Liberal Democrat voters are flocking to Labour.

Joining the government may have seemed a great scheme to get close to power for the first time in ninety years. But right now it’s looking like a suicidal move from which it may take a generation for the party to recover.

It isn’t just the great and the good, or at any rate the historical and incompetent, who engage in this kind of foot-shooting.

Some years ago, while we were still living in Strasbourg, I persuaded my sales colleagues to hold a meeting there. Everyone had a great time. However, we were in a hotel some twenty minutes drive outside town. On one occasion, we drove there in a convoy of three cars that I was leading. It was pouring with rain and pitch black, and I was chatting away to my passengers so I missed my turning.

Now the obvious solution was to do a U-turn and get back onto the right road. What was the worst that could happen? I’d have had to admit that I’d made a mistake. Clearly the sensible option. For reasons that remain obscure to me, I didn’t take it and kept on driving, sure that I’d find another way that would avoid my blushes.

I didn’t. We spent the next two hours driving round Alsace, the region to which Strasbourg belongs. To be strictly honest, we weren’t even in Alsace all the time: at one point I realised that we had driven right into Lorraine, the region next door. By the end, my passengers were gasping to relieve themselves, but I wasn’t prepared to stop for fear of being lynched by the people in the cars behind.

My decision to press on had seemed a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. I’d hoped to avoid embarrassment, but in fact I only made it worse. Like the Dauphin, like the men who sent in the paras on Bloody Sunday, like the Liberal Democrats propping up the Tories, what looked like a shortcut to success proved absolutely the opposite.

See what I mean? Bang – wow, that’s a couple of toes gone. Just let me take aim again: next time I might be able to take out the whole of the instep.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The best of friends

Being made redundant is, I’ll admit, a pretty depressing experience (particularly when it happens for the third time – why, I may soon have to start wondering whether I’ve been doing something wrong in my career, a thought that had never previously occurred to me). However, there are benefits too.

First of all, there’s the time for reflection offered by what I hope will turn out to be a brief period of unemployment. Then there’s the redundancy itself which can be quite a learning experience.

In my case this has led to my giving some thought to the nature of friendship.

My reflections were helped by listening to a discussion on the theme in an old episode of In Our Time. The participants started their review way back in classical antiquity.

Now I should say that I don’t always go along with the unquestioning admiration of all things Greek. For instance, Plato’s Lysis which I learned is devoted to the subject of friendship, rules out the attraction of opposites as a possible basis. This is because it would imply the good being attracted to the bad. This strikes me as a painfully formalistic and limited view of good: two people of opposite temperament can still both be good – there are many ways to be good. My way of being good may be the best way, but I’m tolerant and broad-minded enough to admit that yours may not be entirely without merit.

What really interested me was when they got onto the subject of Aristotle. He, it seems, distinguished three categories of friendship on the basis of utility, enjoyment or excellence. The problem with the first two is that as soon as the utility or enjoyment ends, so does the friendship – only the third endures.

Now this I can go along with. Utility friendship is clearly the kind of thing that exists in general between colleagues. At the lowest end of the scale, it’s forced – you oblige yourself to get on with people you’d probably go out of your way to avoid, left to your own devices. I confess I’m not good at that kind of artificial friendliness as people read my real feelings much too easily. I like to think that I have no patience with fools, but lots of people link to think that: after all, it’s a neatly disguised boast wrapped in contempt for others. Clearly, I think numerous people around me are fools, while thinking that I’m not a fool myself. Ironically, I’m probably at my most foolish when I get impatient with others who disagree me with me (and class themselves by that token with the fools).

Then there are the colleagues with whom one can have a real friendship. These are people one admires or who do outstanding work or with whom it’s just fun to work. Sadly, however, once we part company there’s little basis for the friendship to continue. It’s a pity, but I suspect before long all I’ll have of these utility friends is some pleasant memories and a sense of pride over some of our of things we achieved together.

This is the same as what happens with friends of enjoyment. Drinking friends or friends with whom one plays football are great until one realises that hangovers really aren’t much fun and running up and down the same pitch several dozen times is no way to spend an hour or two. When you go off to do something a bit more rational – which means more or less anything – you tend to lose touch with the old friends, some of them getting very old, who are still trying to cling on to the image of their youth and its pastimes.

Then there are the friends of excellence. These are the ones to whom you’re bound by an affection that’s mutual and unconditional: they’re your friends not because they’re cleverer or more skilful or more amusing than others but because they are who they are. No-one summarised that better than Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French writer. After his friend the poet Etienne de la Boétie died, he wrote if people pressed him to say why he loved la Boétie, he could find no better of way of replying than to say ‘because he was Etienne de la Boétie and I was Michel de Montaigne’.

Now that’s the kind of friendship that’s worth having. And I’m glad that I leave my former company with a few friendships of that strength and they won’t be broken by a mere inconvenience like redundancy.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Cynicism and St Tony

According to Oscar Wilde, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is something deeply corrosive about cynicism, which makes it all the more worrying to see how widespread it is, particularly in our media.

Tony Blair, a man who has made it practically a profession to cultivate saintliness – actually, rather a well-remunerated profession – has had the magnanimity to hand over the earnings from his new book to the Royal British Legion. This association of British military veterans will use the money, in particular, to build a rehabilitation centre for those injured in the services. It’s hard to see how this can be anything but a wholly welcome move, particularly as it involves a personal sacrifice by the very man who, as Prime Minister, was responsible for committing forces to so many conflicts – Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

So there's something profoundly discouraging about headlines like the one in today’s Guardian: ‘Generous gesture or guilty conscience?’ You see how this cynical attitude is permeating the media? Not even a publication committed to the highest journalistic standards is wholly immune to its effects.

The problem is that this is Tony Blair we’re talking about. This is the man who told us on TV that he was a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’ and then used fabricated intelligence to take us into what it is becoming, as each new revelation is made, increasingly difficult to deny was an illegal war in Iraq. In other words, he has all the integrity of a market trader, indeed all the integrity of any man who has to tell you just how honest he is.

Which rather suggests that the Guardian has a point. In fact, I’d personally go further. I doubt it was either a generous gesture or the product of a guilty conscience. I think he’s making so much money from other sources that to give up the earnings from the book wasn’t such a huge sacrifice. Since it would buy him brownie points in the circles that are paying him a fortune to get him to speak at their dinners, he probably sees it as a highly judicious investment.

Shameful isn’t it? I’m contributing to spreading the very cynicism I abhor. And about such a saintly man too.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Not a lot of fun at the Carnival

It’s strange how you can just miss things.

Danielle and I are great fans of the relatively recent genre of the TV series. The beauty of the format is that it has time, in a way that films just don’t. Jane Austen’s Persuasion is beautifully paced, taking just the time it needs to develop the characters, to unfold the story, even in its own highly domesticated way, to build suspense: why did Captain Wentworth leave the concert in Bath? Was it jealousy? And if so, would it draw him back to Anne or drive him away?

The novel has the space to develop all these themes.

But all the cinematic version of Persuasion, and I sometimes feel there’s a new one every couple of years (do all American actresses dream of playing Anne Eliot some day and queue up for their turn?), you can see the effect of having to get it all into two hours. Things that take fifty pages in the book have been dealt with in ten minutes. There just isn’t time to deploy the narrative devices Austen masters so well.

The series format doesn’t suffer from those problems. You can build, you can develop. The actors can age with their characters. Look at the kids in The Sopranos turning into young adults. They mature, they learn to understand their environment, they adapt to it.

So Danielle and I have become fans. Some series, of course, disappoint and we stop watching them. But many are outstanding and give hours of entertainment: The West Wing, Six Feet Under, House and of course The Sopranos to name just a few of the best.

So it was surprising to discover the other day that there was a significant series about which we knew absolutely nothing, even though it had been around since 2004.

We decided to watch Carnivále. What breadth of vision! It sets out to explore the great questions that have puzzled humanity for centuries, the nature of good and evil, of destiny and free will, of man’s relation to God. The background is the depression and the dust bowl in the US. It’s a rich pageant, with all the material you need to produce something absolutely riveting. And, thanks to the possibilities offered by a TV series, it has all the leisure it needs to develop it as it deserves.

The trouble is that leisure is a double-edged sword. If you're not careful, using all that time doesn’t mean you develop things well, it can mean you take powerful ingredients and produce a package which can be summed up in just one word: boring.

Carnivále’s writers weren’t anything like careful enough. Wikipedia quotes a review saying ‘it's as if executives at the premium cable network want to see how far they can slow a narrative before viewers start tossing their remotes through the screen’. Yep, that about hits the nail on the head. I stood four episodes. That leaves twenty. Had the final four seasons not been cancelled, it would have left 140. The mind boggles. I’d prefer to watch the England football team.

What I thought at first had been a loss, when I realised I'd missed out on Carnivále, I had to re-evaluate after four episodes. As a mercy. 

And anyway: what’s with the weird spelling of the title?

Thursday, 12 August 2010

I think therefore I am, and Berlusconi can ignore his rivals

It’s funny how things that happen today can evoke half-remembered memories from decades ago.

For instance, when I was a student I spent a lot of time grappling with Descartes and his idea of mind-matter dualism. This overthrew the earlier view that the universe contained a colossal number of substances, so that fire was of a wholly different substance from water or wood or earth and so on. Descartes only had two: matter and mind. The essence of matter was extension, in other words the capacity to occupy space. The essence of mind was thought. So there you had it. Clear. Simple. Coherent.

The problem is that between these two, Descartes did tend to give the precedence to mind over matter. ‘I think therefore I am’ has got to be the most famous statement in all philosophy, and it does rather suggest that existence depends on thought.

Now lots of people weren’t convinced about that. John Locke, for instance, and Voltaire after him, felt sure that there were times when they really weren’t thinking, but that didn’t mean they stopped existing. My personal experience seems to confirm their view. I know lots of people who exist rather a lot – rather more, I often feel, than absolutely necessary for the comfort of those around them – and hardly ever think at all.

Despite all that, it’s amazing how often we seem to drift back into the habit of putting mind ahead of matter.

I was struck by that most forcibly when I was reading about the recent happenings in Italy concerning the man who has to be world’s most extraordinary politician. The Prime Minister, Sivio Berlusconi has had a bit of a spat with his old best friend Gianfranco Fini, the former-neo-fascist-reinvented-as-liberal-conservative, and it’s not clear the government will survive the crisis (though this being Italy, I fear it might). The beauty is that Berlusconi’s reacting by apparently simply dissing his opponents as though they were barely worth taking seriously.

‘We don’t mind,’ he seems to be saying, ‘so they don’t matter.’

OK, so it’s a different take on the question of mind-matter dualism and the assertion of primacy of the mind. Even so, it's  a bit evocative of all that stuff, isn't it?

I wonder whether Berlusconi is aware of his debt to Descartes. Of course, that would mean he’d have to know who Descartes was.

So perhaps not, then.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A poisoned Farrow may be a deadly weapon

In London in 1975, I went to see a production of Harley Granville-Barker’s The marrying of Ann Leete. Granville-Barker was a contemporary and friend of George Bernard Shaw’s. I’ve seen a couple of his plays and remember little about them except that they felt like Shaw without the wit. Taking the wit out of Shaw is like taking the special effects out of George Lucas, or perhaps the sex out of a porn film – it’s hard to imagine what would be left to hold the the audience's attention.

Anyway, back in 1975 I didn’t go for the play but for the leading actress, Mia Farrow. Did you ever see her in The Great Gatsby, made the year before? She had an ethereal quality that somehow captured all the haunting pathos of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

On stage that night she was the opposite. Stolid. Heavy. Wooden.

In the eighties she starred in a series of Woody Allen films (she also had a part, though we didn’t discover until later how small a part, in his personal life at this time) and her performances in the films contrasted starkly with what I saw on stage. This confirmed, as though confirmation were needed, that with the exception of a small number of outstandingly gifted individuals, an actor just has to be competent and it’s the director who determines whether what emerges is extraordinary or mediocre.

Then in the nineties she came back with her most powerful role of all, to her own script, as an avenging angel in the Farrow-Allen separation saga. Systematically, she set out to wound or destroy the very director who had coaxed performances out of her way beyond what on stage had been revealed as a limited talent.

Obviously Allen’s behaviour hadn’t been exactly exemplary. While in a relationship with Farrow, he’d apparently had an affair with Soon-Yi, her own adopted daughter. In some circles, this might be seen as falling short of the very highest standards of conduct. On the other hand, it was odd to hear her denouncing the relationship on the grounds that Soon-Yi was 22 and Allen was 56. Farrow’s own first husband, Frank Sinatra, was 50 when she married him at 21. Did she think there was some kind of watershed between 29 years and 34 when it comes to age difference?

What was really extraordinary, though, was the venom with which she pursued Allen, proving conclusively the truth of the saying about fury and a woman scorned. She even accused him of child sexual abuse, charges later thrown out in court.

So it’s fascinating to see her back in action again. This time her victim is Naomi Campbell, someone who I find even less fascinating than Harley Granville-Barker. Farrow, however, in the role of inquisitor-in-chief again, has somehow managed to turn what started as a war crimes action against Charles Taylor into the trial of Naomi Campbell.

When she gets her knife into you, she really goes for it, doesn’t she? You can imagine her knitting next to the guillotine and counting the heads of her enemies falling into the basket. You can even imagine her piling up the firewood for the burning of some hapless victim of the Church, though please don’t think that I’m trying to draw any kind of parallel between Campbell and St Joan.

Just what is Farrow’s problem? What makes her prone to such passionate hatred? And why are the media devoting so much time to the Campbell element of the trial? Surely giving blood diamonds to a supermodel is at best only peripheral to the case against Charles Taylor.

The interest in Farrow must be because she speaks to something deep within humanity. It’s that complete certainty of being right, so that anyone who differs by the tiniest margin is wrong, that has driven the great persecutions of history. It's therefore gruesome but fascinating to see the attitude emerging in court today. We feel we're watching, played out in reality, the obsessions that drove Arthur Miller’s characters in The Crucible.

As a result, it occupies so much more media attention than other less fascinating stories, such as floods in Europe, fires in Russia or catastrophe in Pakistan.

After all, even I chose to write about her, and not about them.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Feline conduct, Free Schools and the Football League

When a tomcat arrives in a new territory, he walks round and sprays the boundary. The result probably smells familiar and comfortable to him, though to the rest of us it’s pretty vile.

New governments behave in the same way. In their case, they mark their authority with a series of bright new initiatives establishing how innovative and clever they are. Our nice new government here in Britain has come up with several of these, one of which is the introduction of ‘free schools’.

Depending on your point of view, these are schools that are being freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy applied by local government, to be run instead by groups who really care about education, like parents or teachers. Alternatively, they’re schools that are being removed from the control of elected local representatives working for the good of the entire community, and handed over to groups of individuals answerable to no-one and working to their own agendas.

Interesting the effect of including or excluding the word 'elected', isn't it?

The reality is that the free schools will be both of those things, but which you choose to emphasise marks pretty clearly where you stand in the political spectrum.

Now the most fascinating recent development on this front has been the announcement that the English Football League wants to run a number of these schools. It's my firm aim to avoid cynicism, so don't expect any cheap crack from me about the remedial effect that going back to school might have on the level of intellectual attainment of some of our footballers.

No, the League is thinking of running schools in which tomorrow’s footballers would be trained. Again, I’m not going to pass comment on whether there is anything to be done for today’s. Instead let’s concentrate on the central question of whether the Football League is a fit organisation to run schools at all.

I’ve thought about this deeply. It occurs to me that it is an inescapable fact of our schools today that they measure children against fixed standards. Some will succeed, some will fail. Inevitably therefore success and failure – the same impostor, as Kipling wrote – are built into the fabric of our schools.

As the England football team in South Africa recently showed, the League is clearly well acquainted with one of those two terrible alternatives. Who knows: they may be dimly aware of what the other one feels like. So maybe they have what it takes to run schools.

Whether the outcome of all this will be fragrant or pungent has yet to be seen. It will probably depend on our individual point of view in any case: are we tomcats invigorated by the scent of spray or are we exasperated pet owners deciding that it may be time to cut someone’s balls off?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gulf oil spill: how many good guys are there, really?

The oil spill in the Gulf is, of course, a disaster. It is, however, rich in fascinating lessons.

It was amusing that Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network suggested that hopes that the crisis was past were premature and said ‘we are terrified that there is going to be this “mission accomplished” moment.’ Is that going to be Dubya’s lasting legacy? To have turned ‘mission accomplished’ from a declaration of well-deserved pride at a job well done, to an expression of scorn for hubristic ignorance and an inability to recognise failure masquerading as apparent success?

And another Dubya moment: I saw a headline ‘Bush running half marathon for oil spill.’ Bush didn’t manage to get to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, from Texas, the state next door. Now he's running thirteen miles for the victims of the spill? Assuming, that is, that ‘running for oil spill’ actually means running for the victims. Which I hope we can assume, though with Bush you couldn’t be sure.

In any case, the story turned out to be about an actress called Sophia Bush. Whoever she is.

But the best story of all came from Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board.

Now let me make it clear that I enjoy a fairy tale as much as anyone. I don’t just watch, I enjoy chick flicks. In case anyone has difficulty coping with the complex plots of these films, let me tell you they go something like this.

A woman of great good looks, wisdom, warmth, wit and charm is single at the age of 25/35/45 (delete as applicable) and not making any progress in her career as a chef/dancer/singer/professor/boxer. She recently broke up with a man whose imperfections she had failed to spot despite her extraordinary insight (did I mention that quality?) until he made them glaringly obvious by confessing to having slept with her best friend/three groupies from a nightclub/her brother-in-law. Now she meets a man who is absolutely perfect – apparently. The romance goes swimmingly and he even helps her towards a breakthrough as a dress designer/PR guru/financial expert/political lobbyist until a terrible confusion of misleading clues leaves her convinced that he’s married/about to get married/working for the KGB. Fortunately, her daughter/best friend/mother sorts out the confusion and reveals that Mr Perfect really is flawless. The film ends, with a marriage in the offing, immediately after her first film/new record/latest painting is received with delirious critical acclaim.

Now I really like these films. They don’t strain the intellect. They leave me feeling good about myself and the world. But I realise they’re pure escapism, so I try to watch something like The Pianist or The Hurt Locker from time to time, to remind myself that films can be insightful and truthful too, even do a bit of gritty realism. That way I can make a clear distinction between fairy tale and reality. What I find hard to take is when we confuse the former with the latter.

So I was never comfortable with the narrative about the oil spill. Plucky Gulf fishermen, plying a tough and honest trade as their forefathers had for centuries, have their meagre but honest livelihoods put in jeopardy by an evil corporation based in Mordor. Or Britain. Or wherever.

Riding to their rescue, on a white steed and in shining armour, comes Barack Obama seeing off and defeating the pantomime villain, Tony ‘I want my life back’ Hayward.

It all seemed too pat to me, as though it might have been scripted by George Lucas. And then I heard Ewell Smith. What was he telling us? The waters of the Gulf are now clean enough to start fishing again. But he’s trying to raise money to pay the fishermen a 30% premium to get them out fishing before the restaurants run out of seafood.

Why won’t they fish? Because BP is paying them so much more to take part in the cleanup operation. That grand old tradition of the plucky men plying an honest trade in the waters of the Gulf isn’t proof to the temptations of the Evil Empire’s dollars.

Warms the cockles of the heart, doesn’t it? It restores my faith in human nature.

BP made the monster profits and was responsible for the appalling damage, but at least the little guys are getting their fair share of the cynicism.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Lady in the Lavender

Coming home from the shops today, I almost missed seeing my neighbour Melanie sitting among her lavender bushes.

I’m not quite sure what she was doing, but then gardening is a bit of a closed book to me. The only thing I understand about it is that turning earth over is bloody hard work, and the way I learned that had me wishing I’d been left in peaceful ignorance.

What struck me when I saw her was that she and the plants were the perfect subject for a painting.

‘I should do a picture and maybe make a name for myself,’ I told her.

I was thinking I could do a Lady in the Lavender to rival Martin Schongauer’s Madonna of the Rose Garden or even Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow.
Schongauer's piece

‘But don’t you have to be dead to be that famous?’ she pointed out.

That got me thinking. Certainly Schongauer and Raphael are both dead. So what I have to ask myself is whether death is a price worth paying for immortality.

Of course, in my case I’d have to meet some other conditions too. For a start I’d need paints, brushes, a palette, an easel, a canvas. These are all practical requirements, relatively easy to meet. Sadly, I’d also need something that can’t be bought in a shop or squeezed from a tube: talent.

Perhaps I’d better give up on the immortality bit, which at least has the benefit that I don’t need to die any time soon.

I’ll concentrate on living a bit instead.